Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tasting at Westin La Cantera with Russ Kane

To celebrate Texas wine month, Sean and I attended the Texas wine tasting at San Antonio's Westin La Cantera. Held in the Steinheimer's Lounge, sommelier Steven Krueger shares four choice Texas wines. We were lucky to not only enjoy Steven's presentation, but the Texas Wineslinger Russ Kane  (writer of the Texas wine blog Vintage Texas) also shared his knowledge and experience of the Texas wine industry.

On the hill, the sun's
last rays settle around us,
dance, glint off the wines.

Each scent swirls, each flavor shines,
for a Texas wine society.

The Tasting

Held at 5p.m. till 6 most nights -- you can check the Westin's calendar to make sure that there is a scheduled tasting -- this tasting is a slow and relaxed tasting of four 2 ounce pours for $10. To make this even better, the wines change regularly, making this a great wine night out that can be repeated. Once the guests arrive, they gather in a more communal style to share the tasting together. This makes it easier for sommelier Steven Krueger to provide a more personable tasting as he serves each guest and shares his wine knowledge.

The four pours are presented on a "mat" that tells the guests the wine, the winery, and some insight on the wine. Most of the information is about the wine itself. Steven adds to this knowledge by leading the group through the full tasting (both encouraging the guests to share what they think as well as pointing out what he notes). In our case, Russ Kane added to discussing the wine.

The mat provides even more information, information that provides more insight to new drinkers (and a nice reference for the rest of us). There is a map that shows all the Texas wineries; it is easy to tell where the winery is located. This coincides well with the winery information Steven provides. And for our tasting, Russ again brought a lot of neat extras to the table.

During the tasting Sean and I attended, there were two whites and two reds. The stand-out, overall, was Pedernales' Tempranillo. This wine is always a great wine (one I always have around), full of fruit, earth, oak, and spice. It provided a strong, bold end to the tasting. The white of note was the Brennan Viognier. This award winning wine was a great counter point to the bold red that ended things. We also had a nice Blanc du Bois and a solid Cabernet.

Russ Kane

Russ Kane joined our tasting to promote his book, The Wineslinger Chronicles. During the tasting, Russ taught us about the wine industry in Texas (from its foundation and the longest running winery in Texas). Russ provided some nice comparisons to other wine industries, both domestic and international. One interesting note was when Russ shared a wine map of the world. Sean and I searched over the map to figure out the places where we had not yet had wine from -- they were very few.

What was most fun with Russ' appearance was all the insider knowledge he brought. He knows the wines we tasted -- the wineries, the wine makers, etc.. The material he presented shed the best of his book; he also connected it to the audience through additional wine education. Best were the stories and experiences he shared. By the end, I saw old facts (ones from the book) in a new light.

A tasting at the Westin La Cantera proved to be a great time. I spent some quality time with some quality wine; I often feel rushed at wineries, but that was not the case here (slow is expected during this tasting). Of course, the information shared by our wine specialist and sommelier Steven Krueger taught me a but more; Russ Kane's added Texas wine scholarship brought the wine and wineries to life. Best of all is the nature of the tasting. As the guests gather around the main table (and outlying tables if the number gets too large), a new Texas wine community forms, sharing their tasting and their own experiences. When you need Texas wine in San Antonio and can't get out to the Hill Country, this is a great escape.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

San Antonio Cellar Classic

Texas Wine Month was celebrated in San Antonio with the second annual San Antonio Cellar Classic hosted by Max's Wine Dive and their new establishment the Boiler House (official opening tomorrow). I enjoyed the chance to meet with other wine lovers and wine folks (the staff from Max's and the representatives for the wineries were very knowledgeable and affable). The chance to taste and experience such a variety of wines of all price ranges, types, and regions was also wonderful. The problem, though, was the event was way too short -- three hours was not enough time for someone with a VIP ticket. Another small issue was the limited selection of Texas wines; few were available with the main winery being one of my regular favorites, Bending Branch. In the end, the wines were all well chosen and interesting, the people were friendly and helpful, and it was an overall good time.

The Basics

First, let me explain the set-up. There were two options -- the general admission tickets and the VIP ticket. The general admission ticket offered a selection of about 40 wines that were all generally under $30. The VIP ticket included an additional 30 wines that ranged in price from the low $20s to Tanji Patton's choice champagne wine at just over $100. The VIP ticket also came with a special "coupon" that could be used towards a wine purchase. No matter the admission, all guests were able to purchase the wines after the event. There were additional discounts based off of case and ticket (there were better deals for those with a VIP pass, etc.). By the end, we kept our spending under control and bought our top six wines.

General Admission

The general admission wines offered the greatest selection and variety. Here, whites and reds went nearly hand-in-hand. The varietals were diverse but leaned toward the most popular ones, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The wineries were also diverse, but provided the largest amount of US wines. This also had the majority of the Texas wines -- three.

One of the Texas choices: El Sueno: Tinto de Tejas from McPherson Cellars

The general admission wines were solid options. Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste as many as I wanted, so Sean and I picked and chose carefully. For us, that means sticking with the reds. There were standouts and memorable wines in this bunch.

Beringer Cabernet
 The standouts in the reds included one of my go-to's, Terraza's Reserve Malbec. It is a commonly found wine and pairs well with a number of meats, especially those with a good hint of spice (which would include nice red sauces). Another was one I was eager to try, the Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon. They had recently followed my Twitter feed, so I was eager to give them a nod back. Well, this wine did not disappoint. It was one of the strongest when it came to complexity and balance. I was quickly taken in by the feel of the wine and was reminded why California is a place for good Cabernet. However, they weren't my favorite Cab. Go figure, it was the special release of the day, Bending Branch's new High Plains sourced Cab (it is to be officially released this Saturday -- Nov. 17 at the winery with the new Tempranillo). This wine shows the beauties of what the High Plains can do, ranking with many of the other strong wines made from grapes from the same region. It was also nice to see Texas wine go toe-to-toe with a longtime California producer. And of course, what made this extra special was that winemaker John Riverburgh came to share the new wine.

John and the new Cab

For us, one of the must have's to try was The Crusher. We didn't really care how it tasted, we just had to try it. Just before the event, Wil Wheaton had posted a picture on his blog with an added blurb on the label. We had to taste a wine that can both be a Star Trek Next Generation joke and a Big Bang Theory Joke. And a side note, Wil is a gracious and friendly guy. We meet him recently and shared our feelings about a role playing game we all play.
Our tastings of The Crusher


The VIP wines were heavy on the reds and provided a greater amount of less traditional wines and locales. The varieties included popular choices such as Cabernet and Pinot Noir, but lesser known options such as Tannat (the Silver Tannat from Bending Branch to be specific) and South African Shiraz. Here, the wines coated the palate and excited the taste buds; it was clear why this was the VIP selection.

There were a few wines we were VERY encouraged to drink. Well, they were right. At our first tasting, we started hearing about Chocolate Box. This was our favorite Shiraz of the day -- the Fairview Eenzamheld Shiraz being the other (which I will cover for a forthcoming Wine Wednesday). These two wines had such an earthiness to them. The earth sang in them, transporting the drinker to wide wind swept lands.

Fairview Shiraz from South Africa

Two other great reds included one of the most expensive (and well worth it) Urbina Gran Reserva and the Alessandro Pedro Ximeniz Sherry. The Urbina practically knocked me off my feet. This primarily Tempranillo blend from the Rioja area of Spain sparked notes of earth and spice, like many Texas Temps, but had the smooth balance that elevates many of the best Spanish Temps. I was so taken I had to buy a bottle. The Sherry, though, we almost missed tasting; we got in right at the wire. This Spanish Sherry was all caramel and nuts; the fruit provided a beautiful roundness and sweetness to the other flavors. I plan on opening my bottle at Christmas, but some days I just want to open it up and drink the whole thing.

I do have to mention the one white that caught my eye. Vicius Albarino was a great wine that was full of flavor. I have only had Texas Albarinos, and it was nice to have a Spanish one for once. And this was a treat. This wine is actually aged, in bottle, on the cool floor of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the passion that drives me to drink and write about wine.

Tanji Patton's Selection

One of the best additions to the VIP ticket was having Tanji Patton from Good Taste with Tanji sharing three wines of her choosing. She provided a rose' champagne, the Ruinart Rose'. After my education during Rambling Rose at Becker vineyards, I was prepared for this treat. It was dry with soft berry fruits. I rarely drink champagne, but this wine was a whole different story.

The Overall Experience

Sean and I enjoying the last of the event
The San Antonio Cellar Classic was a great introduction to many unique and interesting wines. I would recommend San Antonio area folk to attend, especially if you want the chance to explore wine in a relaxed and fun setting. For more on all the wines, check out this year's list.

There are also nice additions. The music was upbeat and created a great mood, though it made talking and learning about the wines difficult -- I enjoyed learning about the wines and the wineries. The food, from great establishments from around San Antonio provided a nice break from all the wine.  Be here again, time caused its share of problems; it was hard to actually enjoy any of the food and really get to enjoy a good selection of wine. Honestly, I am eager for next year and a whole new round of wines. Until then, I will enjoy my bottles and head to Max's for my fix.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fredericksburg Food and Wine Fest

Fredericksburg Food & Wine Fest logo

Texas wine month has come to a close. But during its thirty-one days, I found myself swept up in the excitement and activity (that, Sean's and my birthdays, and midterm grading). This weekend I have some time to catch-up and finally sit down to write, so I thought I would start with the grande finale, the Fredericksburg Food and Wine Festival.

This twenty-two year old tradition took over the last weekend of Texas wine month. Held in the Marktplatz, this festival brought together twenty-nine wineries and other great Texas specialties (craft beer, food, and crafts). The event covers the entire weekend with a multitude of different events, but the main focus is the Saturday afternoon festival. Sean and I went to taste some wines from wineries we have not visited and meet up with a large group of wine bloggers and wine enthusiasts. The day had nothing but promise, and it delivered.

The Wine

Our first stop was the pavilion where the wineries set up. This area was a good fit for it all. The wineries had decent size tables with a bit of room between one another, and there was a large space in the center for people to congregate and enjoy their wine and all the great company (something I appreciated after the cramped space at Dripping with Taste). The weather also proved to be on our side. The grey morning had a nice chill in the air, making the stuffy places more comfortable; the mid-day sun evened things out to a mild and pleasant day.

The Winery Pavilion

The wineries present were also an interesting array: large, established wineries -- such as Becker, Llano Estacado, Messina Hof, Fall Creek, and the three wineries of 4.0 Cellars -- the hill country locales -- a list that goes on forever -- and wineries from hither and yon across the state. I avoided my regular haunts, except a visit with Jen from Bending Branch, so I could try the wineries I never get a chance to go out to. Unfortunately, the tasting price (between $2-$4) stopped me from having any selection at the wineries and even missing some. But Sean and I bought a great collection of tickets and made our way through the wineries.

Haak Winery

And just as the tasting price was a bit of a shock -- Dripping with Taste does a fine job here with the one ticket ($1 cost) per taste -- so were the wines. We found most of the wines we tried mediocre. There were a few worth mentioning, though. The port-style Blanc do Bois from Haak was as everyone has said; this rich, honeyed wine was smooth and sweet. The Crump Valley Merlot was a knock-out red that was complex and flavorful; a perfect Texas Merlot. And the most wondrous surprise was the mead from Rohan Meadery. Though we had very wished it was a Lord of the Rings reference, we were still happy with the mead they brought. Sean enjoyed a more traditional mead and I indulged in their raspberry blend. After that tasting, we had an itch to go to a Ren Fest and hunt down the other Texas meaderies.

Vintner's Experience

Sean and I also decided to take in the brand new Vintner's Experience. It was advertised as a special event with the winemakers from Fredericksburg Winery, Becker, and Grape Creek. The wineries would present either a white, red, or rose. Well, the chance to speak with winemakers was one I didn't want to pass up, especially for only $15.

Dr. Richard Becker and Bunny Becker

Though the idea was a great one, it fizzled out. The company was good: we had a great group of bloggers and friends to enjoy the time with, and we also met a group of people who live near us. But, the event was not as we expected. First, there was only one official winemaker (Fredericksburg Winery). Three generations of Becker came -- Dr. Becker and Bunny, as well as their son Joe and his wife and son. They all had great stories to tell, but I had hoped to learn more about the wineries wine making process. The upside was that the guests were readily available afterwards. It was nice to get a chance to do have a bit of one-on-one time, and the Becker's were the most gracious of all.

Esor Ed Ehcnarg

The wine available to us, the Esor Ed Ehcnarg (Rose de Granche) from Fredericksburg Winery, the Prairie Rotie from Becker, and the Cuvee Blanc from Grape Creek, were all good wines, but these wineries could have really wowed us if they wanted to. In fact, the Esor (as they call it) had a caramel hue -- rather than a pink one -- which put me off a bit. The current Prairie Rotie is a solid wine, but there are much better options in the red category from Becker. The best of the day was Grape Creek's Cuvee Blanc. This is one of their strongest whites and a fine example of the drier flavors found at the winery.

Empty Cuvee Blanc with a untouched tasting in the background

The "After" Party

Sean and I headed out pretty early and found ourselves making a few stops at our favorites. We had a quiet tasting at 4.0. We ended our evening with a group of fellow Texas wine lovers at Pedernales Cellars. Jeff Cope made arrangements with winery owner Julie Kulhken to allow our group to stay a bit late. We all enjoyed their wonderful hospitality -- Julie and Whitney spent a large amount of the time chatting with the group -- and wine. Honestly, it was the highlight of my day. It was so nice to just sit and talk to so many people; the ability to share our passion for Texas wine and our experiences was great. By the time we left, Sean and I were happy knowing that many of our experiences were ones shared by many of our new friends -- good and bad experiences.

Me after my first stop: Bending Branch
In the end, I was so glad Sean and I finally had the chance to go to the Fredericksburg Food and Wine Festival. I had the chance to debut my new wine hat, but best of all was all the people we met. The sad part, though, was that we didn't get to do as much with everyone; we didn't stay in town and were only there Saturday. It seems the entire weekend, at least from Friday forward, was a non-stop party with good wine and good friends. My one day will be enough until next time.

A Festival
The glass fills, recedes. 
Voices ebb and flow, a mate
to the wine: a song.

Memories -- the best souvenirs --
expressions in garnet, gold.