Book Review: The Book of Wine

51ezKYD0l1L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re a rank novice when it comes to wine — I mean, you really know absolutely nothing — then Jackson Meyer’s primer, The Book of Wine, is as good a place as any to start — short of dropping in on your local wine bar, that is.

In a breezy 220 pages, Meyer covers, as the subtitle states, “an introduction to choosing, serving, and drinking the best wines.” Best may be overstating things a bit. The book devotes more space to South Africa than to Napa and Sonoma (which are lumped together in a spare section in the “Wine Regions” chapter).

Meyer dutifully covers the basics — grape varietals, identifying flaws, what to do with a wine list (and I don’t much agree with his advice here) — enough to get you at least to a $600 question in a Jeopardy! wine category. Less can be said for his often bizarre “recommended wines” which accompany the section explaining each major varietal. I’m unclear how recommending a bottle of Penfolds Grange 1998 (1998!) is going to benefit the novice wine drinker other than make him look like a rube at his local wine merchant.

C- / $14 / [BUY IT FROM AMAZON]

Review: Captain Morgan Grapefruit, Pineapple, and Coconut Rum

captain morgan flavors

Is the world crying out for more flavored rum? Captain Morgan thinks so, and as such it’s released a trio of new tiki-friendly rums, each naturally flavored and beyond-intensely sugared.

All three are bottled at 70 proof. Thoughts on each follow.

Captain Morgan Grapefruit Rum – Strong grapefruit notes on the nose, with a slight medicinal character underneath. The body is very sweet, with strong caramel overtones. This tends to wash out the natural tartness of the grapefruit and imbues it with heavy candylike notes. As the sweetness fades on the lengthy finish, there’s a vegetal echo, offering some incongruous notes of rosemary and sage. C-

Captain Morgan Pineapple Rum – Pineapple candy (or at least canned pineapple) gets the nose going, but the body is (unsurprisingly) all sugar. Imagine steeping pineapple slices in molten sugar, then bottling it with a touch of water and you’re not far from what Captain Morgan has come up with here. It’s lacking that veggie funk that the Grapefruit expression has, but it’s still far from anything identifiable as rum. C

Captain Morgan Coconut Rum – After all of that, I was scared to death to crack into this one for fear of being immediately put into a diabetic coma. I shouldn’t have fretted so much. While Captain Morgan Coconut is as sweet and saccharine as you’d expect, it’s restrained in comparison to the two fruit-flavored spirits that come before. This doesn’t straw too far from the Malibu formula, though it’s less tropical than that old coconut standby. The finish is surprisingly clean for a coconut vodka, and the caramel notes present in all of these rums actually complements the coconut flavor in a way that it fails to do in the other rums. Definitely the best of the lot. B

each $16 / captainmorgan.com

Canned Margarita “Showdown” – Bud Light Lime-A-Rita vs. Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water

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I’m a firm believer that a cocktail should decidedly not come out of a can, but even I can accept that in desperate circumstances — venues where hard alcohol or glass isn’t allowed, namely — drinkers are forced into solutions that are less than ideal.

Such is the case with the margarita, which has seen a massive uptick in ready-to-drink renditions in recent years. Today, these concoctions (which are technically “malt beverages,” not tequila-based drinks) are now waging a quality war. Which of these is best? Or rather, which is least bad? Parrot Bay recently attempted to sway us by putting on its own Pepsi Challenge, sending us a blind-tasting kit consisting of Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water and Bud Light’s Lime-A-Rita. Complete with little plastic margarita glasses, salt, and a lime… which one would we say was best? There is no irony in the name emblazoned on this kit: The Ultimate Margarita Challenge.

Well, I took the challenge and am pleased to report that Parrot Bay’s Margarita with Coconut Water is a considerably better product. How much better? Read on. (These were tasted and reviewed blind but considering one has coconut water in it and one does not, telling them apart wasn’t exactly difficult.)

Bud Light Lime-A-Rita – Put a little tequila flavoring in a Sprite and you’ve nailed this fizzy, lemon-limey concoction. Saccharine finish. Better with salt. 8% abv. D / $11 per 12-pack of 8 oz. cans

Parrot Bay Margarita with Coconut Water – Put a little lime flavor in some coconut water and you’ve nailed this less fizzy, pina colada-like concoction. A bit less sweet, with heavily tropical overtones. 5.8% abv. C- / $11 per 12-pack of 8 oz. cans

As you can see, Parrot Bay is the clear winner!

Review: Wines of CrossHatch, 2015 Releases

10586853Santa Barbara’s Carr Winery recently launched this second label, CrossHatch, named in honor of antique winemaking equipment — and inspired by the “co-fermenting” system Carr uses in “harvesting multiple varietals on the same day then crushing and fermenting them together.” All of the CrossHatch wines are blends — though the wines have no individual names, so check the fine print on the label to see which one you’re getting.

All are very small production wines (under 300 cases). Thoughts follow.

2012 CrossHatch 60% Merlot 40% Cabernet Franc Santa Ynez Valley – The Cabernet Franc is having its way with this one, with some dense licorice, plums, and bittersweet chocolate dominating the blend. Some floral notes, with Merlot’s characteristic violets, bring up the rear, which is moderately sweet with raisins, milk chocolate notes, and some vanilla. A bit clumsy, but plenty drinkable. B- / $28

2012 CrossHatch 60% Grenache 40% Syrah Santa Ynez Valley – Intensely fruity, with chocolate notes on the nose. The body’s a mishmash of styles, offering jammy plums and cherries, more chocolate, red pepper, mint, and some raisiny, Port-like notes on the back end. A bit wide-ranging, but surprisingly drinkable (and food friendly). B / $25

2014 CrossHatch 70% Viognier 30% Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley – Intensely astringent and medicinal, with a skunkiness underneath. Some of the viognier’s peachy elements muscle through the muddiness, but the finish is all dirt and funk. Not entirely tenable. C- / $17

carrwinery.com

Review: American Star Vodka

AmericanStarVodkaCroppedLook closely at the label — “Star Vodka” is a totally different product — and you’ll see a small “American” in the etching above the “Star” on this exceptionally hard-to-read vodka bottle from Ascendant Spirits (makers of Breaker Bourbon).

American Star is distilled (at least) five times from corn (the bottle just reads “grain”) in Santa Barbara County. A straight expression and three flavors are available. All are 80 proof, and all are reviewed below.

American Star Vodka – Pungent on the nose, with notes melding medicinal notes with some marshmallow character. The body’s a bit muddy, its distinct vanilla character enhancing the vodka’s creaminess on the palate. The finish isn’t sharp or cleansing but rather fades away with a lengthy (but not unpleasant) fade away. Best as a mixer. B

American Star Caviar Lime Vodka – At first I thought this was some kind of terrible typo for Kaffir Lime, but it turns out caviar lime is its own wacky thing. This vodka uses these finger-shaped limes for flavoring, resulting in a quite successful spirit. The nose is distinctively lime — very fresh and not at all artificial smelling, with some floral undertones. On the palate, the citrus sustains, with a touch of vanilla — driven perhaps by the base spirit — to add some nuance. Much cleaner than the straight version. A-

American Star Strawberry Vodka – Tinted pink, flavored only with organic strawberries. Along with fresh berries, the nose offers floral notes and hints of whipped cream. It’s an enchanting lead-up, but the body is less successful. Here we find the vibrant fruit overwhelmed by astringency, sour elements, and a finish that comes across as artificial and unpleasant. Unfortunate. C-

American Star Ghost Chili Vodka – The infamous ghost pepper (hardwood smoked here) finds a home in this lightly yellow-colored vodka. The nose doesn’t offer many hints, but the body is hot as all get-out. Searing red pepper attacks the palate almost immediately, but later on the smokier elements, and just a touch of sweetness, offer some relief from the heat. Not much, though. Tread with caution. B

each about $33 / ascendantspirits.com

Review: 1883 Syrups

1883 - Sea Salt Caramel1883 Maison Routin is a French operation that mainly just makes syrup. Strawberry syrup. Vanilla syrup. Caramelized peanut syrup. Even cucumber syrup. I tried to count the total number of syrups — or sirops in 1883’s parlance — but lost count in the dozens. The bottom line, these are more artisanal creations than your typical Torani, all made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, and flavored with authentic botanicals. (Artificial flavors are used in the more dessert-focused syrups.)

We got four of 1883’s syrups,  representing a range of flavors and styles that could be used in all manner of cocktails. Thoughts follow.

1883 Yuzu Citron Syrup – Flavored with 4% yuzu, 3% lemon. Largely lemon in overall tone, clean and sweet. Not overdone; works well as a mixer. A classic citrus syrup, uncomplicated. A-

1883 Pomme Verte Syrup – 10% apple juice. Green apple flavored… and colored intensely green, to match. It’s hard to get past the heavy coloration here; the flavor is less authentic and more candylike than the Yuzu Citron — but that’s what anyone drinking an Appletini is probably looking for, anyway. B-

1883 Nougat Syrup – Artificially flavored. Smells a bit funky, not exactly nougat and closer to Amaretto. The body kicks off with brown sugar and cotton candy notes, then fades into something akin to candied almonds and burnt peanuts. Quite cloying. C-

1883 Caramel Beurre Sale – Primarily sugar, water, and salt, plus some natural flavors. Salted caramel flavor — and it’s reasonably authentic. A little of this goes a long way — it’s incredibly sweet — and the nose is quite expressive of caramel (if not salt). The body emphasizes sugar over salt, but that component is there, lurking in the background. I could see using it for a dessert cocktail concoction… or with coffee. B-

each $15 to $30 (1 liter) / 1883.com  [BUY THEM NOW FROM AMAZON]

Review: 8 Poliakov Flavored Vodkas

poliakov

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: 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: 12 Smirnoff Flavored Vodkas

smirnoff churros

Smirnoff recently repackaged its vodka lineup — again — which now spans a whopping 39 flavors (not to mention three unflavored expressions). That’s 8 more flavors than you can get at Baskin-Robbins… and with similar ingredient descriptions.

The company sent us a healthy dozen of these flavors — palate be damned! — for consideration. (They’re harmless, for the most part.) So let’s get to it.

All are 70 proof unless noted.

Smirnoff Citrus Vodka – Simple citrus notes, heavier on grapefruit overtones than you’d think. The nose is sweet and driven by navel oranges but the body is milder, bittersweet, and imbued more with citrus peel than juice. B

Smirnoff Peach Vodka – Somewhat artificial and quite sweet on the nose, like a peach candy or a heavily flavored peach tea. The palate is again quite sweet but just on this side of canned peaches. Not disagreeable. B+

Smirnoff Blueberry Vodka -Here the is tougher and evocative of bitter blueberry skins, but the body pushes forward more legit blueberry flavor, at least at first. This fades with the finish, which returns to an ever-so-slightly weedy character. B

Smirnoff Vanilla Vodka – More caramel on the nose than vanilla, with a white cake frosting character on the tongue. This settles into more of a vanilla soda character as the body develops, though the very sweet finish is moderately cloying. B-

Smirnoff Green Apple Vodka – Big, candylike green apple character attacks the senses, with an extreme level of sweetness to manage once it hits the palate. Built for your appletini (and little else), this sweetly fruity concoction is less offensive than it seems like it will be thanks to a clear and unmuddied flavor profile. B

Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka – Far less fragrant than many of the other vodkas on this list, this spirit’s body isn’t clearly strawberry but rather muddier, with a profile more akin to sugary, mixed berries. Nothing special, and more importantly, not much strawberry. B-

Smirnoff Raspberry Vodka – Punchy raspberry candy notes on the nose. Not at all unpleasant, with ample sweetness but not enough medicinal character to give it a little backbone. Some chocolate and vanilla notes in there, too. B+

Smirnoff Watermelon Vodka – As Jolly Rancher as it gets, this candy-coated spirit starts sweet and only gets sweeter as the body takes hold. Tough to imagine imbibing this level of sugar in any significant quantity. C+

Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka – Revisiting this classic concoction, it’s (still) incredibly tough on the nose, just overwhelming with burnt sugar and cake frosting notes. The body is better, with coconuts and more of that vanilla frosting to show off. 60 proof. C+

Smirnoff Cinnamon Churros Vodka – Shut up! Who doesn’t love churros!? Somehow this vodka actually nails the distinct pastry/sugar/cinnamon combination of a churro, That doesn’t make it right, though. This vodka kicks things off with that sweet cinnamon but the finish is so saccharine that it coats the mouth and never lets go. 60 proof. C-

Smirnoff Sorbet Light White Peach Vodka – The first of two low-calorie vodkas here, there’s a weird astringency up front, then a huge flood of candied peach notes. Funky and artificial on the back end, with petrol/chemical notes that are hard to shake. 60 proof. D

Smirnoff Sorbet Light Summer Strawberry Vodka – Quite medicinal, both on the nose and the body, which evokes cough syrup to a far greater degree than Smirnoff’s standard, fruit-flavored expressions. Ugh. 60 proof. D-

Forget this, I’m done.

each $12 / smirnoff.com

Review: Kahlua Salted Caramel Liqueur

kahlua salted caramelDon’t think caramel (particularly the salted variety) is still the It Flavor to contend with? Consider Kahlua’s latest limited edition expression: Salted Caramel.

This seasonal release is an extremely sweet one, but that’s not unusual for the brand. It all starts off with intense, brown-to-almost-burnt sugar on the nose. This vanilla-studded, caramel syrup character is gooey and thick, lingering for what seems to be days. The coffee doesn’t kick in until the finish arrives at long last, a heavily sugared dark roast that will have you begging for an espresso, black.

Is it ironic that a Salted Caramel liqueur has caramel color added? I can’t quite decide.

40 proof.

C- / $16 / kahlua.com