Celebrate with Cremant

Domaine Collin Cremant de Limoux, a bubbly that won’t break the bank

So, I’m alive and well and the family ditto and I’m grateful for that, but, tbh, it’s been a while since I felt, you know, actually stoked. Like I think the last time I felt that little electric stab in the ribs that I interpret as “heart leaping for joy,” was round about July when the Instacart shopper guy texted “good TP in stock.”*

So, the other day when I finished a big project, a week ahead of deadline, too, I decided to administer a bit of course correction. No, I didn’t feel like breaking out the Champagne, didn’t even feel particularly joyous, but gosh darn it, it was a milestone and It Would Be Marked.

So I reached for a bottle of something that is just the ticket when you want to celebrate without making a huge song and dance about it, Cremant de Limoux. 

Cremant refers to French sparkling wine that is made in the same manner as Champagne but is not from that specific (and rather expensive) region. Limoux is in Southern France, nestled next to the Pyrenees and is famous for a type of bubbly called Blanquette de Limoux, made by monks at St. Hilaire Abbey in the 16th century. The story in Limoux is that Dom Perignon (the Champagne guy) visited and picked up a few ideas. Probs not true? But fun.

Blanquette de Limoux is made primarily from the local Mauzac grape and has a distinctive, apple cider-y tang. But in the ‘90s, producers started making the more modern Cremant, which includes international varieties such as Chardonnay. It’s a lovely, crisp and dry expression of sparkling wine and it’s a bargain to boot. Here’s a story I wrote about the region. 

I discovered my most recent Limoux gem at my local wine shop here in Berkeley—Domaine Collin, founded by Philippe Collin in the 1980s, The Domaine Collin cuvée tradition is $15 and it is classic, balanced and smooth. It’s made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with a bit of Pinot Noir thrown in and it tastes light and fresh with notes of green (but not sour) apple and tangy, juicy lemon.

Just the thing for celebrating a job well done—or at least done—without feeling self-conscious about it.

*Reader, we did, indeed buy that TP and after the absolutely dire 2-ply nightmare we’d resorted to in the Great Panic it was pure heaven. A positive Taittinger of toilet tissue. 

Undiscovered Uruguay

bodega-garzon-overviewHarvest is under way and internationally known enologist Alberto Antonini is giving a master class on the coming vintage. Behind him, framed in the large windows of the new winery, a landscape of terraced vineyards unfolds under a lacy blue sky, a view reminiscent of his native Italy.

But these vines are most definitely not under the Tuscan sun.

This is Bodega Garzón, brainchild of global vintner Alejandro Bulgheroni, and the newest addition to Uruguay’s emerging wine scene.

“What we have got here is a beautiful environment,” says Antonini.

Click here to read the rest of this article, published on PalatePress.com

Duck Dynasty Wine

vcsPRAsset_521319_81228_4e1911a6-bad8-481c-9795-fabcac3e3733_0The Trinchero Family Estates – Duck Dynasty wine collaboration has ruffled some feathers.

Shanken News Daily is reporting that Duckhorn Wine Company is suing over the name, claiming trademark infringement. A Trinchero spokeswoman declined comment on the suit, saying the company does not talk about pending litigation as a matter of policy.

Earlier, Willie Robertson of the family behind the popular A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty,” was disinvited as a speaker at a church event because of the family’s association with wine.

Meanwhile, what of Duck Commander patriarch Phil Robertson’s controversial comments about gay rights and race relations to GQ Magazine? That earned him a suspension from the show, which triggered backlash from supporters, which was followed by A&E announcing it would resume filming this spring with the whole family.

Trinchero did not comment on that either, but referred us to the family statement on the issue and noted that Duck Commander wines has a no-discrimination policy.

The partnership between the Trincheros and the Robertson family was launched with a celebratory dinner in mid-November.

“There are some natural synergies between the Trinchero family and Robertson family businesses.  Both companies were built on family values with a mission to provide consumers with quality products.  This has helped us both establish customer loyalty which continues on from one generation to the next,” Roger Trinchero, principal, vice chairman and CEO of Trinchero Family Estates, said in a statement at the time.

Duck Commander CEO Willie Robertson said his family “decided to create Duck Commander Robertson Family wines because we know that many of our customers and our viewers choose to celebrate family moments with wine.  We knew we needed to find a family company in the heart of wine country that could produce authentic, quality wines. The Trinchero family is the right fit, and the wines are delicious.”

The first vintage included Triple Threat 2011 Red BlendWood Duck 2012 Chardonnay, and Miss Priss 2012 Pink Moscato, all produced from California vineyards.


Downton Abbey Wine

poster_season1What pairs well with an upper crusty dinner party at fabulous Downton Abbey? Chateau Coutet wine, of course.

That was on the table for the big bash thrown by the Granthams in Episode 2, Season 4, and the crew at Coutet were tickled to be featured on the British period drama.

You know you’re doing well when Carson, the Butler With Impeccable Taste,gives you the nod.

“We are thrilled to see Coutet featured on Downton Abbey,” said Aline Baly, co-owner and director of marketing and communications for Chateau Coutet, which is in the Sauternes-Barsac region in southern Bordeaux. The show is a favorite of the Coutet team and it’s icing on the cake that producers appear to have a fondness for the Bordeaux region.

Carson and Lord Grantham picking out the best bottles.

The wine, a 1919 Chateau Coutet, was selected to go with dessert, a logical choice. The wines are made with white grapes, mostly semillon with some sauvignon blanc and a small amount of muscadelle, that are allowed to hang on the vine until weather conditions create a condition known as Botrytis fungus (aka “noble rot”) which results in a very high concentration of sugar in the grapes.

I’m a fan of Coutet with dessert but in my opinion it’s even better with savory items. A really chilled glass with ripe blue cheese = perfection. Maybe Carson saved himself a glass to have in the pantry later with Mrs. Hughes. (I am so shipping those two.)

In 1919, the chateau was under the management of the Lur-Saluces family, who at that point owned Chateau Coutet and its neighbor, Chateau d’Yquem. The Baly family took over in the ’70s.

This wasn’t a pay-for-play moment. Producers of the show, who are known for their faithful attention to detail, approached the family and asked for permission to use the name and then made a prop bottle to use in filming.

Also featured was a Bordeaux red, Chateau Haut Brion, a “first growth” producer which, like Coutet, has a history stretching back centuries. This made for some sparkling dialog when special guest Nellie Melba (played by awesome opera star Dame Kiri Te Kanawa) was able to identify the wine with just a taste. Since stuffy old Lord Grantham (and what is up with him this season?) had initially balked at having a performer sit down to eat with the nibs.

Plot-wise things are looking a bit grim for the Granthams and their keepers. Daughter Sybil is dead. Mary is a widow and poor Edith has found love at long last … with a guy who has a mentally ill wife. Oh, Edith. Lord Grantham, meanwhile, seems to be mostly concerned with figuring out the quickest route to bankruptcy.

But wine-wise, things are looking good and I’m expecting to see more notable vintages popping up at dinner.

Cheers, classily.

Tasting note:

Chateau Coutet 2009: Coutet means “knife” and the estate’s wines are known for their fresh, crisp style which cuts through the sweetness, making for a more interesting wine. So you get lots of honey and ripe apricots, but the taste is never cloying. A touch of orange peel adds some zing.

Screenshot 2014-01-13 12.19.35




Craving cava

Cava bottle rocket, Freixenet style /Michelle Locke

A lot of us view bubbles as bipartisan _ there’s French Champagne and then there’s all the rest. But a little exploration can open up whole new worlds of sparkling sensations from German Sekt to Italian Asti and Prosecco to Hungarian Pezsgo. OK, I haven’t actually tried that last but I could not resist the name.

Having just returned from my trip to Spain hosted by Freixenet I am all about the Cava, which is the Spanish term for sparkling wine.

You’ve probably already tried Freixenet’s most famous product, Cordon Negro Brut, which is the sparkler in the snazzy black bottle with gold labeling. This has been one of my go-tos for some time because it’s crisp, light, eminently festive and quite the bargain at around $10. So I was interested to discover that despite being made in vast quantities _ Freixenet is the largest maker of traditional method sparkling wine _ the wine is made with meticulous attention to detail. The grapes, Parellado, Macabeo and Xarel-lo (Sha-rello), classic cava varieties, are harvested by hand and transported to the winery in relatively small boxes that hold about 50 pounds. The grapes are pressed in gentle, pneumatic presses and the yeasts added to start fermentation are Freixenet’s own cultures.

The first fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks and the second fermentation _ this is what puts the bubbles in bubbly _ takes place in the bottle, the same method used in Champagne as opposed to the cheaper Charmat method in which the second fermentation takes place in bulk tanks. Yeast is introduced, which eats the sugar and creates CO2, aka tiny bubbles, and when that process is over the bottles are upended and  “riddled” _ turned gently _ to move the yeast sediment to the neck of the bottle. This used to be done by hand, and still is for some Freixenet Group wines such as the Reserva Heredad produced by the Segura Viudas winery. But for the most part the process has been automated, saving time and money.  Once the yeast has been collected in the neck, the top of the bottle is frozen, the crown cap taken off and the pressure inside naturally blows out the sediment cap, a process known, reasonably enough, as disgorging. A proprietary “dosage” of some type of sweetener is added and the bottle is corked, all done quickly to keep the bubbles from escaping.

So much for the backstory. Here are some tasting notes:

Elyssia Gran Cuvee: A pleasant floral aroma with a touch of pineapple. Tastes fruity but crisp with a toasty note on the finish. Around $15.

Cordon Negro:  White peaches on the nose. Tastes like apples and pears with a little peach thrown in. Not too sweet, not too tart.Around $10.

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva: This wine is fairly stunning at around $9 and under. Light, fruity, some sweetness but still an elegant wine. Good as an aperitif or with seafood, salad or cheese.  This is the kind of bottle you want waiting for you in the fridge on Friday night.


Walls of cava at Segura Viudas /Michelle Locke

Bidding in the rain

The Staglins and Chef Chiarello celebrate a big bid /Michelle Locke

It was a wet ‘n wild afternoon at this year’s big Napa wine auction as an unseasonable _ I mean really unbelievable, are you kidding me, winter storms in June?! _ downpour pounded the event. But although umbrellas took the place of big hats it was charity that reigned as the 31-year-old event reached a lifetime giving total of more than $100 million.

As honorary chair Koerner Rombauer put it, “Sorry about the weather, but so what!”

So what, indeed. Although the total was shy of 2010, when the bidding topped $8 million, it was a good showing for a year that could have been swamped by the lingering economic doldrums not to mention the nasty weather.

Here’s a video of the event.


The top lot of the day was a joint effort by Garen and Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard and celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello. The lot, which combined food and wine, went up to $300,000 as two bidders duked it out, and then the Staglins and Chiarello doubled the lot for a total of $600,000. So everyone went home happy.

Other big lots included a doubled lot from BOND which brought in $240,000 and another two-fer from Raymond Vineyards which added up to $390,000. Raymond owner Jean-Charles Boisset has a lot to celebrate; he and wife Gina Gallo  just welcomed twin girls into their family.

The auction is a four-day affair held each year on the first weekend of June. In addition to the live auction, which takes place on Saturday afternoon, there’s an e-auction and a barrel auction. This year, the barrel auction brought in just over $1 million with the top lot coming from Shafer Vineyards, fetching $59,600.

The only loser of the day was the beautifully manicured fairway at the Meadowood resort which owner Bill Harlan (of Bond Estates and Harlan Estate) perennially donates as a venue for the live auction. The soggy conditions and foot traffic turned some patches into soupy mud; an area reserved for dancing was particularly churned up. That’s the first time I’ve ever gone home with mud on my dancing shoes rainboots.

Talk about getting down and dirty on the dance floor.


Cinderella's slippers, #ANV11 style /Michelle Locke








Raymond Vineyards

Put yourself in the picture at Raymond Vineyards /Michelle Locke

Looking for something a little different? Raymond Vineyards fits the bill and then some.

Interested in organic and biodynamic farming? They’ve got that. Want to meet a weed-eating sheep named Woolly Wonka? Check. Meanwhile, if you want to  indulge your inner hedonist there’s the Crystal Cellar, which has the usual tanks, etc., you’d find at any winery juxtaposed with some most unusual accoutrements including artful lighting, a fabulous chandelier and Baccarat crystal.

The changes come at the direction of proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates, which bought the property in 2009. Among his many innovations are the frames strung up on the winery grounds that make a fun frame for snapshots.

Wines are well-made and well-priced, starting at about $13 and going up to $85 for the flagship cabernet sauvignon. There’s also an interesting barrel-to-barrel program featuring 10- and 3-liter bags that fit into a stylish wooden barrel equipped with a tap for dispensing.

In a nod to the legacy of the founding Raymond family, the winery has started a club for anyone with “Raymond” as a first, middle or last name. Membership is free and comes with such perks as complimentary tastings for life.

Crystal cellar at Raymond Vineyards /Michelle Locke


Address: 849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena, CA
Phone: 707-963-3141
Website: www.raymondvineyards.com
Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily
Cost: Tasting fees start at $15
Don’t miss: Taking pictures through the frames hanging outside


Ice, ice baby!

I learned something new the other day. The practice of popping an icecube or two into a glass of wine is known in France as “piscine,” from the French word for swimming pool. The idea being that your cubes are swimming around in a pool of vino.

And really, what could be better than learning that something you’ve been feeling a wee bit guilty about doing actually has a name. A French name, no less.

I have been drinking my reds, roses and whites over ice for quite some time. More often white than red and certainly not a really fantastic bottle. (Getting a wine really cold emphasizes the tannins and inhibits some qualities you might want to appreciate in a fine vintage.) But for everyday table wine, which is the wine I drink most often, I find a little bit of icetakes the edge off the alcohol and just makes the glass more of a cocktail, less of a commitment.

I got the idea from the late, great wine pioneer Robert Mondavi, who was known to pop a couple cubes in his glass when the weather turned warm.

So I have tradition on my side, plus the knowledge that I’m positively chic.

Cheers, frostily.



Scoring a wine century


So many bottles, so little time ?Michelle Locke

I’ve always been in the Groucho Marx school of club membership _ I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member. But a club where you drink your way in? That sounds like a pretty good idea.

The group in question is The Wine Century Club, where admittance requires trying 100 different grape varieties. For a change-a-phobe like myself who, left to my own devices, probably would drink chardonnay, chardonnay, Riesling, followed by more chardonnay, this is quite the challenge.

What’s it like?I asked my friend A. who is more than halfway toward his goal of getting to 100 within a year. He’s gotten in the habit of snapping each bottle with his iPhone, which helps keep track, and having knowledgeable and friendly wine shop allies has been a help.

The first 50 weren’t all that hard to come by and most of the wines have been pretty good, he says. “I had a lip-smackin’ Godello, a white from Spain. And have become a bona fide fan of Nero D’Avalo from Sicily — which is kind of the point — to find wines you’d never normally pick up. Fortunately I have a lot of friends (and am married to someone) who don’t particularly care what they drink as long as it doesn’t [vivid two-word combination conveying general lack of quality]. So I bring these oddities to parties and before you know it, they’re gone.”

One way to look at the exercise is as a way to save the varietals that haven’t made it into the “big six” _ Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

Ultimately, what A. likes is the club “turns my drinking into a project. It has parameters. It has goals. And along the way you discover new wines, you learn (from back labels) something about the region, about the year, about the topography. It’s like the booze-world’s version of stamp collecting, in this way. It’s educational and world-broadening. And I think Americans need this kind of thing. We still live with Puritan guilt. We’re wayward Puritans many of us and if you can somehow turn pleasure into a project that resembles engineering or scientific inquiry, so much the better.”

I’ll drink to that. Maybe with a Rkatsiteli or a Xynomavro.

No, I did not make those up.