Tasting the Wines of Round Pond, 2015 Releases

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The brother-sister team of Miles and Ryan MacDonnell have grown grapes at their Rutherford property in Napa as part of their family’s business since 1983 and began running the Round Pond Estate together in 2003. In 2002, Round Pond branched out from growing grapes into making its own wine, and today the family continues to expand its winemaking operation as well as selling grapes to some of the region’s blue chip wineries.

Round Pond grows primarily Cabernet Sauvignon but also cultivates a smattering of other wines, a number of which we tried at a recent lunch at the Gotham Clubhouse, a private club located in the outfield of San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Round Pond also offers a lunch called Il Pranzo at its winery, where you can experience its wines paired with a meal as well as its estate-made olive oils and vinegars.

Miles led us through the afternoon, with Gotham’s chef pairing each of these wines with a small plate. The food was uniformly excellent. More detailed thoughts on the wines tasted follow.

2014 Round Pond Rosato di Nebbiolo – One doesn’t find a lot of Nebbiolo in Napa, much less Nebbiolo rose. This wine is so pretty and lush, with fresh berries, peaches, and floral notes, that I wish you could get it somewhere besides Round Pond’s winery. A-

2014 Round Pond Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc – A crisp and herbal Sauvignon Blanc, nice acidity and a bracing finish; great pairing with a smoked salmon dish. A-

2012 Round Pond Kith & Kin Cabernet Sauvignon – Round Pond’s entry level Cabernet (priced at $30), powerful and dense with notes of chocolate and tons of jam. A straightforward wine, but quite a delight. A-

2012 Round Pond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon – This mid-level wine offers more nuance, with some pepper notes amidst the currants. Silky and lush. A-

2012 Round Pond Proprietary Red – A red blend, and surprisingly light on its feet, with its silky tannins pairing nicely with a small filet of beef. Raspberry on the finish. A-

2010 Round Pond Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – The top of the line, but this was the only wine in the lineup that wasn’t quite on fire for me. Dense with lots of tannin and menthol notes, it offers opulence but needs several more years in the bottle before it hits prime time. B+

roundpond.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM WINE.COM]

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Review: Freaker Bottle Koozies

freakerThat foam canister is boring. Next time you need to keep a beer (or other beverage) cold on a hot day, check out a Freaker.

Freaker Koozies are knit like socks and are emblazoned with everything from sports logos to drinking-centric memes. “Forget Me Not” makes your beer look like a prescription pill bottle. My personal favorite, “Shark Tube,” has a shark emerging from a Super Mario style green pipe. The koozies are designed to work on bottles but also work with cans if you tuck the neck in.

Freakers work well enough, but probably not as well as a traditional foam koozie — though note I didn’t do any scientific testing — and also do double duty at making it easy to figure out which bottle on the table belongs to whom. Great for grown-ups and kids alike!

$10 to $15 each / freakerusa.com  [BUY ONE NOW]

Review: The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail from Jefferson’s and Esquire

ESQ-BAM-Front

I don’t necessarily think bottled, fully-made cocktails are lazy. I use them a lot when entertaining or when I’m short on fresh ingredients. Some of them are really well made, too.

The jury is out on whether The Manhattan: Barrel Finished Cocktail is taking things a bit too far afield. This collaboration between Jefferson’s Bourbon and Esquire magazine — complete with silkscreened signatures from Trey Zoeller and David Granger on the back along with a ton of other, hard-to-read, typographically messy text — couldn’t be more pandering in its upscale aspirations. From the dark glass bottle to the wood stopper to the metal band around the neck, this is a drink that’s designed to look really, really expensive. Which it is.

So what’s inside? Jefferson’s Bourbon, of course, plus dry and sweet vermouth (making it a Perfect Manhattan) and barrel-aged bitters. The resulting concoction is barrel aged for 90 days before bottling. (This reportedly took two years of experimentation to get right.) There’s also the not-so-small matter of this, which is printed in all caps at the bottom of the back label copy: COLORED WITH CARROT EXTRACT.

Now that statement gives me some pause. This is a 68 proof cocktail made with basically just bourbon and vermouth, so why would extra coloring be needed? (And why the carrot, by God?) A typical Manhattan recipe would hit around 65 proof or lower, so this isn’t a case where the drink is watered down and Jefferson’s/Esquire is trying to pull one over on us. This is a fairly high-proof cocktail that’s mostly bourbon… so why with the carrots, guys?

I’ll leave that question for the commenters to wrestle over and simply get on to the tasting, which I sampled both straight and on the rocks. (It’s better shaken with ice and strained, served very cold.) The nose is heavy on winey notes, almost a madeirized character that overpowers the whiskey surprisingly handily. On the palate the dry vermouth is surprisingly clear, with bitter herbs muscling past the bourbon’s gentler vanilla notes. That classic whiskey sweetness is quite fleeting here, replaced with pungent notes of licorice, overripe citrus, and a touch of lumberyard character. I liked this well enough at first, but over time the vermouth became so dominant that I found myself left with a vegetal, slightly medicinal aftertaste that got considerably less appealing over time.

And yeah, it is pretty orange.

68 proof.

B- / $40 / esquire.com

Bar Review: Third Rail, San Francisco

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Here’s a cute idea: A bar that specializes in custom cocktails… and bespoke jerky.

Third Rail, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch region, is a cozy little joint where you can get a small beer, shot, and a bit of jerky all for 10 bucks during happy hour. This seemed like the most popular choice among the post-work regulars during my recent visit, but I focused on the cocktails during my encounter.

It’s rare, but in sampling four different libations, I didn’t have a single bad drink. Arguably my favorite was the Crossbow (tequila, blood orange, lime, Punt e Mes, and bitters, on the rocks), but the Evil Twin (mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, Aperol, chili bitters, served up) gave it a run for its money. Whiskey-based cocktails including the eponymous Third Rail (bourbon, Lillet, honey, lemon, orange bitters) and the Bone Machine (bourbon, oloroso sherry, amaro, bitters) were both quite good.

Then there’s the jerky — we tried the Sonoma Smoke and it vanished into our gullets all too quickly. It’s closer to chunks of smoked meat rather than anything you typically think of as jerky, sweet, salty, and succulent as all get-out. Artisan chicharrones (pictured) are also on the menu, but these aren’t house made and include quite a bit of sugar used to dust the puffy bits of pork. In an understated bar filled with excellent options, it’s the only item that’s even close to a miss.

Tasting Report: Wines of Duckhorn, 2015 Releases

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Noted California winery Duckhorn has become quite an empire of late, with operations under a number of brand names spanning all over California and stretching up to Washington state. The winery recently put together a tasting of virtually every wine it has now in current release, almost all of which we sampled — poured by the winemakers themselves. Tasting notes on the full Duckhorn slate (plus a few older rarities — including a gem of a cabernet from 2003) follow forthwith.

Tasting Report: Wines of Duckhorn, 2015 Releases

2013 Decoy Chardonnay Sonoma County / A- / buttery with some acid, too; touch of nougat
2013 Decoy Pinot Noir Sonoma County / B+ / simple; on the tannic side with notes of dried herbs
2013 Decoy Zinfandel Sonoma County / B- / roasted meats, chewy and funky; damp earth
2013 Decoy Merlot Sonoma County / B- / dried, crushed flowers; some vegetal notes
2013 Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County / B / lots of meaty character, heavy tannin, coconuts on the finish
2012 Decoy Red Wine Sonoma County / B / very dry and tart, cherry notes and tea leaf
2013 Migration Chardonnay Russian River Valley / B+ / dialed back but still showing some apple tart character
2012 Migration Chardonnay Sonoma Coast / B+ / puchy with vanilla and coconuts, light fruit
2011 Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley / B+ / dense tea and coffee notes, dark blackberries
2012 Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Estate / B / lots of tannin here, dark fruit, tea, coffee
2012 Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Ten Degrees Estate / A / gorgeous, balanced fruit with notes of tea, cinnamon, some flint; quite supple
2012 Canvasback Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain Washington State / B+ / lush and fruit forward, dense red berries
2013 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley / A- / huge tropical notes, vanilla kicker
2013 Duckhorn Chardonnay Napa Valley / A- / easygoing chardonnay, buttery but balanced
2012 Duckhorn Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc Knights Valley / A- / rich honey, marshmallow, nougat, and almonds
2012 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley / B+ / nice balance, chewy with vanilla and a little root beer character
2012 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley / B+ / drinking young but well, big tannic profile
2011 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Rutherford / A- / punchy, lots of acitidy, peppery notes
2012 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard / A+ / gorgeous violet notes, lush blueberries, lengthy finish
2011 Duckhorn The Discussion Estate Napa Valley Red Wine / A / baking spices, floral notes, and fruit, well balanced all around
2007 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Rutherford / A / some violets, nice structure with dialed-back vanilla and restrained tannin
2003 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley / A+ / so pretty, lush and floral and loaded with red fruit, vanilla, and cocoa; perfectly balanced
2011 Paraduxx Proprietary Napa Valley Red Wine / B+ / very dry, easy fruit notes, some fresh herbs
2011 Paraduxx Howell Mountain Napa Valley Red Wine / B- / smoky on the nose, wet earth, some greenery

[BUY THEM NOW FROM WINE.COM]

Review: Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA, Bandstand Barleywine, and Little Red Roostarr (2015)

Reviver_bottleStarr Hill keeps cranking them out. Here’s a look at three limited and seasonal releases for spring 2015.

Starr Hill Reviver Red IPA – A hybrid, amber-hued IPA, this is a great example of how blending beer styles can turn out well. Up front, the brew offers semi-sweet notes driven by malty caramel and chocolate note… then the hops take hold, slowly turning things bitter and slightly citrus-focused. There’s no big piney notes like you see in the typical IPA but rather a more harmonious bitter finish that balances out the sweeter notes up front. Really well-balanced and deftly crafted — and just 6.2% abv, too. A / $NA

Starr Hill Bandstand Barleywine Ale Volume 1 – A big American barleywine, dry-hopped and aged in bourbon barrels from Smooth Ambler Spirits. Unsurprisingly massive, this bomb of caramel and chocolate offers gentle coffee notes and a touch of bitter on the back end. Nice little number with a solid balance between its sweet and savory components — but a glass of this will go an awfully long way. 13.5% abv. A- / $8 per 22 oz. bottle

Starr Hill Little Red Roostarr Coffee Cream Stout (2015) – This is our third annual look at this coffee stout, and it doesn’t cut a terribly different profile in 2015 as it has in the last couple of years. It may be a little milder in 2015 than in previous years — with a bit less malt, slightly more watery coffee notes, and a touch of dark chocolate on the back end — but my primary issue, the lack of “creaminess” promised by the name, remains. Drinkers will likely remain divided. 5.8% abv. B / $7 per 22 oz. bottle

starrhill.com

Review: 8 Poliakov Flavored Vodkas

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Poliakov may look and sound Russian, but this is a French product (from the same company that distributes Label 5 Scotch), and it’s a big, low-cost seller in that country. Little is known about its production except for a vague “triple distilled” label. While there is a straight, unflavored version, we only received a passel of flavors — excuse me, “flavours” — to review.

Some are completely clear, some are slightly tinted in color, and some are quite colorful — as the photo above will demonstrate. Thoughts on eight varieties follow.

All are bottled at 75 proof.

Poliakov Lemon Vodka – Pretty citrus nose, with a little mint. There’s less going on on the palate, though, which offers a vaguely bitter/sour profile with some cleaning fluid notes on the back end. B-

Poliakov Peach Vodka – The nose has chemical overtones, and the body is quite astringent. Peach by way of disinfectant. C-

Poliakov Mandarin Vodka – Clear orange, veering toward mandarins, on the nose — with some woody notes underneath it. The body is punchier with orange character than the lemon version is with its citrus. Perfectly pleasant, with an uncomplicated finish. B+

Poliakov Green Apple Vodka – Overly sweet on the nose, with distinctly artificial apple notes. The body is sweet and sour, with a chewy, woody back end. Undistinguished. C

Poliakov Strawberry Vodka – Bright red/pink in color. Very, very sweet up front. The nose is easily mistaken for cherry, and the body could just as well be melted hard candies. Inoffensive, but usable mainly as a sweetener rather than a flavoring agent. C+

Poliakov Cranberry Vodka – Cranberry is a very difficult flavor to work with, and this one has clearly been doctored up the way most cranberry juice has, too. That’s not such a bad thing, as what’s in the bottle is a curious and compelling blend of tart cranberry and slightly sweet cherry/red berry notes, which together create a balanced and compelling little mixer. B+

Poliakov Vanilla Vodka – This one’s pushed right to the edge of the dessert cart, and just about falls over. Smells and tastes like a bakery confection, with chocolate and coconut notes backing up the vanilla. Some charred wood elements infect the nose, but that actually helps to add a little balance to the concoction. B-

Poliakov Caramel Vodka – Another colored vodka, this one an amber brown. As expected, it’s pushy with sweetness on the nose, but the palate is gentler than you’d expect, offering some touches of sweet tea, coffee, licorice, and other unexpected nuances. Again that characteristic char is here, giving a bottle of erstwhile panty peeler a little something extra. B-

each about $10 (likely) / vodka-poliakov.com

Review: Piehole Flavored Whiskeys

PieHole

Piehole is arguably the most maligned name in spirits today. Named in honor of a common insult, designed with labels that feature buxom farmer’s daughters, and a member of what is probably the most reviled category of spirits on the market — flavored whiskey — that’s three strikes before the bottle’s even open.

Piehole is Canadian whisky, flavored with one of three “pie flavored liqueurs.” No one’s trying to pass off artisan biodynamic infusions here, this is classic whisky-‘n’-chemicals, just like mom used to make. (Presuming mom worked down at the local food science lab.)

Well, without further ado, let’s have a taste of these three Pieholes, shall we?

All are 70 proof.

Piehole Apple Pie Flavored Whiskey – Lots of sweetness evident on the nose, though the apple notes don’t quite come through until the body takes hold. They nailed the crust flavor here — slightly well-done — but that combined with the heavy sweetness directs the finish toward a more generalized, super-gooey-sweet character that’s hard to peg as any specific fruit. The cinnamon flavors help establish it as apple pie more than anything else. Drinkable. B-

Piehole Cherry Pie Flavored Whiskey – This one’s quite medicinal on the nose, a common hazard among cherry-flavored spirits. Here things go off the rails, with an intense cough syrup character that simply doesn’t let up. It’s arguably not distinctly cherries and it’s definitely not pie, adhering closer to the melted Jolly Rancher motif one tends to find in this spirits category. The finish veers wildly into astringent elements that linger uninvited for quite awhile. D+

Piehole Pecan Pie Flavored Whiskey – Very sweet again up front, offering a fairly authentic glazed and heavily sugared pecan character on the nose. The aroma is almost like a praline, really, and that carries over to the body, though again, as with the apple pie expression, an almost burnt cookie character threatens to unravel things. While the nutty elements are fun enough (and conceivably cocktail-worthy in modest dosage), there’s so much sugar here that it’s tough to get through more than a few small sips of the stuff; a full shot would probably kill you. Not from the alcohol, but from the diabetes. C

each $15 / pieholewhiskey.com

Review: 2013 Kalfu Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

kalfuKalfu is a new Chilean wine brand hailing from the Leyda Yalley on the country’s coast. Here’s a look at two of the winery’s inaugural releases.

2013 Kalfu “Kuda” Chardonnay Unoaked Leyda Valley Chile – Engaging, tastes expensive. Quite neutral, apple notes on the nose, with light creme brulee, kumquat, and some light tropical character on the back end. Really easy to enjoy. A- / $19

2013 Kalfu “Sumpai” Pinot Noir Leyda Valley Chile – Meaty, with notes of figs and prunes, touched with notes of tobacco, pencil lead, and leather oil. Not much Pinot varietal character here, but fans of flavors that run to sour cherry and spiced meat may find something here. C- / $24

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Review: Manhattan Moonshine

manhattan moonshineMoonshine connotes hillbillies cooking up corn in a crude oil drum still tucked away in the woods, high-test hooch bottled in a ceramic jug.

And then there’s Manhattan Moonshine, made “using a unique blend of four premium New York grains [including rye, spelt, and oats — but not corn] and innovative, modern production methods,” bottled in an art deco decanter, and on the shelves for 45 bucks. Decried already in a piece entitled “End times: Hipsters drinking craft moonshine,” this is white whiskey at its terminus, a product that offers an unaged spirit at four times the price of a bottle of Jim Beam. How does it stand up?

On the nose, Manhattan Moonshine offers some classic cereal character and plenty of raw alcohol, backed with notes of lemongrass and some oily sandalwood. On the palate, it’s surprisingly sweet — and gentle, considering the higher alcohol level. It doesn’t take long for the hallmarks of moonshine to come to the fore — intense cereal notes, some petrol character, and a pungent pepperiness. Some pet-like overtones — think about the smell when you walk into a veterinarian’s office, and I don’t mean that negatively — emerge with time. (Now, as I wrap up this tasting, it’s all I can think of.)

Overall, this is not a bad expression of moonshine (and a credible cocktail ingredient) in a market that is rife with overpriced rotgut. That said, at nearly $50 a bottle, it remains a tough sell no matter how fancy it looks.

95 proof.

B+ / $45 / manhattan-moonshine.com