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Women in beverage industry gather to inspire and support

Posted by Ellen Bhang March 30, 2014 05:28 PM


At a recent gathering of women in the alcoholic beverage industry, the message was clear: To do great work, know yourself, operate with integrity, and encourage your sisters.

On March 26th, two hundred attendees convened for the inaugural Women's Beverage Alcohol Symposium in Newton. Organized by Martignetti Companies, a New England distributor of wines and spirits, the lunch event featured a distinguished panel of women leaders in beverage and food. Panelists spoke about how they overcame challenges of working in a traditionally male industry and rose to the top of their fields.

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Moderated by Mary Masters, vice president of Classic Wine Imports / Martignetti Companies, panelists reflected on early experiences in their careers.

"I remember being the only woman in the room," said J. France Posener, Eastern division manager of Opus One Winery in Oakville, in Northern California, recalling most meetings she attended as a young professional. Today, she is thrilled to see women fill a variety of leadership roles in wineries, distribution, importing, and sales.

"I love strong women," Posener said, commenting about the importance of a firm handshake. "The more I feel them, the more I'm drawn to them."

Jody Adams, chef and founder of Rialto and Trade Restaurants, reflected on the early days of building her business. "It takes courage -- taking risks, and getting outside of your comfort zone," she said. Women should know they don't have to do it all on their own. They can ask for help. "It's alright not being the expert all of the time," she said.

Adams also thinks women should affirm their accomplishments much more than they do. "It's important to say, 'I feel enormously proud. I did this,'" she said, rather than giving all of the credit to others.

At the same time, panelists were quick to give props to their spouses, partners, and family members who help with childcare and provide a sense of perspective and balance. Julie Robillard, co-founder of Cabin Fever Maple Whisky, acknowledged that long hours are part and parcel of her job. But she's clear about her priorities, especially in times of crisis. "It's family first," she said.

Andrea Pendergast, operations manager and a third generation owner of Cape Cod Package Store, believes in self-care. "You need to nourish that part of you that says 'I can do it.'" Cultivating inner strength helps you do what is important, she said, like asking for what you need in a business relationship, and holding others accountable.

Joy Richard, beverage director of the Franklin Restaurant Group, thinks introducing people to one another (and being introduced in return) is a great way to grow professional connections. A sense of fun keeps the mood light. "I don't take myself too seriously," she said, describing her style as "lighthearted" but "with integrity."

A question about setting the stage for other women to rise in the field drew thoughtful responses.

"It's important to have a set of core values," said Carolyn Wente, chief executive officer and fourth generation winegrower at Wente Family Estates in Northern California's Livermore Valley. She uses the acronym RISE -- respect, integrity, sustainability, and excellence -- as her guide. "If you are doing that," she said, referring to operating out of those principles, "you are probably doing that for others."

Audience members asked questions about dealing with chauvinistic comments, coaching employees, weathering negative media reviews, and garnering professional respect as a minority in a field. A theme that panelists returned to again and again was that women should lean on other women for support.

While making her remarks, a panelist forgot her thought and became flustered. The speaker next to her put her arm around her. Fellow panelists encouraged her to continue -- a show of sisterhood indeed.

Bottles to try before you buy, presented with fun & flair

Posted by Ellen Bhang March 23, 2014 09:01 AM

Walk into any wine shop on a weekend afternoon or evening, and chances are good that there will be several open bottles to taste. Naturally, they hope you'll purchase a bottle or two, but these pours are complementary. The order of business is a familiar one: You're provided a glass, a friendly pourer offers a measured splash, and tells you about the red, white, or sparkler you are sipping. But each shop crafts its tastings differently.

At many shops, wines rotate with the seasons. That means you won't see rose or a chilled vinho verde in January, or a hearty ripasso in the dog days of August. "We try to keep things stylistically consistent," says Jay Tally, assistant wine manager at Busa Wine & Spirits in Burlington. Seasonality applies to bottles poured by shop staff, as well as those dispensed in half-ounce samples from the self-serve station.

At smaller boutique shops, shop owners can tailor what they pour for regulars. "It's all about customers and their palates," says Michelle Penney, owner of Sea Glass Wine and Beer in Swampscott. Penney had a particular customer in mind when she included a special bottle of Bordeaux in a line-up of French reds. It was a hit with that customer and prompted lively conversation among a group Penney calls her "Saturday night crew."

And while some wine shops might use tastings to promote wines that are not selling well, Phil Minervino, co-owner of Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton Lower Falls, says this is not the case at his shop. His long experience as a retailer informs what to buy and in what quantity. Because he and his colleagues know the inventory well, and taste every bottle they bring in, there is less likelihood that much will languish on shelves. "The point of opening wine is to entice the customer. We want to expose people to wines off the beaten path, and we get valuable feedback," says Minervino.

Many owners delight in choosing pours with a theme in mind. Daniel O'Connor, proprietor of Boston Bottle in the North End, recently conducted a tasting inspired by the Judgment of Paris, the 1976 tasting in which California wines won top honors over prestigious French bottles. O'Connor lined up French and Golden State reds in paper bags, invited customers to score and rank them, and later revealed bottle identities in a follow-up email. "I'm constantly trying to create a fun atmosphere with wines that tell a story," he says.

Thematic tastings are also a specialty of Wine ConneXtion, explains Tina Messina, business manager of the North Andover shop. At an annual tasting dubbed "Battle of the Big Cabs: Rise of the Underdogs," Messina and her staff put lesser-known bottles of cabernet sauvignon up against popular high-end brands. The advertisement is slickly produced, featuring a graphic of two fighters in a boxing ring.

"I tell people I'm in the entertainment business," says Messina, "but I sell wine."

Food-friendly Riojas can be everyday pours

Posted by Ellen Bhang March 3, 2014 06:53 AM

We are always on the hunt for bottles that capture the spirit of a wine region but make only modest demands on the budget. We were reminded recently why a style of Spanish reds from Rioja fit the bill.

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Mid-tier reds, made primarily from tempranillo, the flagship Rioja grape, are categorized as Crianza, easily identified by a bright red label with the date of bottling on the back. They age for at least two years before wineries release them to market, and at least one of those years is spent in oak. (Wines aged for less time are coded on the label with a green block; longer aged Reservas earn a burgundy label.) Most are priced around $15 a bottle, so they represent terrific value for everyday pours. Unlike wines that have been rushed to market, Rioja Crianzas taste like they have some age on them, but none we tried fit the stereotype of aged Rioja reds that have been in oak for so long, they're off-putting to modern palates.

Ana Fabiano is on a mission to educate wine drinkers about these bottles from north-central Spain. As US trade director at Vibrant Rioja, the marketing arm of the wine region's regulatory board, she conducts tastings around the country. "People always say, 'I love Rioja.' But when I ask them 'Which producer?' or 'What style did you try?' they say they don't know." She has seen this gap in knowledge for years. To remedy that, Fabiano wrote "The Wine Region of Rioja" in 2012, a handsome tome that provides a comprehensive look at the history, geography, wine styles, and notable producers.

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We caught up with Fabiano last month at the Boston Wine Expo. One of the wines she was pouring was Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2010. This 100 percent tempranillo offers aromas of cherry, plum, and fennel frond, with a palate of vivid red fruit, smooth tannins for texture, and a spicy finish. Named for Ramon Bilbao Murga, an early 20th-century pioneer known for his expertise in aging Riojan wines, this Crianza is food-friendly. Fabiano herself emphasizes how these wines pair with a variety of fare. "People get so anxious about how to pair food and wine," she says, "but these wines make it easy."

The final chapter of her book offers recipes and suggested Rioja pairings. We plan to whip up a batch of potatoes and chorizo, or stuffed peppers, or creamy mushroom rice, and settle in with this appetizing bottle.

Bodegas Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza 2010 (around $14) is available at Atlas Liquors, Medford, 781-395-4400; and Blanchards Wines & Spirits, West Roxbury, 617-327-1400.

At the Wine Expo, you need a strategy and a spit bucket

Posted by Ellen Bhang February 11, 2014 08:58 PM

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If the prospect of thousands of other attendees at the Boston Wine Expo and 1,800 wines to sample sounds daunting, approach the 23rd annual event on Feb. 15-16 as a time to increase your wine knowledge. And have a plan.

Attend one of the seminars, which many people think distinguishes this expo from others. Jim Carmody, vice president and general manager of the Seaport Hotel, and one of the Expo's founders, says "The seminar program is the backbone of the event." There's a charge for the hourlong talks (38 in all, $25 to $50 per person), which run all weekend.

Perhaps if you're new to wine, start with a tutorial by author and wine educator Kevin Zraly, who has been teaching for nearly 40 years. Or attend one by visiting winemakers from France's Southern Rhone (learn about Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the storied red of their region), or listen to experts discuss quaffs from the Golden State. If you want to branch out beyond California, you can learn about high-altitude Chilean wines, value bottles from Spain, or stellar cheese and wine pairings. Seminars offer several tasting-size pours and can be attended without a ticket to the main tasting room. But even with its thousands of visitors, don't dismiss the exhibit hall too quickly. It's navigable and worth your time. Make a strategy.

Grand tastings ($95 for Saturday, $85 for Sunday) feature 200 wineries. You're given a glass at the door and you take it around to exhibitors for samples. Wine producers are typically arranged by country and some people pouring are the winemakers themselves, ready to tell you what you're sipping and talk about the land where there vineyards are located.

Some Expo visitors take a regional approach, heading to the Italy pavilion, for example, if they want to explore Chianti. Others use a style of wine as the organizing principle, making it an afternoon of tasting bubblies from all over the world. Many attendees will be using the Drync app on their smartphones to order wines and have them delivered home, or simply snapping photos of labels to research later.

Spit more than you imbibe. This is standard wine-tasting practice. If you feel self-conscious about communal buckets, spit into a plastic cup (we bring ours from home) and then dump. Drink plenty of water (pitchers are everywhere) and take advantage of chef demos and the couple dozen restaurants offering snacks and small plates. Some folks are there to just get their drink on (inevitable at an event like this) but they are noticeably fewer in number than in years past.

You'll be in energetic company. Carmody says that attendees in the age group of 28 to 42 are the fastest-growing demographic at the Expo, and 60 percent of the crowd will be women, who are also more often purchasing wine for dinners at home.

By the close of the weekend, you'll be smarter about what's in your glass. And if your memory needs a nudge, open your smartphone.

Boston Wine Expo, Feb. 15-16, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, www.wine-expos.com

Photo credit: Scarpetta Photography

A glass for the pot, for the table, and for the cook

Posted by Ellen Bhang January 19, 2014 08:55 AM

When meat is cooked in red wine, even the humblest cut becomes silky and rich with flavor. Dishes like braised pork shoulder, or the two French classics boeuf Bourguignon and coq au vin, demand a wintry day and a sturdy wine. Retailers will tell you that the bottle to cook with and serve can often be a well-crafted, value-oriented quaff, or something grander.

Boeuf Bourguignon, a beef stew that originated in the Burgundy region of France, begins with beef browned in salt pork or bacon fat, then cooked low and slow in red wine. Carolyn Kemp, co-owner of Vintages in Belmont and Concord, recommends cooking with a bottle from Languedoc in southern France, a 2012 Luc Pirlet "Les Barriques" Reserve Pinot Noir ($12.99). On the table, she suggests a 2012 Francois Raquillet "Chamirey" Mercurey ($25), which she describes as "a satisfying pinot noir that displays Burgundy's ability to convey dark and somber earth tones through medium-bodied, juicy fruit."

Howard Rubin also turns to France for the Bourguignon. The general manager of Bauer Wine & Spirits in the Back Bay would serve a 2010 Domaine du Pere Caboche Chateauneuf du Pape ($24.99), full of cherry fruit and background aromas of wood smoke.

The wine director at Southborough's Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca and the adjacent shop, Panzano Provviste & Vino, recommends a 2012 Tenuta Agricola Castel Sallegg "Bischofsleiten" ($17) for both simmering and sipping. Shaun Snow's pour, made from a rare Northern Italian varietal called schiava gentile, offers a light, bright palate.

All three retailers choose Italian wines for braised pork shoulder. Snow suggests a 2010 Salcheto Chianti Colli Senesi ($17), made from sangiovese, canaiolo, and mammolo grapes. Its acidity cuts through pork fat, he says. Tuscany is also top of mind for Rubin. "For the braise, a simple Chianti would bring out the pork's flavors and add some black cherry and Tuscan spice." He recommends Tomaiolo Chianti Classico Reserva ($11.99). Kemp thinks a 2010 Tommaso Bussola "Ca' del Laito" Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso ($25), with complex flavors of dried grapes, works splendidly for cooking and drinking.

Rubin recalls the late Julia Child insisting on using a French country quaff for her coq au vin and thinks that's spot-on. He recommends a 2012 Les Darons Languedoc ($12.99) a blend of grenache, carignan, and syrah for simmering. Snow turns to Lombardy, Italy, for nebbiolo-based 2009 Nino Negri "Quadrio" Valtellina Superiore ($16), with delicate berry and floral notes. "The finely textured and elegant tannins will work beautifully in accompaniment to the umami notes of mushrooms [in the dish]," he says. Kemp also loves nebbiolo, and recommends a 2011 Produttori del Barbaresco ($19.99) from Piedmont. "It's an infinitely versatile chameleon at the dinner table," she says.

In an ideal life, there's wine for the pot, wine for the table, and a glass to reward the cook.

Bauer Wine & Spirits, Back Bay, 617-262-0363; Panzano Provviste & Vino, Southborough, 508-485-8884; Vintages, Belmont, 617-484-4560 and Concord, 978-369-2545.

Spanish cavas effervesce at Taberna de Haro

Posted by Ellen Bhang December 29, 2013 01:56 PM

BROOKLINE -- Deborah Hansen, chef-owner-sommelier of Taberna de Haro, knows that some people need coaxing to try the Spanish bubbly cava. That might be because a past experience with entry-level cava did little to impress them. Hansen wants to lure them back with better pours than they've tried.

She's not talking about what she calls "huge brands." These, she says, "represent 90 percent of the cava market. But the other 10 percent, grower cavas, are like grower Champagnes." The producers, located in Cataluna in Northeastern Spain, grow their own grapes and take an artisanal approach. Hansen, who opened her restaurant in 1998 and expanded seating capacity last year, offers nearly 20 top-tier cavas on her list of more than 300 Spanish wines.

Like Champagne, cava is made in the traditional method. The second fermentation that creates effervescence occurs in the bottle in which the wine is sold. At a recent cava tasting at her restaurant, Hansen was pouring for a couple from Burlington, their next door neighbor, and another couple, eager to learn about Spanish food and wine pairing so they can offer a tasting of their own for an upcoming silent auction (the cost of $55 includes four wines and five small plates; two of the bottles are available in shops for under $30).

Aromas of Pere Mata Cupada No. 12 Brut Nature remind one taster of sourdough bread (and she's not confusing the scent with the toasted bread draped with Serrano ham). "Bakery aromas are hallmark," Hansen affirms, explaining that the words "brut nature" mean that no sugar is added along with yeast to prompt creation of bubbles. The result is a very dry wine. This producer numbers all of his blends; "No. 12" refers to a summer cuvee that includes the xarel-lo grape.

With tastes of rabbit rillettes and mussels cooked with tomato and fennel comes Huguet Cava Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2007, a truly special bottle. "Gran reserva" wines age on the lees (fine yeast sediment that settles at the bottom of the bottle before it is disgorged) for a minimum of 30 months. This pour, made with parellada and macabeo grapes, plus some chardonnay and pinot noir, offers yeasty aromas, extremely fine bubbles, and a complex puckery tang.

Hansen asks her tasters if they would like another pour. One responds enthusiastically and slides forward her not-quite-empty glass. "You have to finish what you have first," Hansen instructs her. The taster complies, and Hansen refills.

One more cava lover in the making. Little coaxing required.

Pere Mata Cupada No. 12 Brut Nature (about $18) at Marty's Fine Wines, Newton, 617-332-1230; Cellar d'Or, Duxbury, 781-934-6171.
Huguet de Can Feixes Cava Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2007 (about $29) at Martignetti Liquors, Brighton, 617-782-3700; Colonial Spirits, Acton, 978-263-7775.
Taberna de Haro, 999 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-8272, www.tabernaboston.com.

Stars were aligned, so they bought a New Zealand Vineyard

Posted by Ellen Bhang December 8, 2013 10:47 AM

Many wine enthusiasts dream about owning a vineyard. Few turn those musings into reality. When Arlington resident Beth Ann Dahan, 47, tells people that she, her husband, and a business partner purchased 60 acres of vines in New Zealand, and recently produced 1,100 cases of pinot noir, people invariably ask, "Why New Zealand?"

Dahan, a wine educator at Boston University, explains that she and her husband, Arié, 43, who grew up in Paris, fell in love with the pristine beauty of Central Otago, on the South Island of New Zealand. They were impressed with the energetic wines produced there and the tight-knit community of sustainability-minded growers. Looking to turn their passion for wine into a new venture (Arié Dahan and business partner Max Risman, 42, work together in finance) the three launched Vela Wines in 2011. The company is named for a constellation shaped like ship sails, seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

The name of their line is "Twelfth Night" because of something that happened to them while traveling. "It was our first trip to New Zealand to look for a vineyard," Beth Ann Dahan says. "On the twelfth night of the trip, we visited an observatory. We were blown away by the stars. The next day, we found the vineyard." After the moment when the stars aligned, they assembled their team, which includes Anthony Worch, Vela's winemaker. Originally from Alsace, France, Worch and his crew are based at the vineyard. The Dahans and Risman are "very hands-on," says Dahan. "We're in daily contact to make sure wines are the style we're looking for."

At a recent tasting at Menotomy Beer & Wine in Arlington, Dahan poured the 2012 pinot noir, as well as a lively riesling, made with grapes from a neighboring vineyard. Mary Parent, owner and wine buyer at the shop, was the first to purchase Vela wines (currently only available in Massachusetts). "We took them in because they are awesome," Parent says. "When we can tell customers we know [the Dahans], that they live in Arlington, and shop at our store, that's really great."

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As for other enthusiasts who hope one day to purchase a vineyard, Dahan has this advice: "It's wonderfully rewarding, and a lot of hard work. You need to go into it with your eyes wide open."

Vela is hiring an associate to supervise its seasonal crew in Central Otago. Aspiring vineyard owners, take notice.

Vela Wines "Twelfth Night" Pinot Noir Central Otago 2012. A young, fresh food wine, offering aromas of ripe cherry, newly turned soil, and an elegant undergirding of toastiness from old and new French oak. Energetic acidity balances alcohol (14.3 percent) while fine-grained tannins give it some appetizing pucker. Finishes with red fruit and spice. Around $22. At Menotomy Beer & Wine, Arlington, 781-646-0889; Brookline Liquor Mart, Allston, 617-734-7700; Savour Wine & Cheese, Gloucester, 978-282-1455; Curtis Liquors, Weymouth, 781-331-2345, or go to www.velawines.com.

Photo: Beth Ann and Arié Dahan (center and right) along with daughter Elsa at Menotomy Beer & Wine in Arlington.

Plonkapalooza retailers nominated wines they like to drink

Posted by Ellen Bhang November 24, 2013 04:20 PM

When the results of Plonkapalooza, the Globe's annual wine tasting, are published, customers come out in droves. They arrive at wine shops throughout the Greater Boston area with print article in hand -- or, more commonly these days, on smart phones or tablets. Top vote-getting wines sell out quickly. Even after nine years of conducting the annual event, we are still amazed by the response. Readers tell us they refer to the list of wines -- $15 and under, nominated by area wine shops -- well into the new year. In case you missed it, here is the article, "Value wines offer some surprises," along with the list of 50 nominated wines.

The story gives folks a glimpse at how expert tasters select their favorites. But how do wine shops nominate the wines that get tasted? (Starting in the summer, we ask each for a list of five whites and five reds. The Globe purchases all bottles.) Recently, we circled back around to this year's participating retailers to ask them.

"It's a unique opportunity to nominate wines that I myself would drink," says Nicolas Haegeli, Old World wine manager at Colonial Spirits of Acton. "I nominate things that I enjoy, and what customers enjoy." When narrowing down his list, he selected bottles that represent "something a little bit different." A white Rioja is a good example -- many people expect all Rioja to be red.

"It's always fun to have the opportunity to talk about wines with consumers," says John Hafferty, owner of Bin Ends in Braintree and Needham. "At its heart, that's what Plonkapalooza is all about...opening doors to learn about fine wines." Like all of the pours in his inventory, the bottles he nominated represent a "sweet spot" -- notches above commodity wine, but not so high-end that customers are put off by price. We are impressed that Bin Ends offers a South African sauvignon blanc (normally retailing for $13) for under $10 -- sure to please the value-minded enthusiast.

Mike Dupuy, owner of Streetcar Wine & Beer in Jamaica Plain, nominated unique, off-the-beaten-path pours that he carries regularly. Dupuy and staff member Dave Dougan selected wines from the shop's casual cart -- a 30-bottle display that frequently features selections $15 and under. They nominated the Croatian red that earned top marks from tasters. Current stock sold out within an hour of opening. "It's so exciting to see the new arrivals from Eastern Europe, especially in this price point, where people can experiment."

Some shop owners decided to throw in unexpected selections. John Libonati, who owns Social Wines in South Boston with his husband Chris Schutte, put forward a white wine from the Veneto that some might consider kitschy and easy to dismiss. "It's a good solid wine, " he says, remembering how much he and colleagues enjoyed it at a blind tasting a while back. "We're always searching for wines $15 and under."

TJ Douglas, who owns The Urban Grape with wife Hadley, nominated wines that are not only appealing and well-crafted, but bottles that "spark conversation." Douglas gives an example of a Rioja made of 100 percent graciano grapes rather than a tempranillo blend. Chelsea Bell, who oversees events and education at both shops in Chestnut Hill and the South End, helped make selections. "We chose wines based upon a mix of large and small distributors. We always get super excited...there are so many great wines in the $15 range." Ultimately, Bell asks herself the same question echoed by fellow nominators:

"What would I like to drink?"

We thank the following retailers for this year's Plonkapalooza nominations: Bin Ends, Braintree (781-817-1212) and Needham (781-400-2086), Colonial Spirits, Acton (978-263-7775), Social Wines, South Boston (617-268-2974), Streetcar Wine & Beer, Jamaica Plain (617-522-6416), The Urban Grape, Chestnut Hill (617-232-4831) and South End (857-250-2509).

Artisan chocolates pair with sparklers, whites, and reds

Posted by Ellen Bhang November 17, 2013 10:47 AM

SOMERVILLE -- When pairing a beverage with chocolate treats, many brew a French press of coffee rather than uncork a bottle. But if the folks at Taza Chocolate have their way, we might be trading in our favorite mugs for glasses of sparklers, whites, or reds. Taza, whose artisan chocolates are made in a stone-ground style, offers a two-hour evening tasting with wines supplied by the North End's Taranta Restaurant.

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At Taza, banners celebrating Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring deceased loved ones, decorate displays of confections. We can see but not hear the evening shift workers in the factory through a plate glass window and the ambient scent is heady and sweet. Pouring is Taranta beverage director Alexandre Zwicker Galimberti, who has selected small-producer, sustainably grown wines for the tasting. Joshua Mamaclay, Taza store and tour manager, explains to the 14 attendees how the company, founded in 2006, has a direct trade relationship with each of its producers, who farm organically in the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Belize and supply the cacao beans. The $50 tasting includes six wines and six confections.

A southern Italian sparkling wine, made of fiano and aglianico grapes, is paired with a ginger-flavored chocolate. Mamaclay encourages us to sip the wine, wait a bit, and then nibble the slightly gritty chocolate. On its own, the platinum-hued wine is aggressively bubbly, light in body, and completely dry. The chocolate is gently sweet, tinged with herbal notes. "Now, make sure you let the chocolate coat your tongue," Mamaclay instructs, "then sip the wine." The zippy acidity and floral notes of the wine bring the ginger front and center. Wine itself need not be sweet when paired with chocolate like this. Taza's chocolates contain no dairy; flavors are clean and vivid.

Chocolate flavored with kosher salt and black pepper is served with a pinot nero (pinot noir) from northern Italy. (Taranta's cuisine is Southern Italian and Peruvian, so it's no surprise that most of the evening's quaffs are from Italy's boot, along with a selection from South America.) "The pepper really pops," one taster comments. Another declares, "I like the chocolate even better with the wine," Galimberti smiles. These students are getting it. "It doesn't have to be for dessert," he says. "It's something you can have while making dinner."

A Sardinian vermentino, tasted with guajillo chile chocolate, sounds delicious on paper, but the citrus skin profile of the pour clashes with the bitterness of the chocolate. Yet even this combination -- followed by a more successful full-bodied Argentine malbec with a smoky, dark chocolate bar -- makes us think about the possibilities of wine and cacao bean, far beyond the realm of dessert.

We're finishing with a lovely ruby port, the only sweet wine in the line-up, when out comes a chocolate infused with finely ground espresso beans. So we get our post-prandial coffee after all.

Taza Chocolate will hold the next chocolate and wine class on January 9th at 561 Windsor Street, Somerville, 617-284-2232, www.tazachocolate.com.

Picking the grape harvest, rain or shine

Posted by Ellen Bhang October 27, 2013 10:06 AM

LINCOLN -- Every fall, Turtle Creek Winery owner and winemaker Kip Kumler needs helpers to harvest 5 tons of grapes from his 4,000 vines (the grapes are used to make less than half of his total 1,000-case annual production).

It's easy to see how folks would flock to a vineyard on a sunny autumn day. But when you volunteer to harvest grapes for free, and the arrival time is shortly after dawn, and you're faced with venturing out in a downpour, there's a point when you have to wonder if you're a little crazy. On a very damp Sunday morning recently, a dozen volunteers -- 20-somethings to seniors -- suited up for the winery's main vineyard. And there wasn't a complaint in the crowd.

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For Lisa Paul, a nurse practitioner, and her husband, Chris, head of engineering at a software company, picking grapes is the neighborly thing to do. The Lincoln residents harvested pinot noir the week before and are here to pick chardonnay. Paul pushes aside a thatch of grass to reveal low-hanging clusters. Clipping off a golden bunch with sharp shears, she flicks off a damaged grape, then plucks off a healthy one to to taste it. "It's amazing -- the flavor," she says, commenting on the sweetness and the tactile characteristics of the grape skins. "Can you tease out those qualities when you drink the wine?" she wonders.

Janet Rothrock, who educates kids about how food is grown at nearby Drumlin Farm, was curious about the grape-picking experience. "I've picked apples before, and raspberries at the u-pick. I wanted to see how this all works." Rothrock thinks that climate change could one day make New England prime wine-growing territory. "Not that that's a good thing," she says. "That's if we don't do something about it."

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Kumler teaches a class, offered through Boston University, about the vineyard cycle. Volunteer Laura Ryan met him there. "[The class] was, basically, how to grow a bottle of wine," says Ryan, who works in insurance. She has pushed aside white mesh netting used to prevent birds from eating the grapes, and is filling a shallow crate, called a lug box, with fruit. "I'm a big advocate of knowing where your food comes from," she says. "I like to contribute and give back."

That spirit of community is a common theme in the group. David Jammalo, a home winemaker from Ashland, also picks for a New Hampshire grape grower. Gina Koprowski, an avid cyclist, regularly rides by the vineyard, then took a tour of the winery, and signed up for its wine CSA. Former Texas residents Bill and Shari Price, who just recently moved to Massachusetts, are thrilled to connect with new neighbors.

Kumler knows the attraction for the pickers is more than curiosity. "Wine touches them in ways that are personal," says the winemaker. "They have an instinct to learn more. They get satisfaction handling the grapes. People become invested in it."

In turn, he would be lost without the volunteers. "As a small winery, I have to be integrated into the community," he says. "There are benefits to that."

His rain-soaked volunteers would probably agree.

Turtle Creek Winery, www.turtlecreekwine.com

Sherry expert Peter Liem in Boston

Posted by Ellen Bhang October 17, 2013 07:59 AM

If you love sherry, but missed Sherryfest -- the premier event held in New York earlier this month celebrating these distinctive Spanish wines -- you are in luck. This Saturday, October 19th from 3 - 5pm, sherry expert and wine writer Peter Liem will come to Boston for a reception at Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain. He will be signing his book, "Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla: A Guide to the Traditional Wines of Andalucia." When this book was published last year, it introduced enthusiasts to the modern world of artisanal sherry and the bodegas that produce them.

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A reception and book signing will be open to the public, with books available for purchase. Liem will also lead a guided sherry tasting, including food pairings, during the event. The guided tasting will be limited to 24 people ($10 with purchase of book, $25 without purchase of book) and reservations are a must. To reserve a spot at the tasting and for more information, please contact the restaurant at 617-477-4851 or at tresgatosfd@gmail.com. After the event, the party will continue (with more sherries to taste, of course) at Streetcar Wine & Beer, just down the street.

We hope it's just a matter of time before the launch of a Sherryfest Boston.

A copper-colored wine confounds sommeliers

Posted by Ellen Bhang October 6, 2013 11:28 AM

It's a talented wine that can upend assumptions. We're talking about a pour, one you might mistake for a rosé , that we're seeing more often around town. But color is where the similarity ends. These bottles, with deeper aromas, a weightier mouth feel, and velvety texture, are marching to a different drummer. To make them, winemakers take red or black grapes, handle them as if making white wine, and turn out these salmon-hued quaffs.

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One is Siegrist Blanc de Noir, made in 2010 by Thomas Siegrist, Siegrist's daughter Kerstin, and son-in-law Bruno Schimpf, in the German region of southern Pfalz. Blanc de noir, a French expression that translates as "white from black," is more commonly used to describe Champagne made from deep-hued pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. The Siegrist wine is copper colored -- not quite white, but definitely not red -- made with a blend of frühburgunder (pinot madeline) and cabernet sauvignon.

After the grapes are gently pressed, grape skins are separated from the juice. That juice is then fermented in stainless steel without skins. Yet it's apparent that even initial contact with skins -- full of pigment, flavor and puckery tannins -- lends intriguing weight and a velvety texture to the final product. Red fruit flavors like tart cranberry and a spritz of pink grapefruit make this a rich yet invigorating sip, perfect to pair with roast chicken, game birds, or richly sauced fish.

Damon Goldstein, owner of Truly Fine Wine, Inc., the importer of Siegrist wines, assures us that this style is not just a fashionable flash in the pan. "The Germans have been doing this for quite some time," he says. "It's more common to see it there than here."

The Siegrist family offers these bottles as a different expression of black grapes. Historically, the wine has been made from 100 percent pinot noir, but the 2010 harvest did not yield enough fruit to make both blanc de noir and the line of reds. So early-ripening pinot madeline and cabernet sauvignon were pressed into service. The wine confounds sommeliers who taste it blind.

Recently, Goldstein challenged some wine professionals to identify the blanc de noir. "I told people there, a lot of them somms, that I'd give them a bottle if they could guess what this wine was. Not a single person in the room could identify it."

Most agreed on one thing: They loved it.

Siegrist Blanc de Noir 2010 (around $20), at The Spirited Gourmet, Belmont, 617-489-9463; Boston Wine Exchange, Financial District, 617-422-0100.

A new importer lauds artisanal lambrusco

Posted by Ellen Bhang September 15, 2013 09:41 AM

When Bay State native Nick Mucci, 28, decided to launch his own company, Mucci Imports, and bring in small producer Italian wines, he imagined he'd have a few adventures along the way. But he never expected to be chased out of an inn by a burly restaurant owner wielding a salami.

Mucci and his girlfriend, Kelsey, were living and working in Rome, and looking to have lunch with a wine producer in Modena. They hopped on a train and arrived at a restaurant the producer had suggested. The owner appeared displeased that they arrived after the lunch hour. "What are you doing? What are you thinking?," he bellowed, waving a whole salami above his head. It turned out he was joking with the American visitors and invited them in for what Mucci describes as one of the memorable meals of his life. The bottles of lambrusco they drank that day -- fizzy, dry reds from nearby Cantina della Volta -- were just as remarkable.

Dry lambrusco wines, traditionally red, are quite popular right now. Once only associated with sweet, bubbly Italian quaffs, especially in the U.S. market, lambruschi have their artisanal counterparts. Tweets with hashtags like #ReThinkLambrusco and websites like www.LambruscoDay.org drive discussion about these unique reds, which range from frizzante (gently fizzy) to spumante (sparkling). Lambrusco describes a family of grapes that are made into food-friendly pours, bright with lip-smacking acidity, and excellent with salumi and pizza. Mucci now imports the stellar wines he tasted that day in Modena.

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Today, Mucci, who lived in Italy for three years and went on to get an MBA in food and wine at the University of Bologna, might be found in a wine shop talking about his bottles. Recently, at Ball Square Fine Wines in Somerville, a dozen or so 20- and 30-somethings gathered for a tasting. "How many of you have heard of lambrusco?," Mucci asks, raising the bottle with a flourish. Tasters glance around timidly; no one raises a hand. "You're going to love this," he says, pouring tastes of Cantina della Volta's Lambrusco di Modena Spumante. "Maybe you've had prosecco?," he asks, seeing people react positively to the bubbles. Lots of head-nodding. "Unlike prosecco, [this lambrusco] is made in the traditional method, the same way they make champagne." Mucci explains that there are two fermentations, the second of which creates bubbles in the bottle in which the wine will be sold.

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"I try to be as hands-on as possible, to make it fun," he says. "I can't put a price tag on the experiences I've had living in Italy, getting to know the people who make the wine there...I want to be an ambassador for these wines. There's so much to learn."

He'll probably never have to brandish a salami to win fans.

Cantina della Volta Lambrusco di Modena Spumante 2009 (Around $24) available at Ball Square Fine Wines, Somerville, 617-623-9500; American Provisions, South Boston, 617-269-6100, or go to www.mucciimports.com.

Distinctive French pinks make summer dishes shine

Posted by Ellen Bhang August 25, 2013 08:39 AM

Many wine drinkers will tell you that white wines are too mild for steak and bold reds overwhelm a green salad. But when faced with selecting a bottle to pair with more complicated dishes, hand-wringing ensues. That's where a dry rosé fits in, in this case two French pinks that will make even the trickiest end-of-summer dishes shine. The key to their versatility is how they're made.

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In the sunny southern Rhone, Tavel has long set the benchmark for quality rosé. On the mountainous Mediterranean island of Corsica, Domaine de Vaccelli makes wine from organically grown grapes from 50-year-old vines.

The goal of winemakers in Tavel is to make purposeful pink, meaning that these bottles are not afterthoughts of red winemaking. Grapes are allowed to ripen so skins lend flavor and interest to the finished product, but they're picked early enough to preserve food-friendly acidity.

Prieuré de Montézargues housed in a 12th century abbey, makes a rosé from grenache noir, grenache blanc and cinsault grapes. It's a rosy salmon pink; aromas are generous, offering ripe peaches, raspberries, green herbs and a touch of mineral stoniness. This is an elegant, lush style of rosé -- higher in alcohol (13.5 percent) than apéritif-weight pinks. It gains color and appetizing bitterness from the grape skins, which soak with the gently pressed juice for 12 hours before the liquid is drained away for fermentation. This wine made us nostalgic about a trip to the south of France where we encountered a robust, garlicky salad full of fresh herbs and bitter greens. Nestled alongside was a hearty pâté dusted with dried thyme and lavender. This dish called for a sturdy, thirst-quenching pink. Fortunately, there were plenty on hand. Back home, we understand why these wines continue to be favorites of wine professionals. Recently, we experienced how another well-made rosé bridged the ingredients of a unique dish.

On the menu of Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square, we spied an appetizer of crispy pig tails served on watermelon salad. Chunks of the red-fleshed fruit were infused with agave syrup and hibiscus, and crowned with mint, cilantro, and chili peppers.

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This cut of pork offers unctuous meat on the bone. But what wine would pair with both fatty meat and melon? Wine director Colleen Hein suggested the Domaine de Vaccelli rosé, which is named "Juste Ciel!" (translation: "Good Heavens!") made from cinsault and grenache grapes, grown on granitic soil for which the Corsican region of Ajaccio is well known. This chilled, coppery pink quaff offers aromas of peach and a minerally palate tinged with grapefruit peel and saline. It cut through the richness of the pork, elevated the sweetness of the melon, and cooled the chili heat. We envision pairing this wine with Cambodian beef, red onion, and toasted lemongrass salad; or marinated hearts of palm, whose artichoke-like flavors would trump other wines.

Fill your salad bowl with summer's bounty, uncork a distinctive rosé and entertain with confidence.

Prieuré de Montézargues Tavel 2012 (around $23), at Winestone, Chestnut Hill, 617-264-0393.
Domaine de Vaccelli "Juste Ciel!" Rosé 2012 (around $18), at Vintages, Belmont, 617-484-4560.

Sitting near the vines, glass in hand, to watch the sunset

Posted by Ellen Bhang August 4, 2013 08:23 AM

If you've ever strolled through a vineyard at sunset, you know how stunning the view can be. Combine vistas of vines with food, wine, and music, and you have everything you need for a sublime summer evening.

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On a recent Friday, we fled the city to picnic and listen to music at Westport Rivers, located on the Coastal Wine Trail in Southeastern Massachusetts. This is the sixth year that the Russell family, which owns and operates the winery, has held the Sunset Music series. "It started as a way to bring together the local community to enjoy the beautiful sun as it sets over the vineyard while listening to talented local performers," says Alan Stewart of Westport Rivers. "It has grown over the years. People come from as far away as southern New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Western Massachusetts." The cost is $10 per carload.

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Early in the evening, we see the grounds already packed with friends, families and couples. Blankets, lawn chairs, and coolers seem to cover every square inch of the expansive lawn. The picnic pros have brought low portable tables on which to set their feasts. There's plenty of wine and food to buy. At a table set up under the trees, we order the winery's pinot noir rosé, then walk over to where Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farms is shucking clams (the oysters sold out within the first 30 minutes). We settle on our blanket and make new friends with the couples behind us. One fellow is munching on a burger -- Little Compton Catering is grilling on-site. As the band begins to play Americana and folk-rock, some couples get up to dance. One dad bounces his young son in his arms. As the setting sun casts its glow over the crowds and rows of lush vines, Bill Russell, Westport Rivers' winemaker, is beaming. "Everyone just comes for a good time," he says.

At Truro Vineyards of Cape Cod, you can attend the Wednesday night series called WAAM (wine, art, appetizers, and music). Every evening sells out; the cost is $35 per person. "People come right when the sun is setting and they see all that gorgeous light. It's a whole sensory experience," says Nicole Gelinas. She thinks getting away to sip wine and eat farm-to-table fare under the open-sided pavillion is just what people want. Each WAAM features small plates from a local chef paired with vineyard wines. Recently, 75 guests sipped glasses of vignoles, a semi-sweet white, alongside striped bass ceviche, while listening to a jazz and blues duo. Events include a pop-up gallery featuring local visual artists -- a sculptor one night, a landscape artist the next. As Gelinas says, "It's food for the senses."

Sunset Music at Westport Rivers, 417 Hix Bridge Road, Westport, 508-636-3423, www.westportrivers.com, through September 14. Wednesday night WAAM at Truro Vineyards, 11 Shore Road, Route 6A, North Truro, 508-487-6200, www.trurovineyardsofcapecod.com, reservations a must, through Aug. 28.

Celebrate Massachusetts wine at the Greater Boston Wine Festival

Posted by Ellen Bhang July 20, 2013 01:04 PM

Enthusiasts of Massachusetts wine can sample more than 70 pours at the Greater Boston Wine Festival on Sunday, July 28th at the Marshfield Fairgrounds. Organized by the Massachusetts Farm Wineries & Growers Association, this event will celebrate Bay State wines and feature live music along with tasty nibbles of cheese, chocolate, seafood chowder and wood-fired pizza. The Boston Wine School will be offering mini-seminars if you'd like to brush-up on your wine knowledge.

Asked how this differs from the wine festival held at the end of June in Westport, Kim LaFleur of the growers associaton explains that wineries from all over the Bay State will attend this event, not just those from the Coastal Wine Trail in Southeastern New England. Bottles for take-home purchase and samples for tasting will be poured by the following fourteen wineries:

Amherst Farm Winery
Balderdash Cellars
Coastal Vineyards
Green River Ambrosia
Hardwick Vineyard & Winery
Les Trois Emme Vineyard & Winery
Mineral Hills Winery
Mill River Winery
Mount Warner Vineyards
Still River Winery
Travessia Winery
Truro Vineyards
Westport Rivers Vineyard & Winery
Zoll Cellars

Pre-ordering tickets looks like a must. Attendees can choose one of two sessions (session I, 11am - 2pm; session II, 4pm - 7pm). Admission to the festival is $45 per person, plus a $5 (cash only) banding fee. (Friendly folk will make sure you're 21 and attach a wrist band so you can sample wines on offer. You'll also get a glass, wine tote and event program.) Go to www.masswinery.com or masswinery@gmail.com for more information.

On this tour, you'll walk for wine

Posted by Ellen Bhang June 30, 2013 08:50 AM

Nine of us are seated at high bar tables in a corner nook of Gaslight Brasserie du Coin in Boston's South End, paying attention as guide John Fiola (also known as a "wine ambassador") demonstrates how to open a bottle of bubby. "You twist the bottle, not the cork," he instructs the group. "Six twists." On that final turn, the cork releases with a gentle thwup -- not the explosive pop many expected. "Anticlimactic, for sure," Fiola quips, "but better than half the bottle gushing onto the floor." The group chuckles. He pours. We sip the pink sparkler and nibble steak tartare on mini toasts. This is the first stop on a two-hour tour.

City Wine Tours was founded in 2011 by entrepreneurs Daniel Andrew, Rick Goldberg, and Christian Iannucci, to offer afternoon walking tours, year-round on weekends ($56 to $66 per person). They hit three destinations -- usually restaurants, sometimes a wine shop -- where two glasses of wine and small plates are served at each stop. Local sommeliers and wine educators lead the groups, offering helpful hints about wine and insights about neighborhoods.

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From the Brasserie, we head out into the sunshine and walk up Harrison Avenue. In a sky blue collared shirt and red cap, we won't lose Fiola in a crowd. Fiola is a wine educator, certified by the internationally recognized Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Participants have arrived mostly in pairs; with all of the hand-holding, it appears to be a romantic afternoon for most of these couples.

At Cinquecento, a Roman-style trattoria that opened this spring, we fan out down the length of the bar. The ceilings are high and it's hard to hear. Fiola is at one end, sharing tips about spotting values on a wine list. One attendee pipes up with a question about Orvieto, the white we are sipping with salumi and cheese. Then a carafe of nero d'avola prompts a couple to talk about a trip to Sicily. Finally, the group is warming up, and dialogue continues as we walk through Peters Park. We learn that the South End used to be a strip of land surrounded by tidal marsh before it was filled in with soil from Needham. Then came the stately brownstones and years later, fashionable restaurants.

Masa is our final destination. Salsa music is playing on the sound system and conversation flows as we taste a Spanish rosé and a sturdy Chilean carmenere. The tapas have withered under a heat lamp before our arrival. But the tasty pours and the walk in the sunshine have put everyone in a festive mood.

At a nearby booth, a family has ordered sparkling wine. Their server struggles, and the cork dislodges with an explosive pop. Fortunately, no frothy dribble.

We look at one another. That wouldn't have happened to any of us. Six turns of the bottle. Worth the price of admission.

City Wine Tours are held Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the South End, North End, Back Bay, and Harvard Square. Call 855-455-8747 or go to www.citywinetours.com.

You may not like chardonnay, but you'll love chablis

Posted by Ellen Bhang June 9, 2013 05:44 PM

The instant a wine professional hears this from a customer: "I don't like chardonnay, too buttery, too much oak," it's the perfect opportunity to introduce chablis. This classic Burgundian white offers a fresh, steely profile that manages to change minds, even with the delightful irony that chablis is made with the chardonnay grape. The customer probably doesn't have a quarrel with the grape, but with how New World winemakers barrel-ferment in new oak or overuse oak chips.

Sommeliers and retailers agree that chablis and seafood of every stripe is a match made in heaven. Ralph Hersom, wine director of Ralph's Wines & Spirits in Hingham (now in a new location on Lincoln Street), loves these bottles. "Chablis is the truest expression of chardonnay," he says. "It's a wine with a sense of place." A former wine director at New York's Le Cirque restaurant, Hersom says the best chardonnay in the region grows on sun-catching, southwest-facing slopes with Kimmeridgean soil underlying the best vineyards. In some, fossilized oyster shells are in the limestone and clay, deposited millions of years ago when the land was an ancient sea bed. Could this be a reason why these pours are so delicious with shellfish?

Hersom's wife, Kim, a personal chef, will offer in-store food and wine pairings this summer. Chances are good that chablis paired with seafood will be on the docket. And if a $42 chablis premier cru is out of your range, Hersom recommends a $15 La Chablisienne "Pas Si Petit" Petit Chablis 2011 (a category grown in less prestigious vineyards, but quite nice from this producer). He's enthusiastic about pairing tasty bites with stellar pours. "Once a somm, always a somm," he says.

Recently, we met visiting Christian Moreau, owner of the domaine that bears his name, at Island Creek Oyster Bar. The winemaker lived in Canada for 11 years, then returned to Chablis in the 1970s to help his father, Guy, with the vineyard. Today, Christian Moreau's son, Fabien, the sixth generation, runs the domaine. "I tell him, 'Make the chablis that you like,' " says the father, heartily endorsing his son's skills in the cellar and decision to move toward organic viticulture.

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Results show in a glass of Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis 2011, an elegantly structured wine with refreshing acidity, pear and citrus notes, and tasting unmistakably of the region's mineral aroma and tang. Restaurant general manager Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli explains that these crisp whites show off the oysters' "merroir" (a play on the word "terroir").

For a splurge this summer, Schlesinger-Guidelli recommends chablis grand cru with lobster dipped in butter. This top-level of chablis is matured in oak -- but artfully so, lending dimension and richness.

So you'll love chablis, and you may also learn that you love chardonnay aged in oak -- just done the right way.

Refreshing & dimensional, these vinhos verdes shine

Posted by Ellen Bhang May 19, 2013 11:12 AM

Vinho verde is wine we only thought we knew. Fruity and refreshing with a hint of fizz, most of these budget-friendly, low-alcohol wines from northwest Portugal offer tasty, albeit simple, sips. But recently at The Blue Room in Cambridge's Kendall Square, we tasted two beautiful bottles that opened our eyes to what vinho verde (pronounced "veeng-yo vaird") can be. We just had to meet the right producers.

Pedro Araujo, owner of Quinta do Ameal, explained how vinho verde wines were traditionally produced by small estate farmers. Grapes were picked young, even a bit unripe (hence the descriptor "verde" which translates as "green"). Naturally occurring bubbles cushioned the rustic acidity of these wines. Today, he says, and doesn't seem particularly happy about this, the region is dominated by big companies whose methods of mass production leave unexplored the character and potential of these wines. When he began making wine in the 1990s in the subregion of Lima, using the indigenous loureiro grape, he was determined to farm organically and reduce yields for better fruit. "This region can produce the greatest of white wines," he insisted. "This," he said, pouring his Quinta do Ameal Branco Seco 2011, "is a serious white." Pale yellow and silvery in hue, this wine has no bubbles. Aromas are fresh with floral and mineral notes. Acidity is moderate -- restrained compared to the rollicking acid of other styles from the region. Subtle and refined, this is serious winemaking indeed.

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We also met Jose Diogo Teixeira Coelho, winemaker at Quinta da Raza, and chatted with his wife, Mafalda, a petite force of nature. Their estate, located in Basto, the most inland of the Vinho Verde subregions, has been at the center of the family's winemaking since the 1860s. About 20 years ago, they relocated their vineyards to hillside slopes for better sun exposure and made cellar improvements. Their Raza Vinho Verde Branco 2011 is crafted from native grapes arinto (for complexity) and azal (for citrusy tartness). Day-bright in the glass, this white conveys aromas of lemongrass and pear with a citrusy palate of spritz. The winemaker called it "an honest wine" that expresses the best these grapes have to offer.

A warm spring evening found us at Oleana, chef Ana Sortun's homage to flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean in Cambridge. Lauren Friel, wine director, is offering the Raza Vinho Verde as a "blackboard wine" for $9 a glass. These special pours change with the seasons and are on offer only at the bar. Paired with crisp battered fiddleheads on creamy tahini and crostini of spring peas and octopus, the wine complemented these dishes winningly, playing well with fragrant spices like coriander and cumin. Soon after our first sip, we opted for a bottle of this honest wine. It was too good for just one glass.

Quinta da Raza Vinho Verde Branco 2011 available at Formaggio Kitchen South End, 268 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, 617-350-6996. Quinta do Ameal Branco Seco 2011 at Concord Provisions, 73 Thoreau Street, Concord, 978-369-5555; the Branco Seco 2010 at Social Wines, 52 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-268-2974.

Sommelier Society event benefits those hurt in marathon bombings

Posted by Ellen Bhang April 20, 2013 04:52 PM

Wine professionals live to serve. So it's no surprise that the Boston Sommelier Society is doing all it can to help those hurt by this week's marathon bombings. This down-to-earth group of wine professionals and enthusiasts will host its first Spring Bottle Bash 2013 tomorrow, Sunday, April 21st, from 6pm to 10pm at Moksa in Cambridge's Central Square. Tickets, available online, are $50 each, and all proceeds will go to The One Fund Boston, Inc., announced by Governor Patrick and Mayor Menino to aid those most impacted by the bombings.

For the leadership of the Boston Sommelier Society, it was an easy decision. The board of directors decided Tuesday morning to make aiding bombing victims the event's priority. "All are on board," says John Fiola, secretary of the organization. "It was a quick decision." Teaming up with the somm society for this event is Boston-based Drync , which will donate proceeds from Spring Bottle Bash wines purchased via its smartphone app.

Naturally, more than a dozen great wines from around the globe will be poured. We spied a chateauneuf-du-pape, an Australian cab-shiraz and our state's very own Westport Rivers RJR Brut among the offerings. Tasty Pan-Asian bites will be served up from the kitchen. Raffle prizes and a silent auction will add to the fun. And if wine is not your beverage, Noon Inthasuwan-Summers, Moksa's beverage director, promises to mix up a scintillating cocktail; and Craft Brewers Guild of Boston will provide beer. Let's all raise a glass to hope and healing for our city.

Get your groove on at Wine Riot

Posted by Ellen Bhang April 6, 2013 09:17 AM


When the doors of Park Plaza Castle opened at 7 o'clock, these rioters hit the floor, eager to learn about wine along with hundreds of fellow hipsters.

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Wine Riot, a twice-yearly tasting produced by Second Glass kicked off its 2013 national tour in Boston on Friday night. This event (sold out the entire weekend) is not your average walk-around. Crowds of 20- and 30-somethings in skinny jeans, stemless recyclable glasses in hand, were entertained by a DJ pumping out tunes on a club-worthy sound system. (We assure you it was bumpin'.)

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Armed with the Second Glass smart phone app to rate each pour, they sampled more than 250 wines from 70 winemakers from New Bedford to Bordeaux. Ooey gooey treats from Roxy's Gourmet Grilled Cheese and Aussie meat pies from KO Catering and Pies were on offer to soak up the sips. And did we mention the photo booth with props like sombreros and feather boas? Or if posing for the camera is not your thing, how about a temporary tattoo?

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But lest you think this is all mindless revelry, it's really wine education (we swear!) packaged for the next generation of wine drinkers. No stuffy wine-speak here. Just ask John Hafferty of Bin Ends, on hand to provide wine education. Under the banner of "Old World vs. New World," he and his crew conducted a compare-and-contrast of two merlot blends -- a Haut-Medoc Bordeaux vs. a Napa Valley Meritage. "We designed it so tasters can try them [side-by-side], taste the differences, and see what they like." Rioters could also attended 20-minute seminars. The one we attended was hosted by Tyler Balliet, founder and CEO of Second Glass, highlighting California wines from Paso Robles. Although cordoned off from the main exhibit floor, the ambient soundtrack curtailed any in-depth education. But no worries. It was probably no worse than studying with your ear-buds in.

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Most tasters rolled in with friends. We spotted a group of four sporting Wine Riot T-shirts they silk-screened themselves. Asked how they heard about the event, Cassandra, a talented designer of steampunk jewelry, pointed to her wine enthusiast friend Greg, who spearheads their urban wine adventures along with friends Stephen and Ana. Adam and Maria, a young couple sampling wines at the Languedoc booth, shared that this is their "crash course" before a summer trip to France.

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Fred, from JP, along with pals David and Nat from the South End, are all west coast transplants. You couldn't shut them up about Boston's food and wine scene even if you tried. Like us, these friends can't wait until October. That's when Wine Riot returns to Boston for a groovy round #2. We'll be there -- skinny jeans and all.


Navigating the Boston Wine Expo: Tips for first-timers

Posted by Ellen Bhang February 8, 2013 12:15 PM

Get your glasses ready. The juggernaut that is the Boston Wine Expo rolls into town February 16th and 17th, President's Day weekend, for its annual run. Thousands will converge upon the Seaport World Trade Center and Seaport Hotel to swirl and sip more than 1,800 wines poured by 185 exhibitors from all over the globe. Beginners and long-time enthusiasts will also flock to seminars covering everything from wine basics to vertical tastings (successive vintages of the same wine). There will be cooking demos by celebrity chefs, keynote speakers, a new smart phone app to scan and purchase wines, a bloggers' lounge....you get the idea. It's big.

First-time attendees always ask how to navigate this theme park of wine. It's smart to plan, especially since a two-day grand tasting ticket will set you back $145, seminars extra. Here are three tips for making the most of tastings as a first-timer.

Begin at the beginning, avoid the end. Each day's Grand Tasting opens to the public at 1pm, and we like being there when the doors open. Wine reps will have warmed up by pouring for wine trade professionals; they will be raring to educate about their wines. Arriving at the beginning rather than the end allows us to avoid attendees who who don't moderate their intake. The last half-hour can devolve into a drunky fest. We avoid it like the plague.

Taste by region, grape or cuisine. It's impossible to taste everything, so having a plan is key, say local wine experts featured on the Wine Education Network. One video on the Wine Expo homepage encourages three different approaches: concentrating on one of four wine regions (Mediterranean, the rest of Europe, North America, Southern Hemisphere); tasting by grape varietal; or with a preferred cuisine in mind. Genius! They also encourage drinking lots of water throughout the day.

Spit to your heart's content. Enthusiasts who are just getting started often hesitate to spit wine poured for them. Some feel embarrassed that they can't spit like the pros do -- presumably in a thin, elegant stream. We think it's fine to spit into a paper cup (we bring a stash with us) and then empty into the spit buckets provided. Not only does this avoid awkward moments -- crowds around the bucket; the dreaded "splash-back" -- but we keep our senses sharp to learn and enjoy. And isn't that what it's all about?

Looking forward to seeing you there.

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It's warm in the greenhouse: Wayland's Farm Wineries Day

Posted by Ellen Bhang January 29, 2013 09:12 AM

An invitation to taste the wares of nine Massachusetts wineries catches our eye.
But it's the promise of warmth that seals the deal. "Shoppers enjoy being in a warm greenhouse setting on a cold winter's day," enthused farmer's market manager Peg Mallett in a recent email. Envisioning sips of local wine among potted violets, food vendors and a cornucopia of root vegetables, we headed out last Saturday to Massachusetts Farm Wineries Day at the Wayland Winter Farmers' Market. This winter market, one of the forty operating this time of year throughout the state, is truly special.

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Held at Russell's Garden Center on Boston Post Road, the greenhouse environment -- a warren of farm vendors, bakeries and purveyors of jams and salsas -- allows us to shed our bulky coats soon after arriving. The nine wineries, from north and south of Boston as well as Central and Western Mass, are doing brisk business. Customers sample half-ounce pours, purchase bottles for dinner, and chat with winemakers like Donna Martin of Mill River Winery in Rowley. She affirms the importance of a 2010 Massachusetts law allowing farm wineries to sell at farmers' markets and agricultural events.

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Martin talks about the law as a catalyst for growth -- not only for her winery, but for nearly forty others in the Bay State. Wineries participating in a 2011 survey conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources reported doing more than $500,0000 in wine sales that year, an average overall sales increase per winery of 66 percent over previous years. These oft-repeated figures underscore how the law helps increase business and raise the visibility of these wineries among Massachusetts wine consumers, whose per capita wine consumption is double the national average.

Trudi Perry, winemaker of Alfalfa Farm Winery in Topsfield loves selling her wines at farmers' markets. She observes that some towns are reluctant to allow wine sales at events like these. (The law requires the approval of the local jurisdiction.) Are some towns afraid that selling wine will attract a bad element? Scanning market goers, many relaxing at patio tables set up among the lush plants, nibbling on grilled cheese and tomato soup, it's hard to imagine rowdy behavior from this bunch. All we see are contented folk, happy for the chance to feel cozy on a January day. Realizing that this greenhouse-turned-winter market lasts only until March 9th, we reconnect with Peg Mallett. "I tried to get permission to extend the season by one week," she says, "but the growing of annual flowers has to stay on schedule."

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For more information about local wine events, check out the calendar of the Massachusetts Farm Wineries & Growers Association and the newly redesigned Wine & Cheese Trails guide. Photo, top left: Wine tasters at the table of Coastal Vineyards, South Dartmouth. David Neilson, owner and winemaker, on the right. Photo, middle right: Wines from Mill River Winery, Rowley, held by owner/winemaker Donna Martin. Photo, bottom right: Liz Koczera of Westport Rivers, Westport. The 2006 RJR Brut (first bottle to her left) has a newly designed yellow label.


New Year's Resolution to Learn about Wine

Posted by Ellen Bhang January 1, 2013 05:35 PM

The New Year is your year to learn more about wine. Whether you are a longtime enthusiast or a brand new imbiber, 2013 is an opportune time to deepen your knowledge of this lovely libation. Drop by in-store tastings. Attend a wine dinner to see how a hot new restaurant is pairing wine with food. Read voraciously. Blogs, tweets and online wine media -- along with the good old-fashioned newsstand -- make wine information more accessible than ever. And if you thrive in a classroom environment, a four session Wine 101 at the Boston Wine School is a terrific way to learn the basics. Or, if you have four semesters to spare, you can pursue the wine certificate program at the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center at Boston University.

In the midst of your tasting and reading, how do you capture what you're learning? We're big believers in writing things down. An easy system we use is actually too simple to be called a system. Let's call it an approach that reinforces learning. Get a pack of index cards and keep a pen handy. Whenever a wine question occurs to you, write it on an index card. Later, research the answer and jot it on the back of the card. Or, when a sommelier imparts some wonderful wine fact to you and your dinner companion, jot that down too. Do this a couple of times a week, every week, and in no time, you'll have a growing stack of cards. Naturally, you can keep all of this information electronically. But there is something addictive about seeing your pile of index cards grow. Its increasing height reflects your growing wine knowledge. Try it! And let us know your progress throughout the year.

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Never too late for muscadet & oysters

Posted by Ellen Bhang October 30, 2012 09:05 AM

When it comes to classic wine and food pairings, there are few we crave more than muscadet and oysters. So when we realized we had one more chance to partake of both as part of Muscadet Month, sponsored by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau,
we made a weekend detour to The Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill.
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Stepping inside, we were delighted to find wine educator Jo-Ann Ross talking up this lively white wine. "Muscadet is a zesty, zippy white wine from Western France," she explained to customers, many of whom had their costumed trick-or-treating youngsters in tow. "It is made from melon de Bourgogne grapes, once grown in Burgundy centuries ago. It is a dry wine, not to be confused with sweet wines made from muscat grapes," she said.

When you think about where these grapes grow -- near the coast of Brittany where the Loire River meets the Atlantic -- it is easy to see how this wine evolved as a natural pairing with seafood, oysters in particular.
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Attendees, eager to experience muscadet's affinity for oysters, had the opportunity to do so on the spot. Mason Silkes of Rhode Island-based American Mussel Harvesters, Inc.
shucked Canada Cup oysters from Prince Edward Island and placed them on an icy bed. Brightly salty up front, these bivalves possess a creamy texture and a saline-sweet finish that called for another sip of muscadet.
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A favorite among the line-up of wines was a 2011 Louis Metaireau Petit Mouton Muscadet Sevre et Maine ($12). The bottle's label says "sur lie," which refers to wine kept on the lees (spent yeast) all winter long before bottling in the spring. Overwintering on the lees produces rounded, saline aromas and the barest hint of spritz.
As trick-or-treaters emptied the candy basket, we pledged not to forgo the pleasure of this pairing once Muscadet Month is over.
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Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.
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