Monday, September 21, 2015

Stop, Drop, and Pop Up Picnic

I kind of freaked out today when I realized it was the end of September. I honestly don't know how that happened? Wasn't it just the 4th of July? Wasn't I just switching from red wine to white wine in order to sustain my drinking habits amidst the "southern hospitality" humidity?

And yet, here I am, buying boots and being Basic about pumpkin-flavored things. Time is weird. And as I've gotten older (well, older comparatively to when I was 21 and invincible), I've discovered an increased value in anything that gives me a reason to pause, to reflect, to slow down. In fact, that's one reason why I always enjoy simply sitting down to split a bottle of wine with friends because it has a magical power that can distort the speed at which the pace of life normally occurs. My default is living a life that's constantly on-the-go and running as fast as I can just to keep up with all the excitement and opportunities around me, but it's a lifestyle that can only be maintained through taking advantage of occasional bouts of recharging. 

Sidenote: This is pretty much the whole reason why I'm also obsessed with benches...yes, you read that right, and no, I'm not kidding. I take photos of benches everywhere I go as a little photography trademark and also as a way to remind myself that there can always be a reason to press the pause button and look around. See below for a famous movie quote that eloquently reiterates this concept...

A perfectly-placed, purposeful bench in La Jolla, CA
Similar to a glass of wine at happy hour, benches are open opportunities to stop time. They are purposeful and never random. Providing new perspective, they are strategically placed with intention to inspire reflection. They are where people cry, hope, dream, laugh, ponder, and forgive. They are life’s subtle reminders to breathe. To pause. To fully be aware of what lies ahead and what has passed. To explore the moment for whatever peace of mind, heart, and soul is needed most.

An excuse to gaze out into the vineyards of the North Georgia Mountains
And really, in a society full of workaholics and hustlin' to stake our claim in this crazy world, couldn't we all use an excuse to stop sometimes? And in terms of health and wellness. how often does this life-in-the-fast-lane pace cause us to shovel down food in a rushed environment or mindlessly eat something only to leave us hungry for nourishment an hour later? 

Well, great news. I have a lovely friend in Atlanta who has created a concept which invites all citizens of a busy city to slow down, enjoy real food, and build community over a shared meal. This genius idea is called Pop Up Picnic - aka a "day of picnics" literally popping up at parks, schools, businesses, freeway exits, churches, parking ramps, etc. celebrating our need to connect with others and create real experiences. As noted on the Pop Up Picnic website, "Sharing a meal together transforms eating from a mechanical process of simply fueling the body to a ritual of family, community, and an act of culture"...Anyone can host a picnic, and everyone is invited. It's exactly the type of excuse to pause and reflect that a big glass of wine with friends or a perfectly placed park bench provides right when you need it most.

Pretty sure time actually stopped while I sat at the 18th hole of Pebble Beach Golf Course sipping a lovely glass of Minor Family Viognier...and yes, the bar was conveniently called The Bench
To test out the Pop Up Picnic concept, we hosted a "Mediterranean Wine Pairing Picnic" ...because themes are certainty welcomed and encouraged for an exponential correlation to increased fun and enjoyment. A group of friends gathered at sunset on a Friday evening under instruction to bring oneMediterranean dish and one corresponding bottle of wine to share. 

To-go wine cups and an excellent park setting for our first Pop Up Picnic
When the creator of Pop Up Picnic hosts a picnic, there's no lacking on the picnic essentials. There were blankets, to-go wine glasses, and colorful baskets. Dishes included everything from the quintessential charcuererie/cheese plates to homemade spinach empanadillas and roasted Eggplant Almond Dip followed by a made-from-scratch Greek Lemon Cake for dessert (because my friends are fancy like that).

An epic spread of food and wine
offered food-and-wine-pairing advice as needed, and I gave a default guideline that "what grows together, goes together", for example, Italian Riojas and Barolos pair nicely with rich, red Italian pasta sauces while Spanish Tempranillos go well with generous slices of Spanish Manchego and Jamón. For me, it's often about pairing a wine with an equal acidic intensity as the food.

I whipped up a 7-Layer Greek Dip (hummus, olives, tomatoes, fresh dill, red onion, feta cheese, cucumbers) as my dish, which I thought would be an excellent excuse to finally purchase a Greek wine. Greek wines tend to be extremely high in acidity, which works out well given the citrus flavors and oils in Greek food...but I decided to break all the "rules" and opt for a white Grenache blend from France simply because it had the most girly, picnic-y label I could find....because, yes, even with as much wine knowledge as I've acquired, sometimes I'm still easily influenced by product placement and an appealing graphic design. But hey, guess what, I got lucky this time and the wine was bright, acidic, slightly floral, and citrusy enough to elevate my Greek dip to memorable status.

Need an excuse to slow down, eat real food, build community, and potentially drink some wine? Check out and sign up to attend, host, or sponsor a picnic in Atlanta on October 15th.

Becaue, you know, like Ferris says...

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Great Vietnamese Food & Wine Pairing Challenge

I tried to pick a title for this post that makes it sound super serious and important in an attempt to rationalize how much time I invested, but in all actuality, it was just a fun dinner party event with a group of my favorite people in Atlanta. Let's stick with the title, though, because it makes it sound like an episode of Chopped or something.

A week ago, my friend asked if I would be able to pair wines for a dinner party she was hosting and, of course, I obliged (aka happily cleared my schedule). She then texted me the menu: A 3-course Vietnamese feast all made from scratch using fresh, authentic ingredients. My first thought was, "Wow! Yum!" and then my second thought was, "but I wouldn't normally pair wine with these flavors!" and my third thought was, "this might be harder than I thought?" followed by, "I better do my research....starting now." 

A scholar at heart, my way of approaching a challenging situation is learning everything I can about the components involved so I can make informed decisions moving forward. And because I take my wine almost as seriously as I take my day job, I dove right into reading all about Vietnamese cuisine and the interplay of traditinal flavors, spices, acids, and herbs. This left me with a general idea of wine characteristics which I could further investigate at a local wine shop and discuss with fellow wine enthusiasts. Contenders were things like Austrian Gruner Veltliner (herbal, green pepper), German Reisling (floral, dry), Sauvignon Blanc or Alsace Pinot Blanc (citrus, grassy), Vouvray or White Rhone (mineral, floral), Northern Rhone Syrah (soft, spicy), or bubbly (because it would go with everything). 

With the newly gained knowledge and the complete, detailed menu in hand, I set off on a mission to the wine shop. I decided, however, to use this as an excuse to also check out a new place in town that offers weekly complimentary tastings so I could sip and shop at the same time. I had recently heard good things about Highland Fine Wines in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood of Atlanta, but because it's not on my typical commute between work and home, this was the first time I had a reason to make a deliberate detour on a Friday evening. Walking in, I felt like I was suddenly starring in one of those scenes from movies where a white light shines down and angels sing glory was a  beautiful, clean, modern space with floor-to-ceiling racks of wines and a small table at the front with open bottles set up for tastings.

I was welcomed into a crowd that was clearly a group of "regulars" enjoying their tasting flight with the staff while other customers were purchasing cases of wine to load into their cars. I introduced myself, confessed to being a total wine nerd, and requested assistance with my wine pairing mission. The staff seemed excited and challenged similarly to how I had felt upon receiving the menu, and they were happy to highlight sections of the shop that could potentially lead me in the right direction. An hour and a half later.........(#sorrynotsorry)........I left with a selection of 3 wines picked purposefully and strategically for each course of the meal that were given a sommelier's stamp of approval. It's always worth taking a shot at asking for assistance in these types of situations - especially at a small, local shop - because you'll likely find the staff willing, able, and excited to help you find the perfect wine from their limited, hand-selected shelf space. In fact, one of the wines open for the tasting that night ultimately ended up in the final lineup after enjoying it so much in the shop. 

After initially thinking I would need to stick to a flight of whites or rosés, it was the knowledgable staff who led me to the revelation that a Syrah might actually be a perfect curveball to toss into the mix (which, omg, it was - but more on that later). If it would've been socially acceptable, I would've skipped out of that store that night because I was seriously just that happy and excited about everything. 

The day of the feast arrived, and I decided to crack a local beer while my culinary-inclined friend started preparing the first course. It was fascinating to see an entire kitchen counter covered with ingredients that I didn't even know were available for purchase...let alone even existed. So many unique shapes, colors, and smells filled the apartment as friends gathered and sipped the variety of pre-meal adult beverages.

When it was time for the first course, I felt like I was about to drop my kid off for the first day of school hoping that all the other kids would like him. The wines I selected don't usually get paired with these flavors, and sometimes even the most thorough research can result in failed attempts to match spices, acidity, and oils. Overall, however, I was incredibly pleased with all three pairings (sigh of relief) and how the delicate layers of the foods either matched harmoniously or contrasted beautifully with the distinctive characterics of the wines. This was a true, enlightening example of how wine can elevate the flavors in a dish and how food can elevate the layers in a wine.

COURSE 1: Papaya salad with shrimp and pork belly served on crispy shrimp crackers paired with a South Aftican Chenin Blanc. 

Similar to the more familiar Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris varietals, this zesty dry wine had notes of mango, lemon, ginger, and honeycomb that complimented the citrusy lime-based dressing and fresh cilantro with an equally high acidity to offer a synergistic balance that allowed for highlighting the fruit flavors in both the wine and food rather than washing them both out.

COURSE 2: Grilled pork collar with baby mustard greens and a cilantro root/garlic/fish sauce marinade paired with South African Syrah.

This was the most surprisingly awesome pairing of the far. Nobody expected me to whip out a red wine for this course, but it all made sense after the first sip and bite were served. The wine was meaty, earthy, dirty, and full-bodied expressing lots of crushed black pepper alongside dark fruit and violet tones. The structured palate and smooth tannins were perfect compliments to the savory fats of the pork belly and the bitterness of the mustard greens. WIN.

COURSE 3: Banh Xeo, crispy rice crepe stuffed with pork belly, shrimp, and lightly cooked mung bean sprouts eaten in a lettuce wrap with herbs and pickled daikon and carrots with nuoc cham dipping sauce paired with an Argentine Saivignon Blanc. 

I almost went with a sweeter wine here to compliment the slight sweetness of the crepe batter, but it actually worked out well to use the lush, tropical tones of the Zolo to highlight the fresh vegetables and herbs stuffed inside. The sweet and sour sipping sauce needed this wine's crisp acidity and slightly heavier mouthfeel. This was the crowd-favorite of the pairings simply because it brought out such fruity, fresh, and "herbalicious" characteristics in both the wine and the dish.

And yes, while each pairing seemed to take both the wine and the food to the next level, I still allowed myself to pick favorites. My favorite individual wine of the evening was the Boekenhoutskloof Porcupine Ridge Syrah from Franschhoek Valley, South Africa for it's earthy, dirty, spiciness and nose that bursted with mushrooms and musty, forest floor. My favorite individual dish of the evening had nothing to do with flavor and instead had everything to do with the preparation and presentation: The way the crispy, shrimp cakes from Course 1 puffed up when dropped into a pot of booking oil reminded me of the little pill-shaped capsules that I used to toss in the bathtub as a child that would magically puff up into sponges shaped like farm animals or dinosaurs. It was this sentimental value that edged Course 1 into 1st place, but also that I had never enjoyed papaya until it was prepared in this style and with that particular sauce. 

I look forward to hosting many more dinner parties with friends, colleagues, and retailers who share an appreciation for culinary and viticultural arts. I'm also incredibly thankful to be surrounded by so many cool people in my daily life on this wine blog journey who also find joy in these types of wine and food indulgences. 

Bon Appétit & Salud.

Now on Instagram: @acorkintheroad

For event requests, pairing inquiries, wine suggestions, or just to nerd out about cool wine stuff in general:

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Putting a Pinky Up for Port

Prior to working in the wine industry, I thought of Port as a mysterious substance only suitable for fancy, sophisticated people. Thankfully, I've been educated enough since then to forfeit this naive misconception in pursuit of appreciating this special sector of craft adult beverages for it's unique set of characteristics and purpose. I still have a lot to learn (understatement) but I do know it can be just as approachable - and potentially as enjoyable in certain settings and circumstances - as wine. 

My friend here in Atlanta recently coined the term "Equal Opportunity Enjoyer"(EOE) to describe someone like myself who is open to learning about a variety of speciality libations...for enjoyment, of course. This concept couldn't be more accurate. While my first love will always be vino, my knowledge of that industry has harbored an interest in and an appreciation for the specialized processes associated with producing anything from coffee to bourbon. Therefore, I often find myself drawn to opportunities in which I can dive into a new realm of the beverage industry simply to compare and contrast to the world of wine. A few weeks ago, Savor Wine Boutique in the Kirkwood Station neighborhood of Atlanta served as the aforementioned catalyst for sparking my curiosity in a new specialty beverage. They extended a complimentary admission as a partner in the industry to attend their special Port tasting event...this EOE happily accepted because, hey, why not?

Savor has a great tasting event space and always seems to draw a nicely-sized crowd, so I was excited to mingle with fellow beverage enthusiasts for the special event. It's interesting, though, because I felt a little out of my element. When I walk into a wine tasting, I know what to expect, I know what vocabulary to use, and I know how to take tasting notes. In this case, however, I only knew that I'd probably be the one asking a lot of questions. 

When I worked in Virginia, many wineries were producing Port-style fortified wines using Touriga Nacional grapes because it tends to grow very well in that climate. We sold one called "Tavern" - named for an old tavern that used to occupy the land on which the winery was built. We promoted it as an after-dinner nightcap perfect for fireside chats and an occasional cigar (according to my husband) because it was rich, full-bodied, peppery, and spicy with deep flavors of slightly-candied plums and prunes. It was definitely a crowd favorite during the winter holiday season, but I still could only count on two hands the total number of times I'd ever sipped a Port-style wine...and they were all born-and-raised in Virginia. I never fully committed to truly appreciating it's full potential.

So, case in point, I walked into Savor that evening for the Port event as a novice (well, more like clueless) but ready and willing to learn. They had a lineup of 6 Ports all under the Dow's label available for us to taste. Founded in 1798, Dow's is a Port-producing dynasty run by a family with over 100 years of experience, and I suppose that's exactly what you'd like to hear when you're wanting to gain a baseline education about the craft. What sets Port apart from other wines is the terroir on which the grapes are grown (such as the Douro) but also the addition of spirits halfway through the grape fermentation process which preserves a proportion of the grapes' natural sugars (and boosts the alcohol content). I like to imagine it as if Port wine is the wine that went out to the bar, took a few shots, and then stayed out to party longer than everyone else.

The distributors leading the tasting that evening were incredibly friendly and welcoming. They were just as eager to share their knowledge with the crowd as the crowd was eager to learn about the Ports which facilitated an awesome amount of nerdy discussion while sipping. 

We kicked things off with the Fine White Porto. It smelled like sweet candied flowers and had a golden glow of color in the glass. "Fine" in the world of Ports translates to any producer's "basic, general, standard" offering and usually encompasses the bottom 90% of grapes produced. The top 10%, conversely, is used to make the higher-end "Vintage" Ports in a portfolio. I enjoyed the nutty complexity and fresh, fruity finish on the White Porto, and I enjoyed it even more when they offered to mix it with a little splash of tonic water for a refreshing champagne-like cocktail.

Moving to the red Ports, I buckled up and focused on taking notes to keep them all organized...but at 19-20% alcohol in each sip, it got increasingly more difficult as we moved down the list. I actually giggled at my piece if paper when I took it out to write this blog post, so to save myself the time in deciphering each entry to type summaries of each tasting, but also to give readers an equal opportunity to giggle...I thought I'd just take a photo of the notes instead:

I asked a lot of questions and I consequently learned a lot. Most importantly, I learned what I like and what I don't like which is always my objective when guiding tastings for fellow wine enthusiasts. My favorite of the flight was Dow's Fine Tawny Porto - it tasted like apples and walnuts with layers of bright citrus, caramel, and almond flavors. The runner-up for the evening was Dow's 10-Year Old Tawny Porto, the last tasting on the list, which smelled less sweet than all of the others but had a nose bursting with toffee, ripe fruits, and walnuts with a longer, richer, balanced finish on the palate. It reminded me, in fact, of bourbon...yet another example of how appreciations for craft beverages can overlap.

Have I sparked anyone's curiosity to try some Port? It's fun, and it makes you feel fancy. For my pay-it-forward moment, here's the one piece of knowledge I think anyone should know going into a Port tasting: Ruby vs. Tawny. These are two "styles" of Port aside from the Fine and Vintage classifications addressed earlier in the tasting notes. Essentially, these terms simply refer to the color of the liquid. Ruby Port is a Port that has not yet aged in a barrel long enough to oxidize, so it maintains a purple, reddish color. After 6-7 years of aging in a barrel, the Port will oxidize and change color. Tawny thus describes these Ports that are more brown and orange in color which concurrently indicates an aging timeframe of 7+ years. I can confidently say that I am a fan of the Tawny camp because I love the caramel and toffee notes being expressed on velvety, nutty flavors from the oxidation process in the oak casks. 

So, go out there and try some Port. There's nothing to lose, and wine will understand with no hard feelings. Besides, Port pairs well with cold, winter nights and the forthcoming holiday season. Fun fact? Tawny is also a color of Crayola Crayon #TheMoreYouKnow

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

You've Got [Wine] Mail

When I joined Twitter back in January, I never thought it would result in a box of wine being delivered to my doorstep. But in a beautiful, roundabout way…that’s exactly what happened. Twitter has been an integral game-changer for building my brand and connecting with fellow wine enthusiasts. I’ve also been thrilled about the many direct contacts I’ve had already with wineries, distributors, retailers, restaurants, celebrities (ok, no, not yet this one…but my friends have…so it’s possible?) simply by typing out a message made up of 140 characters @ their account.

I love social media, and I absolutely love Facebook, but this whole Twitter-verse thing opened up more opportunities to constantly stay up on the latest wine events/knowledge/news/gossip. What this translates to is that ever since I activated my Twitter account, well, I’m never bored. There’s always someone to talk to, always something to read, and always someone tasting a new wine that intrigues me – cue story leading to wine mail:

One day, while scrolling through my Twitter Feed, I noticed a photo by @SLHousman (Sherri Housman, a wine blogger and Certified Tourism Ambassador of Sonoma County and #SonomaChat) containing a wine label that was unfamiliar to me along with the description, “tastes of dark cherries, blackberries, wet stone w/a great earthy finish!”….I almost drooled. That combination of flavor would blow my mind, so I responded with a nerdy wine comment followed by, “I will need to search this out and try it.”

Thanks to the magic and instantaneous interaction brought to us by Twitter, both Sherri and the winery replied to me within the hour. Meadowcroft, the Sonoma County winery, asked if I was local because they would love to pour their wines for me (wait, what?) and asked that I message them directly. It's a times like these that I find myself wishing for a teleportation device or, better yet, a reason to move to California. When Meadowcroft’s Twitter account told me that they don’t distribute to Georgia, I thought that would be the sad ending to a once-exciting pursuit of wine. But what came next? Boom:

Did a winery just offer to send me their wine simply because they want me to try it? Is this real life? Is this some kind of twisted social media initiation lesson resulting in my identity being stolen once I give them my credit card number to pay for the shipment? Oh yes, my mind definitely went there coupled with all the other thoughts of disbelief that this was some kind of sketchy internet business. I emailed with them back and forth a few times, but when they never called to get my payment information, a cloud of concern and doubt rolled in. Thankfully, however, this turned out to be one instance in which my gut feeling of doubt was completely unsubstantiated because after checking on the status of the shipment and expressing my concern to provide payment after the delay, they 1) apologized (they are small and had a busy weekend!) and 2) offered to send the wine for the cost of only a tasting fee.

A week later, a box of wine arrived at my apartment, and I was still in shock from the kindness, generosity, and outstanding customer service.

The best kind of mail is WINE mail.
So what do you do with the first complimentary bottle of wine shipped to you for review? Well first, you freak out and tell all your friends and family because you still can’t believe it (…check…) then you invite your favorite wine friends to join you for a celebratory tasting night to review the wine and provide feedback to the winery.

Even the cat had to lick it to make sure it was real.
After rounding up the party group, I wanted to make the tasting experience as blinded as possible for my friends in hopes of gathering the most honest, genuine opinions. Thus, I refrained from disclosing information about the winery, the growing region, the varietal, the cost, etc. We settled in around a table with note pads and snacks from Trader Joe’s – because, let’s be honest, they seriously have some of the best wine tasting snacks i.e. Fig & Olive Crisps – and I poured the wine evenly into our glasses. I had strategically invited a diverse spectrum of wine experience to this tasting night because one of my favorite things to do is to knock down any preconceived notions that wine tasting is an unapproachable activity or worse, something that only “wine people” can enjoy.

Trader Joe's has the perfect wine-person-on-a-budget snacks for wine tasting nights.
Before we began, I emphasized that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer tonight. I encouraged each person to write everything they smelled, tasted, thought, felt on the paper in front of them without speaking to one another. I also instructed a few basic steps to follow while tasting:
  1. Hold up the glass – what colors do you see? Does it change in the light
  2. Put your nose in there – what does it smell like? Fruit? Spice? Earth? Minerals?
  3. Take a sip, and slide the wine to the back of your palate – what do you feel as the wine hits your tongue? Is it heavy? Is it soft? Does it linger after it’s gone?
  4. Take another sip, a bigger sip, and swish it around a bit – what does it taste like? Does it taste like something at the beginning and change to something else at the end? Is it fruity? Is it spicy? How does it feel  - Thick? Thin? Soft? Sharp?
  5. Based on the flavors and smells, what type of food would you want to eat with this wine?
  6. And finally, perhaps most importantly…do you like it? Would you buy it again? Rate it on a scale of 1 (the worst) to 5 (the best).

Look, smell, taste...repeat.
And with the conclusion of my demo, the tasting commenced. There was giggling, there were inquisitive looks, and there were smiles…but there was also a sense of empowerment. I noticed a sense of confidence among my friends as they enjoyed a freedom to explore the wine for their own personal opinions.

Once everyone had time to log their thoughts, I collected the papers and we shared our ratings and tasting notes in an energized discussion of the results. We all noticed different flavors and smells, but surprisingly there was a common consensus in the ratings and the identification of an easy-drinking quality of the wine that improved as it sat open to the air.

Gathering tasting notes in a blinded exploration.
Here are the notes, in all their short/random/scatterbrained/raw glory:

TASTER 1: Dark fruit nose, tastes like a zinfandel, great balance, light front palate, light bodied finish with bright acidity, tight flavors at first but a burst of flavor at the end, dark cherries, slight oak, not typical Cabernet finish, would go well with a salty/meaty dinner like roasted vegetables, needs time to breathe and tastes better/softer in second glass. RATING: 3.5

TASTER 2: Dark, bold/strong, smells like grapes, tastes improves the more I drink, would go well with steak/potatoes. RATING: 4

TASTER 3: Dark, full body, good legs, smells like hints of cherries, smooth, mild taste, it’s fruity, it’s safe, would be a good table wine for pasta. RATING: 3.5

TASTER 4: Chocolate, zesty, smooth, easy to drink, I like the label! RATING: 4

TASTER 5: Color – deep red, low clarity. Nose – blackberry, baking spices, pie crust (?), jammy. Mouthfeel – medium thickness. Taste – Medium-plus acidity, mildly tannic, tastes young, spicy, blackberry, medium finish, hint of earth. Is it a California Zinfandel? Or maybe a Pinot Noir? Pairing – Mexican, Italian pasta with red sauce. RATING: 3 ….but if I knew it was a Cabernet? 2.

Case in point, wine is a personal experience. Each person will enjoy a unique expression of flavors and smells, so it’s having the opportunity to explore exactly what types of qualities are preferred that will maximize that experience to the utmost enjoyment. I look forward to facilitating more tasting exploration classes in the future, and hey, maybe more wine will start showing up on my doorstep. No? That's not how that works? Yeah, probably not, so I will continue to purchase my bottles at retailers like everyone else while always remembering this occurrence as an awesome story in my wine blogger adventure.


Thank you to Meadowcroft Wines for the top quality customer service and wine shipment. Meadowcroft, the owner’s family name, means “the fertile field on the meadow” and the honeybee on the label symbolizes their hard work, a journey of mastering discipline, and the process of transforming grapes from single vineyards into wine.

Tasting Room
23574 Arnold Dr./Hwy. 121
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 934-4090

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

All the Ways to Chardonnay

There are few things I enjoy more than a guided, nerdy wine tasting. And thankfully, a few weeks ago, that's exactly the type of tasting I had the pleasure of co-hosting with the folks of Symposium Wines in Atlanta.

Symposium Wines is located in the heart of Atlanta across from the iconic Mary Mac's Tea Room
They are a relatively new shop on the scene in downtown ATL, but I've been super impressed with the quality and knowledge they bring to the table (and to their shelves). I've been working with them for the past few months promoting and co-hosting their weekly $10 drop-in tastings with importers/winemakers/distributors, but after sensing an increasing interest from their customer base to have a more elevated wine tasting experience...we decided to host a seated, guided tasting for a select group of self-proclaimed wine nerds. Compared to bigger retailers, they have the flexibility of being a small, local business with enough autonomy to be creative in their offerings. What does the customer get in return? Unique, creative, and exclusive events.

Symposium's tasting area facilitates intimate discussion and ultimate wine nerdiness
First, we all met for a brainstorming session to determine the structure and format that would be the most appealing to our audience. Given the space, we knew we could accommodate ~10-15 people around a table for an open and informal yet semi-guided tasting session. Back when I managed the winery in Virginia, we often hosted similar higher-level tasting class sessions to study specific aspects of the wines such as vintage (in a vertical tasting format), varietal (comparing soils and growing techniques), or regions (comparing styles and flavors). This is the type of setting that really facilitates nerdy wine knowledge to flourish, and it's incredible how much exploration occurs when given the chance to discuss and share tasting notes.

The guided tasting experience is unique and coveted - it's like school plus wine
Next, we decided to shine the spotlight Chardonnay. How many times do people simply forget about or disregard Chardonnay these days? Too many. But how many of those people have had the opportunity to taste really high-quality Chardonnay from all over the world? Not enough. We felt it was time to reintroduce a small lucky group of people to the diverse, complex flavor profile of American Chardonnay versus French Chardonnay. And with that, along with setting a date and time, our idea came to fruition and a wine tasting class was born.

The tasting map, tasting notebook, and multiple wine glasses created a classroom-like atmosphere
Upon arrival, guests were welcomed to their spot at the table with a tasting map, a note-taking booklet, and three wine glasses. The Chardonnays were showcased in two groups: Three from France followed by three from America. Personally, I'm pretty dumb when it comes to knowing my French wines (and the only French words I know are names of French grape varietals...) so I was pretty pumped to have a chance to taste the nuances of regions I'd yet to discover. Our hosts poured the first set of French wines, and we all grabbed our pens waiting patiently (or not?...because I pretty much noshed on all the cheese and meat to distract me from preemptively sipping the wine) for class to begin. After a brief introduction of each wine, we had the opportunity to sip, chat, and take notes on the first flight from France. Full disclose: I made so many typos while typing the names of these wines so it took me forever, and please don't make me pronounce them because I have absolutely no clue how to do so.
Someday I will use a map to actually travel to all these wine-growing regions of France
1) 2012 Domaine de Cornasse - Chablis ($28.99): Aged for 6 months on the lees (read: dead yeast cells, gives it buttery texture) and 6 months in new French oak, I would have guessed this was Sauvignon Blanc in a blind tasting. It comes from Burgundy in an area with white, chalky soil and seashell bedrock which gives it a mineral nose with a crisp, bright acidity. It's balanced with a bit of effervescence and delicately layered. Sidenote: The gentleman seated across from me made sure that I new if the "r" was removed from "Cornasse" then it would translate to "Dumbass". Good to know, and I giggled.

2) 2012 Chalet de Pouilly - Pouilly Fuisee ($37.99): Aged for 18 months on old French oak with minimal time on the lees, this wine exploded with a huge, oaky, smoky nose. It comes from an area of Burgundy known for Chardonnay because that's all they can legally grow. It had medium plus body with rounded, full acidity. I loved that it was structured and interesting - it even tasted a little bit like hazelnuts? In summary, STUNNING. And my favorite of the whole night. It now has a home in my wine fridge until I come upon the perfect moment or food pairing to legitimize opening it.

3) 2013 Domaine Maratray Dubril - Bourgogne Blanc ($28.99): This is a compellation of grapes grown on three multiple vineyards in a general appellation of Burgundy. Aged for 12 months on old and new French oak, this has a very dead nose (or lack there of?) and tasted a bit flat in terms of layers or complexity. Not my favorite, and certainly not a contender especially when next in line after the Pouilly Fuisee...

The three French contenders
After a trip overseas (which I really hope to do someday soon when I can afford a plane ticket and time off from my day job...) it was back to the homeland Chardonnays of California. An no, I didn't have a hard time typing these names, and yes, I can actually pronounce them correctly:

The American trio
4) 2013 Macrostie - Sonoma Coast ($24.99): This wine comes from grapes grown on multiple vineyards and fermented using wild yeast which yields a bit more flavor. It's aged and barrel-fermented for 6 months in oak. Approaching it with just my nose, it smelled like a classic California Chardonnay which to me means "oak and pears". There was a slight bit of vanilla on the palate, and the fruit-forwardness created a slightly sweet finish. I'd serve this to anyone who has never tried Chardonnay and say "this is Chardonnay".

5) 2012 Trione - Russian River ($38): I alllllmost stopped to visit this tasting room when I was in Sonoma last February, and now I'm kicking myself for passing it up. Of the California wines, this was by far my favorite of the trio. As a winery, Trione is known for their balance of oak and acidity. They also have bocce courts onsite, so, they win. Aged in 40% new oak, this has a HUGE nose with hints of sweetness. In fact, I said out loud to the group that it "smelled like pineapple upside down cake" joke, it really does! There is a lot of acid with a sweet orange-like finish that lingers on the palate. If it hadn't been for the oaky, smoky Pouilly Fuisee in the first round, this one would have taken the cake (err...the pineapple upside down cake?)

6) 2011 Domaine Eden - Santa Cruz Mountains ($31.99): This wine is grown in a small AVA further south along the California coast, and it is aged in 30% new French oak after sitting on the lees for 11 months in the barrel. It truly smells like oak - but not smoky oak - and has a very rich mouthfeel and full-bodied palate followed by a heavy vanilla, sweet finish. Even though it was not a standout of the night for me personally, I enjoyed hearing everyone at the table exclaim "vanilla!" almost in unison upon tasting it.

So the winner? Well that's a loaded question so let me explain. If I picked a favorite it would be the smoky, oaky French Pouilly Fuisee (which I've learned how to say correctly out loud since the tasting because I want to be able to ask for it at restaurants and retail shops...) but as an overall flight, I'd say that California out-played France. The richer flavors and fuller textures set them apart from the more delicate and subtle Chardonnays of France.

This California-wine-girl was shocked that a French Pouilly Fuisee won her heart as favorite of the night
I left the table that night feeling like I learned as much in two hours about wine as I used to learn about exercise physiology in two hours of graduate school. My brain was full, my heart was happy, and my wine collection grew by one. I look forward to planning more guided tastings with Symposium in the near future because let's be honest, the only class you'll ever see me in post-college is one involving wine.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

That Time I Ordered Beer

*Gasp* wait, what? The wine girl ordered beer? Is that even allowed? Is the world ending?

Beer and bubbly sharing the same skyline view in Atlanta
I'll admit that it's a rare occasion, but yes, sometimes a beer just seems right. In fact, I have become more and more cognizant of the fact that some situations even constitute choosing a beer instead of wine. Before I completely loose the attention of my wine fellow wine enthusiasts, please allow me to explain.

A "Beer Flight" is perfect for anyone who loves a good "Wine Flight"
Just the other night, while out with a group of ladies for a weeknight dinner club, I found myself struggling internally about what to order as the accompaniment to my dinner selection. The establishment, known for it's modern American cuisine inspired by classic New York Jewish deli staples, was serving up hearty dishes such as poutine (hello, Canadian "nachos" drowning in gravy and cheese curds), chopped liver pretzel bread, and "THE BURGER" (topped with gruyere, caramelized onions, and crispy pastrami). Not only does the food at this place warm your heart and fill you up, but the upscale deli setting makes you feel casual yet sophisticated all at the same time. I kept alternating my eyes between the drink menu and the food menu trying to make logical pairings in my head. When nothing stuck out to me on the wine list as exciting and the cocktails were the price of two Chipotle burritos, I moved my way to the list of taps and bottles (aka uncharted territory). I approached this situation, however, just as I always do with wine which means asking the waiter for a try-before-you-buy sample. He kindly accommodated my request, could tell I was out of my comfort zone, and was excited to showcase their offerings. 

The sample glasses arrived, and just as you'd expect any total wine nerd to do...I sniffed them. I noticed that this brought some inquisitive looks my way...and then realized that maybe that's not typically what you do with beer? But I'm sorry, I just can't imagine tasting something without engaging my sense of smell. So yes, I'm sure the waitstaff got a good chuckle out of my behavior, but my nose is a powerful instrument that has been fine-tuned over many years in the wine industry to detect anything from honeysuckle to sulfur. So no, I wouldn't dare leave home without it nor sip something without using it as a gatekeeper.

After tasting three lighter brews, I finally found what I was looking for: A hoppy, flavorful IPA to pair with the indulgent heap of gravy-smothered french fries that was being brought to our table as an appetizer. And for $4 per can? Sure, let's give this beer thing a shot because at this point, my wallet and my palate were happy.

Brew Free or Die IPA with poutine at The General Muir
So yes, sometimes it's ok to choose beer over wine. In fact, I've recently been dabbling in the craft beer industry and exploring the similarities to the wine world. In college, I drank whatever beer came out of the keg in someone's basement. I also drank whatever was cheapest and whatever was the easiest to chug. But now, as a somewhat wiser and more mature adult, I've learned that there is an entire industry devoted to creating interesting, exciting, bold, and adventurous beers that can stimulate the palate with a complexity and depth that can rival the experience of sipping my favorite wines. Plus, these craft, local breweries sure know how to throw a party during tasting/tour hours - heck, some even allow you to bring your pup:

Monday Night Brewery in Atlanta has a patio that's perfect for BYODog nights
One of my favorite things about visiting vineyards is learning how they rely on the characteristics of the land to produce their grapes, and I love meeting the people behind the scenes who are navigating the science to create an artistic expression of the fruit. Visiting local breweries often satisfies a similar sense of appreciation when given the opportunity to meet the brew masters, tour the facility, and/or discuss the origins of their brand marketing.

During the tour at Harpoon Brewery in Boston, they asked if I was a "wine drinker" because I asked a lot of questions
Just like wine nerds who enjoy the adventure of tasting new wines, beer aficionados are always looking for beers with interesting labels, unique styles, and new techniques. For that reason, I am finding so much joy in the concept of a "Beer Flight" or a "Brewery Sampler" because I'm definitely someone who drinks beer exactly how I drink wine: Dissecting every flavor, asking every question, and sipping every type.

"Tasting the rainbow" of beers at Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park, Minnesota
The more beer I taste, the more I realize how much it has in common with my first-love craft beverage. A very wise friend once told me, "There seems to be a type of person who likes red wine, dark chocolate, black coffee, and dark beer"....and I'm starting to believe that he has a very valid point now that I've found myself gravitating toward stouts, porters, and black IPAs. 
Some places, like this winery in Minnesota, are even starting to offer both wine and beer in perfect harmony
It's getting to the point that I can even list a few circumstances during which I feel the choice of beer over wine is validated:

1) Baseball - Beer just looks happy when paired up with hot dogs and burgers in a stadium. I've had a few wines in small plastic cups while enjoying America's pastime, and I honestly just felt weird. If concessions stands keep serving interesting beers and local brews, then don't be surprised to see me sipping a Sweetwater at The Ted this summer cheering on my Braves.

Beer and baseball is like peanut butter and jelly
2) Tailgates - it's really hard to keep cold things cold and room-temperature things, well, not hot when partying outdoors. I've experimented with wine from single-serve boxes, wine from plastic containers, and bubbly from red solo cups....but it's just so much easier to pop the cap on a bottle of double IPA in a parking lot.
Tapped (and non-tapped) coolers can keep beers at the proper serving temperature in any parking lot
3) Restaurants with boring wine lists - I'm sorry, but I just don't want to pay $12 for a glass of wine for which I can find a bottle sold for the same price at any of the grocery stores near my house. If I'm going to a fine, gourmet dining establishment that is serving food meant to be paired with wine, I want to see offerings on their wine list that surprise and excite me. I want to find something that I know can't be regularly found on the shelves. If nothing jumps out at me, I'm going to pick a beer for 1/4 the price and be 4 times as happy about it.

4) Date-night with the husband - it's no question that I've turned my husband into a total wine nerd (he even went to a wine tasting last week by himself...without me...and I was so proud) but he's still a beer and bourbon guy at heart. When we go out to dinner just the two of us, sometimes we pick places that are known for the number of beers they have on tap or for serving exclusive local brews. In these cases, I let him pick out a flight of 3 to 4 beers for me to sample and sip so he can take the lead on playing the role of the craft-beverage-nerd.

A sunset flight at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company after a full day of tasting wine in Sonoma on our Honeymoon 
5) Summer festivals - in the South, it's hot and humid in the summer (duh) and there's nothing that sounds less appealing when drenched in sweat than a potentially hot glass of red wine. Also, typically wineries with booths at festivals will serve sweeter wines that not only can be served cold, but also will appeal to a larger audience. I use these occasions as excuses to try out the frosty beverages served on tap at the beer trucks to pair with my pork-chop-on-a-stick or giant turkey leg.

The Beer Garden at the Iowa State Fair...right before we ordered a giant batch of cheese curds
There's nothing wrong with switching up the routine once in a while and exploring other craft beverages. Wine will always have my heart, but I am certainly enjoying the excitement of occasionally using a bottle opener rather than a corkscrew.

Until they make pumpkin spiced wine (which, no, actually please don't) I will drink Fat Jack while carving a pumpkin