Charlie Opines About Wine

In my search for interesting wines to serve to guests at our Cape Cod Bed and Breakfast, I attend many planned and impromptu wine tastings. I am happy to share my experiences with you. It's a tough job but someone has to do it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Re-visiting Whitehall Lane Wines

Charlie’s Weekly Wine-ings

What a difference a few decades can make. Jan and I first visited Napa Valley in the 1970's and last visited it on our famous 2006, 13,000 mile ‘road trip’. On both our first and last visit to Napa Valley, we stopped at the Whitehall Lane Winery in St. Helena, CA. In the 1970’s, the ‘tasting room’ was little more than a table in the corner of the barn that housed all the wine making equipment. The last time we visited, they were in the process of completing a new building, so we tasted in a make shift temporary tasting room/gift shop.  At every tasting, regardless of the setting, I was attracted to the wines and really favored their Merlots, even though they are noted for their award winning Cabs.  

photo of ripening green wine grapes on the vine
The reason I mention this brief trip down memory lane about Whitehall Lane, is that I just had the opportunity to attend a Whitehall Lane tasting at the weekly Belfry Bistro tasting. It was a great chance to revisit their wines and catch up on new developments at the winery. The tasting was led by Scott Fitzsimmons, the Regional Manager for Whitehall Lane Winery and Vineyards, who was assisted by Polly Hemstock, the Sales Consultant with Classic Wine Imports, who is the Massachusetts distributor of the Whitehall portfolio of wines.

In the three decades since my first visit, the winery had changed hands a few times. In 1993 the current owners, the Leonardini family, took control. They replanted the original Estate Vineyard, built a state-of-the-art winer, and acquired six other primer vineyards throughout Napa Valley. Whitehall Lane’s vineyards are recognized as the source of world class Cabernet and Merlot and any excess fruit is highly sought after by other well know Napa winemakers. Not surprisingly, the best of all the grapes goes into Whitehall Lane’s own special wines. 

During the tasting I attended, Scott wove the winery history and vineyard details into the introduction of the four wines we tasted. Scott stressed that their goal is to make wines that are very approachable and ready to serve immediately; explaining why they are very popular on many fine restaurants’ wine lists. We pre-tasted all the red wines at the beginning of the evening as we opened all the bottles to be served that night. As promised by Scott, they were all inviting, but as each was served, after breathing for anywhere from a half hour to an hour, the wines improved markedly. For the three wonderful reds we enjoyed, I would recommend decanting or at least aerating with something like a Vinturi to maximize your pleasure.

We started the tasting with a light and lively 2011 Sauvignon Blanc paired perfectly with a House Cured Salmon Gravlox. I am not a big fan of the classic New Zealand, over the top grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc, but often find typical California Sauvignon Blanc bland, to almost tasteless. I liked this very much and plan to stock some at the inn to finish out the summer months serving it to our guests.

bottle of red wine from whitehall lane vineyards
Next we jumped into the reds and the 2010 Tre Leone Napa Red with Basque Extraordinaire Cheese and Fig Puree. This is the first release of this new wine, designed as a tribute to the three generations of the Leonardini family engaged in running the winery. It is a proprietary blend of mainly estate grown Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. The actual percentage of each grape is not listed on the label or the website, but Scott did share with us that it is definitely Merlot based. Maybe that is why it was my favorite of the night, going back to my longtime affinity for the Whitehall Lane Merlots.
Next we had the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon matched with the Pan Seared Duck Breast. The final wine and pairing so outshined this wine, that I all but forgot this third round of wine and food. So what was the last wine you ask?

The high note and close of the evening was the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and the Chocolate Espresso Mousse. This is a prime example of a classic Napa Valley Cabernet with just a touch of Malbec. Scott lovingly explained its pedigree and stressed most Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves of this quality, including wines from famous neighboring wineries, is selling for half again as much as this wine. Interesting, this premium wine no longer uses a cork; they have gone to the Vino-Seal™ glass closure, just one more change for the better that can happen in a few decades. 

I guess I have changed as much as Whitehall Lane has over the years, but I think wine still keeps me fresh.

Come and stay at our Sandwich Inn and let me share some wine and wine stories with you.  I may not have the Reserve and mousse available, but I bet we can find a very good Merlot and some chocolates.     
Happy Wine-ing
Charlie Preus, the Innkeeper’s Assistant and Wine Steward at the 1750 Inn at Sandwich Center, Sandwich, Cape Cod Massachusetts  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Day-Tripping to Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod

Charlie with wine tasting presenter Rebecca and bottles of wine.A few weeks back, Jan and I had a rare day with no guest check-ins to keep us at the Inn all day. Taking advantage of our freedom, we played tourists on Cape Cod. We ventured down Cape or up Cape, depending on who you are speaking to, and went to Truro. Truro is about forty five miles from Sandwich, going north on Route 6 between Wellfleet and Province Town. At places along the way, the Cape is less than a mile wide and the views are breathtaking with water on both sides of the road.

Although enjoying a little free time from the Inn, we did put on our concierges’ hats when we stopped at Truro Vineyards. Of course, it's not too much of a stretch for us to mix business and pleasure by exploring one of the Cape’s only two wineries. Truro Vineyards grows their own grapes, harvests them in the fall, and does the complete cycle from crush to fermenting to bottling on the property.

We arrived just in time to participate in the next wine tasting. Tastings run daily on the half hour.   A tour is also available two times a day that starts with a stroll through the vineyard, stops at the barn to observe the fermentation and bottling processes and ends with a tasting. We passed on the tour and went directly to the tasting. The tastings are held in the beautiful pavilion nestled in the vineyard, behind the gift shop.  

Grape vines in the vineyard at Truro Vineyard of Cape CodWe had not been to this vineyard in a number of years, not since the Roberts Family bought it, and we had not seen the many upgrades made in their short tenure. The pavilion is one noticeable improvement along with the new large barn. Probably less noticeable, but just as important, is the improvements in the vineyard. The number of vineyard-planted acres has been expanded and new growth stock planted and also new varietals. The coastal location has warm ocean breezes that temper the climate; this plus the sandy soil has proved ideal for growing grapes. The vineyard now has five acres of vines growing Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot which are all hand-picked at harvest time. The winery also sources grapes from other vineyards in Massachusetts, New York, and California. From the combination of locally grown and sourced grapes, Truro Vineyards produced seventeen different wines available for purchase. 

Wine tasting pavilion
At the wine tasting in the Pavilion, we had the opportunity to taste nine of the seventeen wines.  All nine of the wines are presented on the bar at the front of the Pavilion and served to the tasters at the individual tables. Each table is equipped with tasting information, crackers and water. Our tasting consultant was Rebecca, who was very knowledgeable about the history of the vineyard and each of the wines offered. For the $10.00 tasting fee, each participant got to try five of the wines offered that day and got to keep the etched Truro Vineyards’ tasting glass, a nice and functional souvenir.

As with all professional tastings, we started with the white wines. The first was the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc sourced from California grapes. Next we tried a lightly oaked, 2011 Chardonnay from local grapes. We finished with a semi-sweet Vignoles sourced from the New York Finger Lakes. Each lived up to the notes provided on the tasting information and started us on the right foot for the reds, my preferred color. In the reds, we started with their signature varietal, the 2011 Cabernet Franc from 100% estate grown grapes. Cab Franc is one of the key blending grapes in France, but we are now often seeing it bottled separately in the United States.  It appears to be a grape the does well in many diverse growing locations. Next we had the 2011 Zinfandel from California grapes. We finished with the 2010 Triumph, a Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Fran, and Merlot. As this was my favorite, I bought a bottle to enjoy at home. I would have liked to have tired their other estate grown wine, the Merlot, but it was not offered at this day’s tasting. The daily tasting wines offered
changes frequently; a good reason for a return trip.  

Lighthouse wine bottlesWe also did not taste the Lighthouse Series wines: Cape Blush Lighthouse, Cranberry Red, and Diamond White. These wines are best known for the recognizable bottle in the shape of a classic Cape Cod Lighthouse. The Roberts family has continued this trademark Truro Vineyards’ bottling tradition to the delight of tourist from around the world who takes home this unique keepsake from their wonderful visit to Cape Cod. Come stay with us at our Sandwich Inn and we may just be serving some of the wines from Truro Vineyards in our daily wine offering and, if not, we’ll give you directions so you too can enjoy a great day trip to an unusual Cape Cod treat.

Happy Wine-ing

Written by Charlie Preus, the Innkeeper’s Assistant and Wine Steward at the 1750 Inn at Sandwich Center

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wine Tasting: Search For Great Wines

 Charlie’s Weekly Wine-ings

The ides of March has past and so has Saint Patrick’s Day and here at our Cape Cod bed and breakfast we are ready for spring. Sure signs of warmer weather coming are the small buds on the bushes and the green sprouts appearing in the flower beds. The tiny white snowdrops are already dotting the walkways, soon to be followed by the crocus. For wine loving me, another sign that winter is closing is the Spring Tastings sponsored by the wholesalers and distributors. Getting that bottle of wine to the shelf of your favorite wine shop or liquor store takes a long supply chain. It starts in the vineyards with a grape on a vine that is crafted into your wine at a winery that distributes most of the finished product through wholesalers. For wine, like in other industries, there are specialist that focuses on different types of wines. Here in Massachusetts, the Martignetti Companies are one of the largest wholesalers of the full range of alcoholic beverages including beer, liquor, and wine. Over the years they have merged in smaller specialty wholesalers to service targeted markets; their high end wine specialist is Classic Wine Imports. Last week I had the pleasure of attending Classics’ Cape Cod Spring Tasting at the lovely Wequassett Inn overlooking Pleasant Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in Chatham, MA.

Wequassett Inn
Wequassett Inn
These events are unbelievable. For the ease of introducing their customers to new wines and reviewing the latest vintage release of wines in their portfolio, Classic brings together hundreds of vendor representatives under one roof. In the two large function areas of the Wequassett fifty-four vendor tables were set up, each offering eight to ten wines to taste. WOW, that’s over 400 wines.  Each function area also had food stations and water available. One should not approach this much wine without proper nourishment.

The tables are staffed by very knowledgeable teams presenting the wines they represent. Most of the tables are from wineries themselves, staffed by their experts presenting the range of wines offered by that single producer. A treat at these winery tables is that, in addition to what is listed in the program, they often bring some very special limited production wines from their Library Collections.

As I approached this challenge, I remembered some sage advice about ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ Good advice when facing hundreds of wines and only a 3-4 hour window. You need a strategy. I checked with my friends from Cellar 55 Wine Merchants, who are still at their business in St. John, for a list of wines they needed me to look at for them before they reopen in April. Starting with this list, I reviewed my advance copy that Poly Hemstock provided me of the wines to be offered on each table. Knowing I needed to pace myself and wanting to maximize my experience, I looked for wines I have never tasted and in a price range that I do not normally frequent. I honestly start my picking based on price, OK call me a snob. Yes, I know that you can find great wines in the very low price range, but let’s face it, the better juice usually cost more money. At trade tastings, the prices are presented as the wholesale price per case and some are only for six bottles. So I converted the case price into retail on the shelf price. Then I worked tables in the order of the descending price. The range in price is from $6.00 to $175.00 per bottle, with literally hundreds of wines in the $10-15 range. So I start by enjoying those dozen or so in the $55 to $90 and savoring those select few in the $100 - $175 market space.    

My highlights on the high end included two beautiful Heitz Cellars Cabs: the 2005 Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at $100 a bottle and the always very special 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at $175 a bottle. No, it is not named for our own Martha’s Vineyard Island that is just off Cape Cod and a favorite summer retreat for certain Presidents of the United States and other celebrities. 

Also, I had the opportunity to taste compare 1998 and 2002 Burgess Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Library Selection at only $65 a bottle. Both are showing very well with the 1998 as smooth and drinkable as you could every want from a Napa Cab.

Although my driving strategy may seem purely mercenary, I also took the time to visit old favorites, even if they did not offer the most expensive wines. I tasted the latest vintage at Raymond Vineyards, an old line Napa family winery that I first visited in the 1980s. I have always liked their Merlot and the 2008 Raymond Merlot Napa Reserve at only $26 lived up to my expectations. I did sneak a taste of their 2008 Generations Cabernet Sauvignon at $100, but I preferred the Merlot. See, it’s not all about the money.

For other old favorites of mine, I got to try the most recent offerings from Wente, Whitehall Lane, Michael-David, Soter and Silverado. Even though we spent over three hours, we barely made a dent in all the wines, but what a great way to spend the afternoon.

Spring time on Cape Cod has much to offer and when we reopen our Sandwich Inn next month, I’ll be ready with new wines to share with our quest.  Come for a visit and I will happily share with you the benefits from all my hard work at the Spring Wine Tastings.
Happy Wine-ing

Charlie Preus, the Innkeeper’s Assistant and Wine Steward at the 1750 Inn at Sandwich Center, Sandwich, Cape Cod Massachusetts