Posted by: rachelkautaylor | May 15, 2009

A Verde Valley Wine Fable

                Every summer and most Christmases of my childhood I boarded an airplane to visit my grandparents in Northern Arizona.  They lived in a place called the Verde Valley, known less as a destination and more for its proximity to flashier neighbor Sedona.  When I was young the view of the red rocks of Sedona was unobstructed by rooflines.  The town of Cottonwood only had one stoplight and possibly the best independent shoe store on earth.  I still find the Verde Valley breathtaking even though 30,000 people live there now, and my favorite shoe store has gone out of business.  The shop where my parents bought my first pair of shoes is now an art gallery in revitalized Old Town Cottonwood. 

                One fairly recent development in the Verde Valley is a small but growing wine industry.  I hadn’t been to Cottonwood in a couple of years, and after reading an article about wine in the Verde Valley Independent, I decided it was an ideal time to visit my grandfather.  The Verde Valley sits between the Black Hills which include Mingus Mountain, where the kitschy ex-copper mining town turned artist colony Jerome is located, and the Mogollon Shelf that is Sedona’s backdrop.  In between these mountains there is the Verde River, Oak Creek, and Sycamore Creek.  This area has a higher altitude than Phoenix, and there is water in the rivers year round.  The climate, while not wet in any way, is moderate and continental.  The summers are hot, but not as hot as Phoenix, and the winters are sometimes cold enough for snow to stay on the ground.  All of these things, plus some truly interesting soil types, stack up to mean the potential for good wine.  I know, I know, you’re thinking what I was thinking, “How could there possibly be good wine in the US outside of California, Oregon, and Washington?”  Well let’s think about that for a minute…


Here are some things we know about wine:

Good wine can be made between the 30th and 50th parallels north and south latitude.  The Verde Valley lies on the 34th parallel. 

Good grapes need to grow around water for climate moderation.  See paragraph above about rivers. 

Good grapes need lousy soil with great drainage.  The soil in the Verde Valley is sandstone and limestone with calcareous marine sediment left over from when the area was an inland ocean.  Grapes are planted on rocky hillsides just as they are the world over. 

Good wine grapes need a large diurnal shift.  Days that are warm and sunny help grapes develop sugar; nights that are cool help maintain acid levels.  Grapes in these conditions ripen slowly and develop more flavors than grapes that ripen quickly in climates that are hot both during the day and at night.  The diurnal temperature shift in the Verde Valley can be up to 50°.  It is interesting to note that the diurnal shift in the Napa Valley is similar. 

All these conditions point to the strong possibility that the Verde Valley could grow good grapes.  There is one important question left to ask: will anyone there make those grapes into truly great wine?  This I think remains to be seen.  The wineries in the Verde Valley are still young and many are trucking grapes in from either Southern Arizona or California.  I tasted at four wineries while I was there.  Page Springs Winery, Oak Creek Vineyards, and Javelina Leap are along Oak Creek.  Alcantara Vineyards is about 20 minutes away on the Verde River. 

Page Springs Winery seems to be the most established of the places I stopped.  The majority of its grapes are already coming from Arizona vines.  It’s best if you can go there with a friend since they have a bunch of different flights of wines.  It would have been great to try two of them instead of just one.  I loved their Viognier, called La Serrana; it was super floral with a wonderful viscous texture and white pepper spice on the finish.  The grapes for this wine are coming from the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard which is in South Eastern Arizona and also owned by Page Springs. 

Oak Creek is a good place to go if you want a slow tasting experience.  The tasting room is lovely, and their staff seems to encourage you to sit on their bar stools all afternoon.  They also sell cheese and other food items from their tasting room and the tables outside make a delightful place for a picnic. 

Javelina Leap’s tasting room is small and lends itself to chatting with both the friendly staff and anyone else who happens to be there.  One thing I love about wine tasting is how, in the right tasting room, people quickly become your friends.  Javelina Leap will begin harvesting fruit from their own estate in 2009 and I’m excited to see what winemaker and owner, Rod Snapp, will do with Northern Arizona berries. 

I had a lovely intimate chat with Barbara Predmore, owner of Alcantara Vineyards, in her tasting room where she is often pouring her wine.  The tasting room is very much like a Tuscan farm house, and she makes you feel immediately comfortable, sitting at the bar in her kitchen tasting wine.  She is currently bringing grapes from California, as is Rod Snapp at Javelina Leap, but will also soon be producing wine from the 10 acres she has planted.  Barbara has big plans for her 87 acre property.  She expects to break ground soon on a bed and breakfast, and restaurant.  She has a decidedly Italian bent to her winemaking, while most of the other wineries in the area are really sticking to Rhone varieties.  I was impressed by the earthy quality of her Sangiovese.  

There are a couple of morals to this story.  First, just because you spent many summers someplace as a child, doesn’t mean that they don’t make good wine there.  Second, and maybe more importantly, don’t write off wine regions because they haven’t made good wine in the past.  Sometimes all it takes is some dedicated farmers and a couple of good wine makers.  I’ll be back in the Verde Valley at the end of June, when I expect I’ll have even more to say about Arizona wine country.

Posted by: rachelkautaylor | April 16, 2009

Six Steps to Wine Enlightenment

The other night I was at a fundraiser for Amy’s Farm at the Press in Claremont, CA.  Amy’s is a wonderful organization.  It is an organic farm, with a community sponsored agriculture program and tours for school children.  The room was filled with school teachers and co-op living hippies, who believe that food is important and the environment is more important.  I ordered organic, bio-dynamic wine and swirled it around in my glass a bit.  The women sitting around me were all drinking beer.  They looked at me, and a little confused, one of the women said, “I really don’t know anything about wine, and I’ve never really understood all the swirling.”  As I explained to her the reasons behind why we taste wine the way we do I realized that I’ve been asked that a lot recently.  Do here is the method I use for tasting wine and why I do it that way. 

                Step 1 Smell – Your mouth can only taste 5 flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and a savory taste called umami) so most of wine tasting is smelling.  Many of the flavors (cherries, apples, grass, cat pee) that you perceive as tastes are actually smells.  This first quick smell gives your nose a chance to see how much aroma this wine has to offer before you start to move it around your glass. 

                Step 2 Swirl – Be careful when you do this.  It’s very easy to spill all over the nice clothes you are wearing.  If you have the opportunity put your glass on a table and holding the base or lower part of the stem, move it in small fast circles.  You are trying to make the wine move up the sides of the glass.  You want the wine to have as much surface area as possible.  The more surface area the more opportunity the wine has to come in contact with your nose. 

                Step 3 Smell – Time for a second smell.  This one will be much more aromatic and this is when you may start to pick out fruit flavors or other smells in the wine. 

                Step 4 Taste – If you’re by yourself or in a tasting room or at a wine tasting class take a bigger sip than you normally would. If you’re out to dinner or at an art opening or somewhere where people might think you’re weird for making slurping noises, don’t do this.  Swish the wine around your mouth.  This hits on your sense of taste and your sense of touch.  Think about places where your mouth dries out.  Ask yourself does it feel like I’ve put gym socks in my mouth, or like I’m sucking or rocks, or has my mouth just gone all puckery like my lemonade is too sour?  All these things tell you something about the wine.  Gym socks mean tannin, rocks mean minerals, sour lemonade means acid. 

                Step 5 Smell – The third smell actually happens while the wine is in your mouth.  Again, unless you can be really quiet about it, this isn’t something to attempt in polite company.  You want to suck air in through your teeth so that the wine’s aroma passes through your nasal cavity in the other direction from your first smell.  This is called retro-nasal breathing, and as long as you don’t inhale wine down your windpipe or dribble it onto your clothes, you will experience a whole new set of aromas by doing this. 

                Step 6 Spit – I know, at first spitting seems somehow wrong, it’s good wine after all, but it’s the only way you will really get a handle on the finish of the wine.  The finish is the taste that’s left in your mouth after you spit the wine out.  This is another thing you want to do in the privacy of your home or somewhere where other people are also spitting.  Do not spit while eating, that’s just gross.     

                So now you know.  All those weird things wine tasters do are actually reasonable choices and not signs of insanity.  The next time you’re tasting wine you can do it like a pro.

Posted by: rachelkautaylor | April 13, 2009

Bubbles Before Dinner

I’ve been ushered by a hostess to a table or a booth.  If I’m lucky someone has pulled out my chair for me and the napkins are made of cloth instead of paper.  But even if they’re not, even if this isn’t an upscale restaurant, I know what the next question will be.  Often the waiter will ask before I’ve opened my menu, because I am a big talker and I’m great at keeping any dinner companion occupied.   “Can I get you something to drink?” 

It’s a stupid question really.  What am I supposed to say?  “Of course you can get me something to drink.  There isn’t a soul in America who doesn’t drink something with dinner!”  That wouldn’t be the right thing to say at all.  I haven’t looked at my menu yet.  I have no idea what I’m going to eat.  I don’t even know what kind of food this restaurant offers.  Why does the waiter want to know what I’m going to drink with my dinner, which I have yet to pick out?  Is he trying to rush me through the meal, so he can turn over my table?  Does he want to laugh at my choice in the back with the other waiters?  Is he reminding me that my menu is still sitting on the table waiting for me?  Maybe he just wants an excuse to come over and introduce himself, tell me the specials, ask for my phone number.  What I want is some time to look at the menu and maybe actually open the wine list. 

In this semi-sticky situation I’ve come to rely on a couple of methods for buying time, and both include bubbles.  The first is to take my waiter up on his suggestion that I might like some sparkling mineral water.  I didn’t like it as a child, but I have recently become enthralled by the slightly sweet slightly salty effervescence.  I remember my dad drinking it when I was little and feeling sorry for him and his imitation soda.  At that age I was displeased with anything that wasn’t sweet. 

“Would you like tap water or maybe a bottle of sparkling?”  It has become a question that waiters in nicer restaurants ask when they are trying to seem European.  They forget that in Europe they would not ask what kind of water at all unless you ordered some.  In Europe, when I have gone to the trouble to remember the word for water in a foreign language, it seems a shame not to ask for sparkling.  Here it just seems a bit pretentious, like the waiter is saying, “Go ahead, get the water that costs money instead of the free water.  I dare you.”  It’s my new favorite thing.  Ordering a mineral water makes me feel sophisticated, as though I’ve moved beyond my childhood desire for a soda and become a grown-up.  Mineral water also has regionality, it’s fun to see if the water matches where this restaurant thinks it’s from.  I am the most pleased when a restaurant picks a local brand of water rather than an impressive international water.  I enjoy sparkling water so much that I sometimes forget that my reason for ordering it was to distract my waiter from my inability to order a drink.  Often by the time he returns to my table with the bottle, I still haven’t opened my menu, and I have to send the poor guy away again. 

I learned another really wonderful way to distract a waiter when I was in France.  At most of the nicer restaurants waiters asked us if we’d like an aperitif when we sat down, suggesting that we make no decisions about dinner until we’d first had some wine.  Instead of having to make some sort of long term dinner commitment, we were encouraged to have the restaurant equivalent of after work drinks.  Not only did our waiter go away and stop bothering us about ordering, but he brought us wonderful champagne flutes full of Cremant d’Alsace and Cassis or sometimes Framboise.  I couldn’t help but feel happy and festive with a glass of pink and sparkly goodness in my hand.  It was wonderful not to feel rushed.  We also discovered that in France it’s bad manners to start drinking a new wine before you’ve finished your aperitif so your meal is a bit slower to begin than it would be otherwise.  This doesn’t seem to be the case in the US, but champagne with cassis (also called a Kir) is great with many first courses.  Fantastic because I can finish it and then move on to the wine that the waiter helped me pair with the food I finally chose when he came back with the bubbles.

Posted by: rachelkautaylor | April 11, 2009

The Dragon of the Brand: My Trip to Alsace Part 1

                In the real dead of winter, after the Christmas markets are closed, Alsace is empty.  This is the time to visit, when the number of vineyards and chocolate shops vastly outnumber the people.   Don’t get me wrong, I like people, and I love to be a tourist.  I just prefer to be one without the camera flashes and truly stupid questions of other tourists. 

                I was in Strasbourg, not as a tourist but as an attendee of a conference sponsored by the International Federation of Liberal Youth and the Council of Europe.  I had a wonderful time playing with my new international friends and attempting to solve the problems of the world.  As a tourist, however I wouldn’t recommend the European Parliamentary buildings as a destination.  The architecture is interesting, but you will not be allowed inside and the food is universally terrible.  A better way to spend a late winter afternoon in Strasbourg is sampling chocolate and cookies.  It is possible to spend an entire afternoon following your nose from one cookie shop to the next munching on confections made from butter and flavored with rose geranium or pistachios.  We didn’t stay in Strasbourg long because really what we were looking for was wine. 

                The important thing to know about Alsace is that there is a dragon.  From what I could understand in my terrible French, this dragon lived in a place called the Brand.  It went about its dragon life terrorizing people and eating herds of sheep and cattle until one day when it was really hot out.  For some reason this dragon could withstand all sorts of human weapons, but his delicate constitution was not prepared for hot weather.  The dragon lay down on the ground, and his blood began to ooze out from under his scales and into the ground, and the dragon died.  The dragon turned into stone, and his blood mixed with the soil and turned it pink.  This is why most of the buildings, including the cathedral in Strasbourg are made out of pink rocks.  This is also one thing that makes Alsatian wines so delicious.  The Brand is located next to the tiny town of Turckheim, about 10 minutes by train from where we were staying in Colmar.   

                The wind was bracing, and we huddled in our coats as we trudged up the side of the dragon’s back and into the vineyards behind Turckheim.  Up and down the Alsatian wine route there are wine walks with signs explaining the wine making process and what grapes are planted there.  This time of year is pruning season.  The vines are leafless. Every few hundred rows there is a group of vineyard workers standing around a small fire.  They are burning the canes they just cut from the vines, so they can turn the ashes back into the soil, replacing lost nitrogen, feeding the dragon.  Later we would explore the tiny town and taste some wine from the grapes we passed on our walk.  The wines of Alsace are mostly white: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, and Muscat.  There is only one red grape allowed, Pinot Noir.  The wines are light, and crisp, with a slight minerality and often very aromatic.  Some of the tasting room attendants speak English, but it is very helpful to speak French. 

                Now I’m back home in California and drinking $7 Alsatian Gewürztraminer that I found at Trader Joe’s.  It’s awesome.  I’ll write more on the trip in a couple of days. 

Posted by: rachelkautaylor | April 3, 2009

10 Tips for Tasting at a Winery

1.  Hold the glass by the stem. If you don’t hold the glass by the stem, you will get finger prints on the glass and warm up your wine. The people in the tasting room will laugh at you when they think you aren’t looking.
2.  Always be friendly. Be friendly with the people pouring wine and with the people around you.  You will make friends.  People will like you. 
3.  Always swirl and sniff even if you’re not sure why you’re doing it. You look like you know what you’re doing and people will be more interested in helping you.
4. Ask people who are tasting near you where else they’ve been in the area. Also ask the wine pourer where she recommends you go next. You find some great wineries that way.
5.  Always have food and water with you in the car. High protein snacks like nuts are great.

6.  Don’t visit too many wineries in one day. I don’t like to do more than 3. Your palate gets tired and so do you.

7.  Make sure you stop to eat. A winery picnic with a bottle of wine seems like a great idea, but I find that getting out of the sun and into a restaurant does wonders for the spirits.

8.  Share tastings with your friends. If you don’t drink all the wine they pour you get drunk slower and you get to try more.  Plus it’s cheaper. 

9.  Never say anything bad about a wine while you’re in the winery. Wait till you’re in the car to trash the wine or the server. It’s ok to say, “I’m not sure I like that one,” or “I usually like something lighter/heavier than that,” but don’t go into why you think it’s bad.

10.  Don’t get drunk! You will get cut off, and servers won’t like you.






Posted by: rachelkautaylor | February 15, 2009

Wine Makes You Smarter and More Attractive


We all know that person.  They seem like they know a lot about wine.  They use big words and they always take the wine list directly from the waiter.  The truth is, using big words like malo-latic fermentation and carbonic maceration when the other people around you don’t understand what they mean does not lend you an air of mystery; it makes you sound snotty.  On the other hand, knowing something about wine makes you smarter and more attractive than your wine ignorant peers.  You will never become a person, who can pick up the wine list at a restaurant and seriously discuss the merits of this or that vintage unless you begin somewhere.  With that in mind here is a bit of elementary wine tasting information that will make you seem like an instantly smarter and more desirable dinner companion. 

                It’s easy to be intimidated by a wine list.  Unless you own a wine shop or have traveled extensively and know a lot of different wines well, you probably won’t recognize most of the wines on the list.  This should not deter you.  I don’t recognize most of the wines either, but I still manage to muddle through, and so will you.  The first question you should ask yourself is not, “Red or white?”  But, “How much do I want to drink?”  If you are just having appetizers at the bar, you want to have several different kinds of wine with dinner, or your companions don’t want to drink wine (sad isn’t it?), then the selections by the glass may be your only choice.  If there is a chance that the people at your table will finish a bottle, it will be more economical to order one.  Restaurants usually make back the cost of a bottle on the first glass, so ounce for ounce, whole bottles are the way to go. 

                Once you’ve decided glass or bottle, look at the menu and think about what you are going to eat.  You know a lot more about food than you know about wine.  You’ve been eating all of your life and you only started to drink in public 21 years into adulthood.  When you’ve decided between lobster with saffron risotto and braised short ribs, enlist your waiter.  This is one situation where asking for help makes you look more intelligent.  Say something like, “I’m thinking about having the bone marrow to start and then the mahi mahi with mango and avocado can you suggest a wine that would go with both?”  This signals to your waiter that you care enough about your wine and food and how they will interact with your taste buds that you aren’t going to pretend like you know everything.  It says to your date that you’re assertive enough to get what you want, even if you aren’t completely sure what that is. 

                Another thing that can be intimidating about ordering wine in restaurants is the whole business of presenting the cork.  Here I recommend continuing to exude confidence, because, while a bit archaic, the steps are pretty much the same at every restaurant.  First your waiter will show you the bottle and tell you the name of the wine.  It may seem as though they are reminding you of what you ordered, but what they are really doing is giving you a chance to check out the bottle and see if they pulled the right one out of their cellar.  This becomes important to you when the bottle you ordered is really expensive and you care exactly which vintage you are drinking, not as much when the bottle is $30 or $40.  When you nod, which you probably will, because actually you can’t remember what you ordered, they’ll open the bottle and present you with the cork.  Don’t smell the cork and say, “This looks wonderful” or utter an appreciative mmm… you are not drinking the cork, and your goal is to avoid looking dumb.  Next the waiter will pour about an ounce of wine into your glass.  You get to be the taster because you ordered the bottle.  Don’t make tasting the wine into a big production.  This isn’t the time to discuss the bouquet.  The reason you are tasting the wine is to decide if it is drinkable.  Give it a swirl; stick your nose in the glass, sniff, and then take a sip.  If the wine smells or tastes like a wet dog or moldy cardboard, it is corked.  This is when you should tell the waiter and send the bottle back.  If the wine isn’t corked nod to the waiter, say the wine is great, and feel proud of yourself for successfully ordering wine in a restaurant.  Congratulations, once word gets around your friends will automatically start handing you the wine list and you will have even more opportunities to look smart.