Sunday, July 29, 2012

33. Bending Branch Part 1: Visiting

33. Visiting
Up, the hill proceeds,
reaching for the sky and clouds
with each vine and root.

When I look out, my eyes see
the joys and dreams of heaven.
Looking out over the vineyards

A number of articles recently, even this past week, have been highlighting Comfort, TX area winery Bending Branch. It seems everyone is enamored with their Tannat wines. In June, they made quite a showing at the Lone Star International Wine Competition, fetching some key awards, particularly the Best in Show award for the International Red Wine Category with the 2009 Silver Tannat. This past Saturday (July 28) they decided to celebrate with a party -- live jazz from Phil Grota and friends, comfort food from San Antonio's Mars Mobile Kitchen, and special tastings of the two award winning Tannats -- the Silver Tannat and the now unavailable EM Tannat (brought out of the library for the event). Sean and I took this opportunity to pay a return visit. Founders Bob and Brenda Young invited us to learn about and experience their winery firsthand. The day ended up being an incredible one.
Up close and personal with the Lone Star awards

This visit was one of my all-time favorite wine experiences. It was so nice to be welcomed into the winery; even before we met with Jennifer Beckmann-- who set up the visit with the Young's and winemaker John Rivenburgh (Bob and Brenda's son-in-law) -- we enjoyed a tasting with the always pleasant and friendly stewardesses in the tasting room. Jennifer greeted us as soon as she had a chance, and before long, we were getting to know Bending Branch better thanks to Bob and Brenda. This delightful day turned into one of the most informative and eye-opening experiences I have yet had. I left with so much information -- about Bending Branch and wine making -- that I knew it would take awhile to sort it all out. And so, I have decided to breakdown what I learned and share it over multiple posts.

The Wines

This relatively new winery is on the verge of truly exciting things. For wine drinkers, the most important is the wine itself.

Bob Young informing me about Bending Branch's bottling

 In the tasting room

During our tasting, we learned that there will be an estate Picpoul Blanc soon (they harvested their first block last year, and it is currently in the barrels). This year's Picpoul harvest is already done, so we can expect more Texas Picpoul in the future. Next, this year's 2010 High Plains Rose' has been developing in the bottle. During the tasting, I noticed that it was growing smoother, and the reds that make it up are starting to show through nicely, creating a fuller wine. The other treat in the tasting room right now is the Chloe Cuvee (named for the Rivenburgh's daughter). We happily paid the $3 for a taste and the nearly $18 for a glass, but we stopped short of the $75 for a bottle of this limited edition wine (only 50 cases). This red blend brings together Petite Sirah, Tannat, and Souzao in a bright and bold wine. The dark flavors are subtle and captivating. I lingered over my glass, so I could appreciate the warmth and depth hidden within.

On the horizon

Bob took Sean and I back into the vineyard. As he drove us up the hill from the tasting room, we looked out into the rolling hills and were eager to find out about what was next for this winery. Bob had already told us that, before the year is out, they will have eighteen different wines. My appetite was whet. Of course the soon-to-be-harvested Tannat sample that Bob shared helped.
Tannat just about ready to harrvest

Upcoming releases at Bending Branch will include their first forays into Texas' current favorite, Tempranillo (and if the press is right, they are ahead of the next curve with their already established Tannat). This High Plains Tempranillo comes from great vineyards; I noticed some Tempranillo barrels labeled Newsom in the barrel room. They will also bring out a High Plains Cabernet Sauvignon; their last Cab has been sold out for awhile, and this will take its place. There is another vintage of the Texas Tannat, 2010, due out soon. And the Tannat will also see new life as a port-style wine (Sean is ready for that).

Tannat straight from the barrel

What is best about all the upcoming releases is that much more of this wine is Texas grown and Texas made. In the past, a large number of Bending Branch's wines came from California grapes, from vineyards Bob and Johnathan had relationships with (all California grown grapes are labeled with the vineyard name on the bottle). But now, the Texas grapes will be making more of a showing. The last few years have finally seen the estate grapes come into their own, as well as increase in number. And to increase the production, Bending Branch has formed partnerships with High Plains growers, working with growers like Vijay Reddy, who has been supplying them with some of their Tannat, as well as the Newsoms who are taking part in a cooperative planting of Petite Sirah and Tannat with Bending Branch. This was exciting news.
Souzao in the barrel
 Other wines and grapes are making their way into the Bending Branch menu. The sold out Souzao, primarily from California grower Silvaspoons Vineyard in Alta Mesa, will be back. For now, it is one of the few reds mainly from California, but in a few years, some of that Souzao will be Texas grown (they planted some onsite this year). For me, I am glad to see the return of this unique wine. When I first tasted it, I enjoyed its darkness, and I can't wait till the next vintage.

Getting to hand crush Malbec during one of its three daily crushes

The vineyard and production provided insight to other varietals and blend possibilities for the future, including Mourvedre, Malbec, and Anglianico. They are testing Bonarda (a grape originally found in Italy but is now a rising star, and mainly found, in Argentina). I can personally attest to the Malbec, as I had a chance to work with the fermentation of some, but I'll save that for another post. It is clear that a lot is in store at Bending Branch.

Things to come

Not only did we learn about the new wines about to make a showing at Bending Branch, but we were told about future plans for events and fundraisers. Brenda Young enlightened us to what the winery has planned.

September will see a new event that Brenda hopes will be among their annual events (joining the Derby Party in May). A tennis pro-am fundraiser will take place to help the local Boys and Girls Club. Five pros have been invited to compete, and a number of amateurs will get a chance to play. This multi-day event will also include more than just matches; a young, local tennis player will showcase her skills, and children from the Boys and Girls Club will get to participate in tennis clinics and act as ball girls and ball boys at the matches. Helping the kids is the top priority here, but Bob is excited to enjoy one of his favorite sports. Also, the much admired tennis court (which no one can miss as they park) will get some great use.

Dining space on the porch; overlooking the tasting room

In addition to the tournament, there will be a dinner at the Young's residence. Bob and Brenda gave us a tour of their beautiful home, and we saw where the dinner will likely take place. They have an outdoor kitchen and seating area that looks down on to the tasking room. There is also a large courtyard. These areas will be able to provide ample seating for this additional fundraiser, not to mention provide beautiful views of the nearby rolling hills.

Final Thoughts

Brenda Young sharing stories in her kitchen

I cannot say how appreciative I am to have had this wonderful experience. What I learned touring the vineyard, the crush pad, the lab, and the offices provided me a much greater understanding of wine making, making it very clear this is science and art at its best. I will forever be indebted to Bob for teaching me so much and providing this great experience.

The personal touch that Brenda brought to the visit added to the impact of this visit. She and Bob were kind enough to give us a tour of their home. The modern villa -- as I see it -- stretched out along a rise in the hill. Inside, the joys and loves of the Youngs' are enshrined. Bob pointed out their prized Italian oven painted at the Ferrari plant and the wood floor from Colorado; Brenda shared the history behind the checkered tiles in their hallway. Personal joys, such as the French Laundry (alluding to the restaurant) that is tucked behind the kitchen with everything a person needs to care for clothes and a beautiful screened in porch looking out into the yard where the Youngs can watch their grandchildren play, make up this wonderful home.
The Ferrari painted oven

Tile floor moved from the Youngs' last home in Atlanta, GA

We even enjoyed lunch down among the trees (provided by Mars Mobile Kitchen). Here we had the chance to really get to know the Bending Branch family, to visit as my grandmother likes to say. We even learned that not just Bending Branch is ready to expand, but so is Comfort. Brenda told us all about the new opportunities happening in Comfort. This growth is great for Comfort and its surrounding communities.

All of this is just the beginning. Bending Branch is poised for something big. The additional deck being built next to the tasting room is sign of great things to come. I am eager to see. I hope to see everyone there as this winery makes it mark in the history of Texas wine.

NOTE: I learned so much from this visit that this is only the beginning. In the VERY near future, I will write about what Bob taught me about Bending Branch's growing and wine making  processes, as well as the lessons learned on the organic approach used at Bending Branch (thanks to Jonathan).

Friday, July 27, 2012

32. Dry Comal Creek: Leisurely Tasting and Talking

32. Dry Comal Creek: Leisurely Tasting and Talking
As we let wine flow,
words will follow -- dry, sweet, vital;
we harvest ourselves.

Last weekend, Sean and I decided to take it easy and stayed close to home. We gathered up my mother-in-law and made the short drive up to Dry Comal Creek near New Braunfels. We enjoyed a leisurely tasting followed by a chat over some wine. This impromptu visit allowed us the chance to slowly take the whole tasting experience in.

Dry Comal Creek's Grapes

First, there has been a lot of interest in Texas wineries using non-Texas grapes. I have read a number of responses providing reasons why some wineries choose grapes from other states and countries: there are not enough grapes to meet demand, Texas cannot produce enough specific grapes to meet commercial demand, and even Texas grapes are too expensive. Whatever the reason, Dry Comal Creek is one of those wineries that has decided to use California grapes and juice (as well as grapes from other states) to make a large number of their wines.

Black Spanish grapes at Dry Comal Creek

The one grape they do grow themselves is the Texas terroir's favorite: Black Spanish. As we drove on to the vineyard property, we were greeted by lush bunches of these grapes snuggly tucked beneath netting; they looked very close to being ready to harvest (the harvest and "Order of the Purple Foot Grape Stomp are coming up). To give the winery credit, this is their go to grape; it is the grape that dominates much of their wine offerings (that and the Colombard).

Dry Comal Creeks Black Spanish under the nets, late July 2012

And Dry Comal Creek's Black Spanish offerings are good. Honestly, I am not often impressed by wines that are dominated by the grape. I do realize it is one of Texas' two best grapes (the other being the other US hybrid Blanc du Bois), but I often find the Black Spanish wines a bit off. Even on my first visit to Dry Comal Creek, about two years ago now, I was not impressed. This visit, though, changed me. The current selection of Black Spanish based wines are fascinating and tasty. I am happy to have gone back and given them a second try.

The Wines

Dry Comal Creek Tasting Menu

The menu at Dry Comal Creek is a complex one, providing dry and demi-sweet whites, dry reds, and sparkling wines. That is just the main nine wines on the non-Reserve menu (a tasting that runs $10). Then there are the three Reserve reds (an additional $5 charge that I felt was worth it). Finally, there are two ports, which can be tasted for $5 each (a total of $10 that Sean happily paid).

Considering the breadth of this menu, I will only go into a few, those that most stood out and impressed me. And let me tell you, there were a number of pleasers.


The whites currently consist of a 2011 Dry French Colombard, a 2010 Suavignon Blanc, and a 2011 Demi-Sweet French Colombard. In this selection, the Dry French Colombard is the best. Even on my first visit, I felt that was the case. This wine is crisp and refreshing with strong citrus flavors. I also noticed a hint or herbs that rounded out and dried the citrus. I could honestly drink this white regularly, and I am not a big white fan.

Black Spanish Wines

The menu abounds with Black Spanish wines (the only comparable grape is the Colombard). These include a rose' -- White-Black Spanish IV -- 2010 Comal Red, Foot Pressed Red (this is the wine that commemorates their annual Harvest and Grape Stomp event), and a 2011 Black Spanish Reserve. All told, the reds, in general, were spicey and a bit fruity. When I drink them, I tend to notice flavors like nutmeg. Now, compared to my last visit, these reds are more balanced and subtle; good representations of Black Spanish.

The wine among them that most caught my interest was the White-Black Spanish IV. This rose' is a blend of Black Spanish and Muscat. The Muscat brings a nice citrusy sweetness to the sweet berry taste of the Black Spanish. However, this is not the sweetest Muscat, drier like many I have been drinking lately, so the wine doesn't become ovepowered. Instead, the wine seems to be only semi-sweet. As I drank it, I first noticed the Black Spanish, the ripe, red berries, that ended in the fruity citrus of the Muscat. It was a pleasant blend that moved naturally.


Dry Comal Creek offers two sparkling wines: a sparkling dry and a demi-sweet. Honestly, I  generally go for the dry. One of my favorites is Flat Creek's Sparkling Almond (another wine made from California grapes). For me, the bubbles in sparkling wines tend to set off dry wines better. These dry whites are great for Mimosa's -- a treat I enjoy. So of course I liked the dry, as it was a solid dry sparkling wine.

I was surprised by the demi-sweet. Normally, I avoid the sweeter sparkling wines. For me, they often leave a sticky, sweet aftertaste in my mouth. This is not the case here. The blend of Colombard and Muscat create a lightly fruity wine, one that ends subtly. The sweetness tends more towards the front and softens. When we tasted it, it was recommended to add this to cranberry juice; something Sean hardly agreed with. I think any fruit drink that doesn't tend to be too sweet or some good puree (I was thinking strawberry or peach) would also pair nicely.


During this visit to Dry Comal Creek, there were three Reserve wines: 2008 Unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon (that was paired with the non-Reserve 2009 American oak barrel Caberent Sauvignon), a 2009 Petite Verdot (recently bottled), and the 2011 Black Spanish Reserve.

The Caberents are presented together to allow for comparison. The difference is clear: the oaked one has more depth of flavor that provides subtle earthy undertones and the unoaked (done entirely in steel) is smooth. Though both had a hint of the mineral nature of the terroir, the oaked brought it out and the unoaked smoothed it out.

The one that I liked best was the Petite Verdot. They had decanted it into a carafe and had been letting it breath. By the time I tasted it, and later enjoyed a glass, I was treated to a smooth and silky wine. At first, it swept through me. But on later tastes, the flavors perked up, providing subtle hints of berries, earth, and spice. The best was the spice that developed towards the end and lingered afterwards. And I want to emphasize, these flavors were subtle; I had to sit and take my time with the wine to really notice and enjoy them.


Though I can't detail the ports, as I didn't try them, Sean told me they were both good. The first port, 1096 Port made from the Black Spanish, was robust. However, Sean says the 1096 White Port, made from the Colombard, was the most interesting, providing a soft complex sweetness. He ended his day with a glass of it.


Though it isn't on the tasting menu, we were treated to Franklin's Cheap Sangria. This wine cocktail, combining the Comal Red with lime, orange, and grapefruit juice, was served as a slush. It was a refreshing end on the hot day. What I found most interesting was the different tastes that came through this cocktail. Sometimes I tasted one of the fruit flavors, sometimes a combination. At other times, it seemed more like I was drinking a frozen mulled wine; the fruit and wine had a mulled wine and spicy flavor.

This wine can be enjoyed by the glass ($7 for one or $12 for two) and by the three gallon container (a party pleaser).  Though it is probably good in a more liquid state, I definietly recommend it in a slush form, especially this time of year. Even adults like Icees.

Enjoying Petite Verdot and 1096 White Port in the back room

We ended out visit enjoying the comfort of the back room. The three of us took our drinks to a table and chatted about the problems of the day, commiserating over the wine. Before leaving another party joined our table (it is a communal style set-up with large picnic tables) and joked as they shared a bottle of sparkling wine. It was nice to have a place to drink, relax, and talk inside (so many wineries have very little room inside for this). The three of us left refreshed and relaxed. Dry Comal Creek provided us a nice little get-away.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wine Wednesday: Becker Vineyards Reserve Tempranillo

A few weeks ago, I finally opened one of my bottles of Becker Vineyards' 2011 Tempranillo Reserve.  I was excited when it appeared in my May wine club shipment, but I grew more excited after getting a chance to taste it. I knew Becker had really gotten Tempranillo this time. Their last Temp was pleasant, almost too smooth and silky for a Tempranillo. This one, however, took that silkiness and brought forth the best element in a good Tempranillo, the earthiness. When I finally had a glass, I knew this was one of Becker's apostles (see Drops of God post for details). I knew I had to review this wine (see Wine Wednesday Reviews for more details).
Becker Vineyards 2011 Tempranillo Reserve (my spare bottle)

About the Wine

This new Tempranillo is all High-Plains fruit from Cliff Bingham' and Andy Timmon's vineyards. Bingham, well known for growing high quality grapes, helps Becker deliver a superb wine. To round out the Tempranillo, what will help make it a lush and silky red, is Cabernet Sauvignon from one of my favorite vineyards, the Canada vineyards. These are some of the best Texas grapes out there, and in the hands of the folks at Becker, those grapes turn into an incredible wine.

This is a simple and elegant Tempranillo.  The flavors unfold from scent to final lingering aftertaste. The wine's slow development feels natural and seems to be Becker's signature in the Tempranillo. Many Tempranillos start strong; this one grows from subtle to powerful. At the beginning, there is a mild hint of fruit, but it is dry and warm; this helps the wine veer away from being sweet, keeping it in check. This is necessary as the wine develops. Slowly, the earthy flavors come to the front; the spice, the oak, the tobacco are slowly revealed through the tasting. And as these tastes increase, so does the warmth. By the end, this wine creates a pleasant warmth spreading through the drinker.

The Wine's Story

As I drank this rich Tempranillo, I found myself transported to places I had once been. I first thought of a recent visit to Inks Lake State Park. I also thought of the many excursions my college friends and I took into the mountains when we attended the University of Denver. There were also a number of visits to many other places: walks near my grandparents old home near Lake Travis, hikes onto dirt trails in parks, etc. I imagined myself beginning my day on a cool morning hiking among rocks and unkempt brush. Drinking this wine was a journey I felt compelled to take, one where I would relish every step I took.
Me hiking at Inks Lake State Park, May 2012

A Backwoods Journey

The morning, at first, is cool. The soft breeze rustles my clothes; I relax as the cool rests on my skin. I take a chance and begin my hike barefoot. The blue sky and light-yellow sun bake the rocks to a nice warm cushion. It feels good climbing the warming rocks. I look up and stop to appreciate the sky: it is clear, not a cloud to break up the nearly white pale blue.

Inks Lake State Park

As I travel, I can feel the warmth from the sun become stronger. The rocks are now more hot than warm, but not unbearable. The heat makes the rocks seem harder, stronger. The surface is drained of any moisture, and now I can feel every grain of dirt or silt as I step on it. I feel the particles slip between my toes. It is a feeling of contact, of being rooted into the world. I eagerly embrace it as my toes wriggle and writhe.

This morning quickly becomes a dry day; the cloudless blue sky matches the dry rocks beneath my feet. Before long, I have a nagging thirst. But it is quenched by a bush of berries, blackberries maybe. The berries are warm, barely ripe, and not so sweet yet. I pop one in my mouth and squish it down, letting the the little bit of juice each berry holds slowly dissolve on my tongue.

Refreshed, I start down the rock face into an area hidden by a curtain of scrub trees and bushes. The breeze turns into a soft, dry wind that rustles the brush, As I move past the barrier of trees, I am caressed by the leaves against my skin. The leaves are sun kissed, a soft warmth against my sweat cooled skin.
Balcones Canyonland National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Travis/Lago Vista, TX

Among the foliage, I disappear into a dappled enclave that, on first impression, seems as if it should be cool. I quickly realize that the close growths and the sun have warmed this spot too. I am not hot or uncomfortable; instead, I am cozy and comforted by the enveloping warmth. The growth about me seems almost like a blanket, fresh from the dryer. The morning cold is gone now; the heat works its away past my skin and through my straining muscles. I am relaxed by the soft, dry warmth spreading around me and through me.

I find myself slowing down, growing tired. I stop to watch some sap slowly moving down a tree trunk. It sticks to the leaves that happen to brush against the trunk. I want to stop moving too, to rest. I look for a soft bed of grass. I want to curl up. My body has grown heavy and soft; I feel sleep just behind my eyes. I am content, I am cozy. I am ready to nap and to dream.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Wine Wednesday Reviews: Review Method

Starting this week, I will be trying (I can't guarantee) to provide a weekly review or tasting of a wine. This wine of the week feature will occur on Wednesdays to help readers enjoy their Wine Wednesdays. In these reviews, I hope to provide insight into the wine; I want to communicate my wine drinking experience.

With that said, I should make it clear that I won't be taking the traditional approach. Though I will do my best to present the typical wine descriptors, such as flavor, mouth-feel, and other more physical observations, they will not dominate my reviews. Instead, I will be providing a review much more like the taste experiences presented in Drops of God (for more info, see #30: A Look at Drops of God).

Why I struggle with describing flavors or Why I can't quite take the traditional approach

The traditional approach to describing wines is based on flavor and wine knowledge. It provides insight into how a wine should taste and feel when the reader drinks the wine. However, I am not good at it for two reasons.

First, I am not an expert. I try as best I can to discuss flavors and sensations, but I can only go so far. The reason for this is ALL of my wine knowledge is self-learned. I have picked up what I can from listening to, watching, and reading others. I only have so much understanding, but I try to use what I am sure of.

The main reason I cannot provide a more taste based review, more insight to flavor, is my lack of flavor knowledge. I have crazy taste buds; when I try to eat certain sorts of food or smell them (take for example soy sauce), I start to gag. This hypersensitivity, which is a condition (there are disagreements between it being physical or mental), has limited what I can experience through eating and drinking. I have been left deficient, which causes me to struggle on how to describe flavors I taste in wine.

Why I want to model Drops of God

Now, food may be a problem, but for some reason, I can enjoy most wines; I rarely have a gag reflex (I do have it with most beers and some hard liquor). This realization and freedom lead me to embrace wine; for once, I had something that I almost never reacted to poorly (I could actually just dislike a wine rather than not be able to drink it). But due to my lack of flavor knowledge, I feared expressing my ideas -- often only whispering them to Sean. Then I started reading Drops of God. Suddenly, I found a way to explain a wine.

Drops of God Vol. 4: Wine as a painting

As I discussed in my Drops of God post, the main characters do partake in traditional tastings; they describe flavors, mouth-feel, etc. However, the emphasis is more imagery based. With any of the major wines a character drinks, normally he (sometimes she) will describe a vision of the wine; these visions are more akin to art, poetry, or fiction. Sometimes a scene, a setting, or a moment is presented, as if the drinker is describing a painting or a view. Then there are times when emotion and more intangible sensation is described, resembling poetry. And then there are others when a story unfolds. This I could understand, and this I could do.
Drops of God Vol. 4: Wine as an emotion, as poetry

I have been involved in the creative arts all my life. Like so many, I tried my hand at art but found I was not skilled enough to fully express my ideas. What I did learn was that I could understand and appreciate art. But more than that, I learned that I could paint whatever I wanted with words. I could weave a story that allowed a reader to slip into a world or a life not his/her own. And to my surprise, I could grasp the core of a moment or feeling and convey it through words and images. Knowing I have these skills, I feel comfort in the Drops of God tastings. I know I can express what I experience if I let go of preconceived notions and allow myself to find what the wine inspires in me rather than focus on what it tastes like.
Drops of God Vol. 4: Wine as a story

My tasting experience and how I do it

I have danced around the idea for months, occasionally providing images or emotions conveyed through the wine I drank. Now I have decided to embrace it. Since what I understand is poetry and fiction, I will primarily review wines following the Drops of God example (making sure to bring up at least some flavor descriptors).

However, this will limit the wines I review. Some wines are Kanzaki's Twelve Apostles and his Drops of God, and other wines are just good wine. I have to go with the apostles and the Drops of God; the wines I review have to move me, have to make me sense more than the wine. Luckily for me, I know there are more than thirteen great wines out there; these are the wine I will review.

Once I find an inspiring wine, I then have to sit with it. I have to spend time taking in the aroma, holding the wine in my mouth, slowly letting the wine roll over my tongue. I have to let the wine move through me. As I do this, I sit and focus on what I am feeling, both physically and emotional. Maybe a memory will race into my mind, such as a taste or smell from my past but more often a moment. The wine could conjure up a simple image or physical sensation that floods my mind. Sometimes, the wine reaches deep within me and stirs an emotion. During the best experiences, I get swept up into a little bit of everything.  Sip after sip, I have to let my mind and body react, let it go where it will go. This is how Shizuku Kanzaki understands wine; it is how wine fulfills me.

On to the reviews

I am now confident in embracing this because it seems more people are either interested in or relate to other approaches. Recently, fellow Texas Wine blogger the Texas Wine Geek has decided to provide more visual tastings, ones that rely on colors he notices as he drinks a wine (click here for a great example). I thought if he could move beyond the traditional, if he could break the rules, so could I. I am grateful for him, and others out there, for taking the risk and helping me find the courage to do so as well.

Everyone has his/her own approach to experiencing life and expressing his-/herself, a lesson I try to impart to my writing students. All we can do is communicate what we know the best we can. For me, sharing wine is often a more emotional experience, so I will try to share that in future posts. Wine Wednesdays, here I come.

Monday, July 23, 2012

San Antonio Wine Tastings every Saturday @ Vinously Speaking

We took a breather this weekend and just bummed around San Antonio. With that in mind, I took advantage of a great opportunity in San Antonio: Vinously Speaking's Saturday wine tasting.

A little about this weekly event

Every Saturday, owners Ceci and Melissa invite wine lovers, enthusiasts, experts, and first-timers to visit their little shop in the San Antonio Medical Center (strip mall at the corner of Babcock and Wurzbach). From 1pm until 7pm, they offer a small selection of their wines available for tasting. Their choices vary every week and provide different views of the shop's diverse and interesting offerings.

The weekly tastings are a simple concept: a group of wines, with some theme, are selected and shared. For example, this past Saturday, they shared four reds that are currently available on their 50% off sale (all bottles over $30 are 50% off though Aug.4 ). On Saturday, we were treated to two American Pinot Noirs: an Oregon one that was smooth and lush and a California wine that was complex and spicy. The second set was two Bordeaux blends, one that emphasized Cabernet Sauvignon and one that was more Merlot. I wasn't surprised when they had the same sort of diversity that the two Pinots provided. This quick view into wine, with a hidden lesson, provides more than a mere tasting but a wine experience, and it also encourages visitors to leave with at least one bottle (we brought home one of the Bordeauxs).

Special event tastings

Two weekends ago -- July 14 -- Vinously Speaking hosted a wine tasting event. In this case, they shared a selection of French wines and cheeses with US and Texas wines and Bar-be-Que (see post for more details). When events like these take place, I encourage going. In fact, to keep track, like the shop on Facebook or Twitter or stop by their website.

A regular event at the shop are monthly Texas wine tastings. Once a month, Vinously Speaking will be highlighting some of the Texas wines in their store. I was able to attend their first major Pedernales Cellars event. They are the winery most highlighted, and I agree with their choice. I do look forward to future Texas tastings, as they also carry the great Perissos Vineyard (for a look into them, check out the recent post by Texas Wine Lover). There are a handful of other Texas wines that could provide interesting tastings, especially a diverse collection of Texas whites (like Chisholm Trail, Torre di Pietra, etc.).

All of these tastings are aided by one last fact: price. Wine can be a very expensive hobby (my current expense is quickly increasing). However, Vinously Speaking provides a varied selection at a variety of prices. This weekend I bought one $12 bottle of Portuguese wine (normal price) and one of the on-sale Bordeauxs at $15; these are prices that rival that of larger retailers. So going to a tasting will not clean out your pocketbook; you'll taste for free and then can take home some great wines at reasonable prices. Stop by next Saturday and have a tasting for me.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

31. Independence Day & Bastille Day Throwdown: Wine Tasting @ Vinously Speaking

31. Independence Day & Bastille Day Wine
France, U.S., Texas:
captured in gem-like liquid
and sharing my glass.

This past Saturday offered me a chance to enjoy wine at home in San Antonio. San Antonio's newest wine shop, Vinously Speaking, hosted a tasting event that showcased French, American, and Texas wines. When I arrived, not long after the event's start time, Sean and I entered a quiet wine shop. We had time to browse through the eclectic selection (a well-earned adjective) before starting in on the wines.

The small little store greeted us with a French feel. French music, provided by DJ Phylo, and French goodies -- tasty cheeses -- lead us to the bar where owner Ceci Barretto was pouring five French wines. In the back portion of shop, fellow owner Melissa Unsell provided three unique American wines. Melissa had help from Pedernales Cellars own Shannon (pouring a great collection of Pedernales wines), Michelle from Daphne and Lola (offering a beautiful display of jewelry), and great BBQ turkey from Monz Bonz BBQ. How could this not be a good time?

Vive La France!

French -- cheese -- display
One of the themes of the event was a comparison of French and American wines; however, Ceci's five French wines allowed for a direct comparison among the group, no American wines needed.

French White #2

French White #1
  •  Whites: The two whites from Gascony were both dry and crisp with light flavors that were wonderfully refreshing on such a hot, humid July afternoon. What was most interesting was that the two whites came from nearly the same blend of two grapes -- this allowed for great comparison. Both wines, Cedrus le Blanc and San de Guilhem, contain Colombard and Ugni Blanc (I have to admit, thanks to Dry Comal Creek, I enjoy Colombard). The difference was an almost carbonated, sparkling feel in the San de Guilhem. By adding the grape Gros Manseng (a new one for me), the wine tends to pop a bit. These provided a great start to the tasting. 
Malbec Rose'
  •  Malbec: Two Malbec's from Racine de la Terre in Pays d'Oc highlighted a French varietal less associated with France than the New World. The first offering was a dry, rounded rose' that was light and hinted at its fruitier nature. The second, a typical red Malbec, was as expected from a French Malbec. Malbec, no matter the region, has a depth created by its earthiness. In France, this earthiness seems more like tobacco and minerals, creating an edgy depth and complexity. In Argentina, and in Texas, Malbecs are earthy, but the flavor is a smoother one that hints at softened leather and dry minerals. I reaffirmed my conclusion that I prefer New World Malbecs (though Sean appreciates the French ones).
  • Traditional French Malbec
  • Red Blend: We ended with a more traditional French blend, a 2010 Cotes-du-Rhone Linteau Grenache blend. This wine, like so many French blends, needed to be opened up. Once I got a few swirls in and allowed the wine to rest for a few moments, I found a smooth wine that provided minerals and rich fruit. This ended the French selection well -- so much so that I brought a bottle home.
Cotes Du Rhone with Ceci in the background

And the rockets red glare...

The American selection was limited to three choice, but these three showcased the variety of American wines that match well with each region's terroir and climate.
  • White: The Chenin-Riesling blend from Gravity Hills in California's Central Coast surprised me. I am normally not a sweet wine drinker (as many Rieslings are), especially sweet whites (Muscat being the one exception), but this blend's Chenin Blanc softened the Riesling's sweetness and rounded out the wine well. Honestly, I was happy to just have a California white that wasn't a Chardonnay.
  • Red 1: The Mankas 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon was next. This dark and earthy Cab was not what I expected.  Normally, I find CA Cabs clear and straightforward, but this delightful wine was hearty and smooth with interesting earth notes.
  • CA Cab
  • Red 2: The standout was a Sangiovese blend from Arizona. This surprising wine was bright, like its home state, and smooth. This wine was fruity and earthy. It rounded out the three wine selection for the US well.
AZ Sangiovese Blend

  Don't mess with Texas!

Pedernales Cellars and their fine selection
We ended our tasting with a tried and true favorite, Pedernales Cellars. This is one of two Texas wineries carried (in quantity) at the shop -- the other is Perissos. Shannon, who is always a lot of fun, shared some top Pedernales picks, like the Vino Blanco, the Texas Dry Rose', and the Armadillo Leap Tempranillo. This selection paired well with the final American wine; another warm region with warm weather varietals. The highlight of the three was the rose'. In year's past, this was mainly Grenache, but it seems there wasn't enough Grenache to finish the batch, so winemaker David Kuhlken added the signature Tempranillo (I cannot say enough about Pedernales' Tempranillo). This addition brought a breath of new life to this already great wine. Suddenly there was a power hidden beneath the dry, fruity flavors of this rose' blend. This wine is now energetic; it has a lush, full flavor that got me ready to face the July heat. I was so in love with it that I made sure to leave with a bottle, and I added it to my must buy list the next time I stop by the winery (soon I hope).

After a nice chat and tasting in back, Sean and I made our way to a bustling front room. In less than an hour, the little shop was almost bursting at its seams. This is a nice change from the past. Ceci and Melissa are the third owners of a wine shop in this spot, and I have witnessed all three (I use to live in an apartment that you can see from the back of the shop's complex). In the early days, they were wonderful but pricey for my limited budget. The next owner provided a limited and relatively safe collection of wines (nice but boring). This great little shop, hidden in a strip mall, back behind an always busy McDonald's, and flocked by office buildings, apartment complexes, and hospitals, is a great addition to the San Antonio wine community, and a touch of fun and class on the Northwest side. And on top of everything else, it is a great destination for Texas wine drinkers, with good Texas options and an array of less common wine choices to appease any palate. And best of all, the prices are reasonable and affordable. I'll be back for the next event and when I need a resupply of wine.
A busy tasting room and a successful event!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

30. A Look at Drops of God

30. The Drops of God Tasting
Bursting on the tip,
the wine soaks my tongue, reaches
down and produces visions.

The one thing that most inspired me to write about wine was a manga called Drops of God. This work, written by team writers Tadashi Agi (Shin and Yuko Kibayashi), is a top selling comic that has inspired a wine craze throughout Asia (raising sales of wine in Korea tremendously, as well as reinvigorating the wine industry in the comic's home of origin, Japan). This comic is a bible for new oenophiles like the story's protagonist, Shizuku Kanzaki. The wine lessons are stored within a captivating storyline, bringing readers back again and again. Best of all, the comic suggests a new way to look at wine, one even untrained tasters can enjoy. 

The Characters

Shizuka Kanzaki

Readers enter first through the protagonist. The manga (Japanese comic) explores wine through the discoveries of new wine enthusiast Shizuku Kanzaki. Kanzaki was raised to be a wine taster; his father introduced him to much of the wine growing world and all of the flavors one can find in wine. As a child, Kanzaki was subjected to tasting leather and other odd flavors in hopes that his palate would be diverse and prepared for all of wine's myriad flavors. Being raised by a renowned wine critic didn't help. Kanzaki's father, Yutaka, was a taster and critic on par with Robert Parker (who is regularly mentioned in the comic), and he was Asia's go to wine man. And like many of us, it seemed like his life became all about wine. This led to a growing distance between father and son, which resulted in the son working for a beer company.

Then there are the other characters there to aid Kanzaki on his journey -- the typical hero's journey as seen in works like The Lord of the Rings.  Along the way, Kanzaki has gathered a diverse group of companions to teach him and befriend him along the way.
Miyabi Shinohara
  •  Miyabi Shinohara: This apprentice sommelier is Kanzaki's right-hand gal. She has the wine book smarts he doesn't. Paired with his almost supernatural wine tasting skills, she helps him take on any challenge. And of course, she is the obvious love interest in a subtle romance.
  • Shiro Fujieda: A wine bar owner who does his best to teach the wayward oenophile and provide him opportunities to sample some of the best wine the world has to offer.
Master Robert
  •  Master Robert: A man who seems like no more than a homeless hermit, Master Robert is a wine expert on the same level with Kanzaki's father. Master Robert has forsaken the world, hid his wine, and is enjoying a private retirement when Kanzaki seeks him out for guidance. Master Robert is Kanzaki's Gandalf (to use a Lord of the Rings reference). He guides and aids, but he seeks to make Kanzaki do for himself. He ends up overseeing the competition Kanzaki must face in order to keep things fair.
Chosuke Hanma
  •  Chosuke Hanma: A fellow colleague in the newly formed wine division at Taiyo Beer (Kanzaki's employer), Honma is a classic oenophile who has a great love for Italian wines. At first, he is a bit of a thorn in Kanzaki's side, but he becomes a trusted and helpful ally on Kanzaki's search and journey.
  • The Chief: Kanzaki's boss at Taiyo Beer, he is the friendly older man who quietly aids and directs Kanzaki.

The Story 

The Twelve Apostles (Vol. 1)

With the protagonist and his band of "brothers"gathered, the story unfolds. When the story starts, Kanzaki is finding out about his father's passing, a blow even if they were estranged. As he deals with the sudden passing, he is informed of his father's will. In order to inherit the Kanzaki fortune and wine collection, the biological son must compete against the adopted one, wine guru Issei Tomine. The two begin on a journey to discover Yutaka Kanzaki's Twleve Apostles and the Drops of God, the wines Yutaka took to be the greatest works of wine. Tomine, who studied with the elder Kanzaki, has devoted his life to wine and wants to win. Shizuku Kanzaki feels obligated to win, as if his father was using this competetion to help his son embrace the life he was always meant for. And for Kanzaki, it quickly becomes the path to reconnecting with his late father. So Kanzaki dives in head first into wine, facing off against the wine expert. And so, Kanzaki begins his journey.

The Drops of God

As Kanzaki begins his hero's journey, he will face trials that will challenge him and his place in the world. First, Kanzaki must learn about wine. He has, up until this point, turned away from wine. He has even gone so far as to enter a competing field. Now he must learn everything he has failed to learn in order to face the challenges of the Twelve Apostles. Shinohara is there to fill in the blanks, Master Robert becomes the revered teacher. As he learns about wine, so do we. He learns about types of wine, wine making, and best of all, wine drinking. And as we join him on this ride, we get a chance to learn it to. -- And just to let you know, Kanzaki and Tomine are tied one-to-one.

An amnesiacs vision of wine

Then there are the side quests, which sounds like a video game but is a staple in modern Japanese hero fiction. These side quests provide not just knowledge -- Kanzaki uses these chances to learn more, and often, to drink the wines he can't afford. Mainly, he learns more about wine's role in our lives. Each side quest lets Kanzaki and Shinohara enter into other people's lives. These people's lives are tied to wine, and to overcome what stands in their way -- a failing restaurant, amnesia, an illegitimate child, etc. -- they must come to terms with wine. Kanzaki helps them, learning about wine and life at the same time. These stories tug at Kanzaki's heart, as well as ours.

With all this going on, it is sometime easy to miss the hidden wine lessons. One of the most valuable I have learned so far is one on decanting. Right now, I am going back through to better understand the French system; I am intrigued by the idea of first, second growth, etc. And in the four volumes so far, there is a lot to learn.

The Drops of God Experience

This comic has it all for a person like me. Best of all, it has given me and many others a new insight into wine. Yes, he learn about tasting and the signature flavors of top rated wines; however, one of the most wonderful parts about the book is the wine tastings. Shinohara is on hand to give us the ins-and-outs of the wine, and Kanzaki does tell us about flavors, but there is something more. For every major wine tasted, the character in question, usually Kanzaki or Tomine, experiences it.

During a wine experience, the character is transported somewhere to see the wine's truest essence. The first discovery for Kanzaki is 2001 Chateau Mont-Perat. This Grand Vin from Bordeaux is a Queen. So much so that Kanzaki envisions the British rock group Queen as he drinks it. And it isn't just Queen, it is Queen from the Bohemian Rhapsody video, with Freddy Mercury strutting in all his glory. And that is just the start. Every major wine Kanzaki drinks leads us to a new vision, like a hidden lake with two lovers or, most recently, Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. This wine experience is one any taster can have. As the character takes in the wine and savors it, memories, visions, ideas bubble forth and overtake the sense of flavors. This follows a theory that scent, along with taste, brings back memories. Often, Kanzaki slips into his past, such as a childhood visit to a vineyard with his mother.
A hidden sanctuary vision with the First Apostle

This Drops of God experience, is one any wine love can partake in. For me, I prefer to enjoy wine on a more personal level (partially because, despite having hyper-sensitive taste buds, I can't really determine the elements that well. What I can do is tell someone what it is like for me. The best way for me to approach that is what I feel and see and experience as I taste the wine -- the Drops of God approach. Of course the poetry I write complements this. Even as I have begun recent forays into writing about events and visits, I have focused on that experience, approaching it in a way similar to the Drops of God tasting.

 In the end, this comic has inspired me. And I can't wait till the next volume. With that said, the book needs more readers. Right now, I have to wait until September until the next volume. And the author has requested that the manga's English release skip ahead to the New World wine -- get ready California. If all goes well, they will print the material between Apostle two and where the series will start off "next season." But in order for that to happen, they need more readers. If you are interested, Drops of God is available through Amazon, at most Barnes and Nobles, and from independent comic retailers (I buy mine at Dragon's Lair in San Antonio). Check out this acclaimed series and enjoy a journey through wine.

Friday, July 6, 2012

29. The Dripping Springs Wine Commmunity

29. The Dripping Springs Wine Community
Vineyards to nurture,
passion that fashions grapes
lovingly into wine.

Each one, a place all its own,
but together, community.

Back in late May, Sean and I took a drive north of Highway 290 to see the four wineries in the Dripping Springs area. Our jam-packed day gave us four separate experiences: no one winery was like the other. Along this stretch of highway between Johnson City and West Austin, we were treated to a diverse tour of Texas as we visited McReynold's Wines, Westcave Cellars, Solaro Estates, and Bell Springs.

A Wine Community

What this group of wineries proves is a thought I wrote about in a previous post: community. So how are these four wineries a community? First, they are a group that works together. Texas Wine Lover, Jeff Cope,  recently mentioned this concept in a post of his when describing how many wineries treat one another: they share equipment, help each other out, etc. These wineries live up to this idea.

Helping One Another Out

At every stop along the trip, we were asked where we were headed or where we had been. If we didn't respond quick enough, the place we were currently visiting would quickly suggest the next winery we planned to visit. Most of the time, we were quick to answer. This prompted a similarly positive reply: we were told something special or complimentary about the next stop on our tour. We welcomed these recommendations. In fact, we were convinced to make an unplanned stop at the Texas Olive Oil Company, the olive oil showroom, after many recommendations from every winery.

A Unique Take

These wineries also complement the concept of community being discussed by the Texas wine bloggers. Everyone seems to agree that each blogger brings something unique to the greater community, each provides their individual perspective. In the end, one visit or one event leads to a number of diverse blogs without any distinctive repetition (for an example, see the collection of blogs pertaining to the William Chris Watermelon Thump). The same goes for these wineries; they all presented their own perspective on the wine-going experience.

The Wineries


Gerald "Mac" McReynold's and his tasting room
First up was McReynold's. Here, the mood is its unique aspect. As soon as I drove onto the property, I felt like I was entering into someone's home, their private sanctuary. Everything about McReynold's exudes home. First, the owners are intimately involved in everything: Gerald (or Mac) was mowing and tending to the vineyard and Maureen presided over our tasting. Before we left, they shared a little of themselves and told us stories about the winery and vineyard; personal stories, such as knowing that the tasting room was built by the owner, adds that special touch. And for us, this felt even more like home, as both of them seemed a lot like Sean's grandparents; Mac even physically resembled Sean's grandfather.


Westcave Cellars' tasting room

We then went to Westcave Cellars. What they have going for them is unique wines. The folks here are crafting strong representatives of the favored Texas varietals (the different Viogniers were a treat), but they are also offering a diversity and selection I have yet to see. The number of sweet wines, as well as less common ones like their White Merlot, are fun. I normally don't drink sweet wines, but the balance Westcave brings to these wines makes them drinkable even for dry-loving palates. And, though we didn't get a chance to experience it, they love to have pig roasts. I am eager to get a chance to enjoy one in the future, and I have a feeling their wines pair well with roast pork.

In back of the tasting room


A look into the vineyards from the patio (where we had lunch)
We stopped for lunch at Solaro Estates, enjoying a meal on their extensive "patio" region around the tasting room. This is the place for a one-of-a-kind set-up; Solaro is also a working horse ranch, a sight we saw as we drove in. But they also had a hint of uniqueness in their wines. They tout their Texas-friendly varietals in single varietals, like the Tempranillo and Mourvedre, and in blends, like the Cheval 5 or the Montage.

Bell Springs

The view from the porch at Bell Springs
Finally, we stopped at Bell Springs. This winery provides ample shade. Oaks and other trees surround the tasting room, hiding the gem against a hillside. Here it felt like we were leaving behind the urban world and escaping into a Texas forest. Not only was the physical location an escape but so was the wine. Like Solaro, they chose Texas friendly varietals, but they were often experimenting with less noted ones, like the currently sold out Nebbiolo (note: this wine is not made from Texas grapes). They also have fruit-infused wines. This is similar to Fiesta Winery, but I felt the subtle touch they had in infusing allowed the wines to stand out and not the fruit.

One long day later, we found ourselves driving into Austin. We started the day at a winery that made us feel like we were enjoying a morning with family. We moved on to a modern feel with fun wines and then off to a horse ranch. Finally, we slipped away into a Texas forest. Not once did we find ourselves drinking the same old thing. As the environments changed, so did the wine. I guess the only constant was the knowledge and friendliness of the people we met.

*NOTE: I hope to write more about these great wineries in the future. Look for future posts.