Review: Fall 2014 Pumpkin Beer Blowout

October is here, and that means everyone and his sister is putting pumpkin into beer in honor of the arrival of autumn. For some, pumpkin brews are something they wait for urgently all year long. For others, a pumpkin beer is something you enjoy precisely once and quietly wait for the season to pass. For me, I’m somewhere in the middle… mainly because it depends on what’s inside the specific bottle.

Here’s a look at four new pumpkin beers vying for your gourdly attention this fall.

Magic Hat Wilhelm Scream Pumpkin Ale – If you aren’t familiar with the Wilhelm Scream, you can read all about it here. I expect that will not alter your enjoyment of Magic Hat’s first ever pumpkin beer in any way, though. This ale drinks with burly, brown, fall-friendly flavors, only one of which is a dusting of pumpkin. Cloves and cinnamon, ginger, and some earthier notes tend to dominate. Overall it’s quite dry, with chewy, nougaty maltiness pushing through to the finish. 5.4% abv. B / $9 per 6-pack

Redhook Brewery Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter – A spiced dark ale made with maple syrup, this is a very dark and brooding brew, quite the opposite of the relatively light bodied Wilhelm Scream. Deeply malty, the maple syrup adds a viscosity to the beer that coats the mouth like a barrel-aged porter. The clove character is on point here, but any sense of pumpkin is pushed well into the background. For fans of traditional, British-style dark brews. 5.8% abv. B / $10 per 6-pack

Alaskan Brewing Co. Pumpkin Porter – Quite bitter, but almost gooey with raw malt syrup notes. The malt overpowers anything else in the beer — including brown sugar and burnt pumpkin notes that don’t quite integrate with the rest of the beer. Difficult balance, with a finish that is not at all refreshing. Save for winter. 7% abv. C+ / $1.60 per bottle

21st Amendment/Elysian He Said Baltic-Style Porter – Collaborative brew project. An epic alco-bomb (and a lager, by the way) with a nose further from anything autumnal than the rest of the lineup here. Lots of malt, wood and cardboard notes, wet earth, mushroom, and some green vegetable notes. No pumpkin character to speak of. 8.2% abv. C / $9 per 4-pack (cans)

Tasting the White Wines of Lodi, California

Lodi is located up and east from Napa/Sonoma. The source of some of California’s less expensive wines, it’s nonetheless and “up and coming” region that has more of a pedigree than, say, California’s industrial Central Valley. Known for its heavy Zinfandel production, Lodi is also home to a prodigious amount of white wine. In a recent live tasting event, which was led by Camron King, Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and Susan Tipton of Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards, we focused exclusively on those whites, sampling five wines made from different varietals, all from Lodi grapes.

Thoughts on all five wines tasted follow.

2013 Borra Vineyards Artist Series Nuvola Gewürztraminer – A very fruity example of Gewurztraminer, with lemon and peaches up front, revealing a light honey sweetness as it starts to evolve in the glass. The finish is crisp and clean, with more fruit than the fragrant perfume notes that are typical of Gewurz. A fave here. B+ / $19

2013 Bokisch Vineyards Garnacha Blanca Vista Luna Vineyard – A bit on the weedy side, this white offers tropical notes up front before fading into a strongly grassy character, along with a somewhat meaty edge on the finish. Strange balance, not my favorite. C+ / $18

2013 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards Viognier – Made by Lodi’s only all-white-wine winery. This Viognier is restrained in a way that many Viogniers are not, with more mild apricot and peach notes and an earthiness backing them up. Again, that big, chewy body takes over and fades into some funkier, meatier notes on the finish. Better balance on the whole, though, and something to try even if you don’t consider yourself a Viognier fan. B- / $23

2013 Heritage Oak Winery Sauvignon Blanc – Very perfumy on the nose, with notes of lemongrass and pepe du chat… and also an edge of tree bark atypical of Sauvignon Blanc. Clean on the body, with lots of fresh lemon character and a grassy, herbal finish. B+ / $18

2012 Uvaggio Moscato Secco – Not overwhelmingly sweet as you might have feared, this Moscato is plenty fragrant and perfumed, but dials back that unctuous juicy orange character almost to an afterthought. Dry and clean, this is the rare moscato that you might consider drinking with your main course rather than dessert. B / $14

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Review: Pinot Blancs from Kuentz-Bas and Elena Walch

alsace kuentz-basJust in time for summer come these two white wines from two different regions in western Europe — one northern Italy, one eastern France. Both are made from the Pinot Blanc (aka Pinot Bianco) grape, and side by side they show just how incredibly different these wines can be. Thoughts follow.

2011 Kuentz-Bas Pinot Blanc Tradition Alsace – Simple and fresh, this wine offers a floral nose, with hints of nuts and a touch of forest floor. The body, however, is quite fruit-forward, moderately acidic with notes of lemon, lime, and touches of melon. Clean and simple finish, seasonally perfect, and drinking beautifully at the tender age of three. A- / $15

2013 Elena Walch Pinot Bianco Alto Adige – Much more lemony than the Kuentz-Bas, almost to a fault. The nose on this wine is vividly acidic, almost metallic, and the body is even more so, offering raw lemon juice character backed up by the essence of aluminum cans. Weak finish. C+ / $13

Review: Ty Ku Silver, Black, and Coconut Sake


One of the bigger names in imported sakes (in addition to a panoply of other spirits like soju and other Asian-inspired liquors), Ty Ku hails from Nara, Japan, where it’s produced in iconic, triangular-base bottles.

Ty Ku produces four sakes (one flavored). Only the white bottling (Ty Ku’s highest-level sake) is not reviewed here. The three bottlings below are also available in a gift pack (pictured) of three 330ml bottles ($39).

Thoughts follow. (Prices are for individual 720ml bottles.)

Ty Ku Sake Junmai (Silver) – Slightly brooding on the nose, with more of a winter squash character to it. Modest honeydew notes emerge on the body, with a very gentle sweetness to it. Initially a touch jarring, it grows on you over time. Drink very cold. B- / $16

Ty Ku Sake Junmai Ginjo (Black) – Gentler, with notes of melon and coconut on the nose. More fruit, with cantaloupe and some pear character, emerges on the palate.  Quite fresh, it’s a classic, if simple, junmai ginjo. B+ / $22

Ty Ku Coconut Sake – A nigori (cloudy) sake produced at junmai quality and flavored with, of course, coconut. Pina colada on the nose, but tempered with melon notes on the body. It’s sweet, but not as sweet as you might expect, with the coconut notes coming off as rich and filling. The finish, however, gets a little mouth-coating after awhile, leaving one running for the water. C+ / $13

Review: Wines of Chloe, 2014 Releases

chloe winesChloe is yet another wine brand designed to appeal to the I-need-a-cutely-named-wine-with-a-cute-bottle-to-take-to-the-dinner-party crowd. Not to be confused with Chloe Wines (a Seattle importer), the Chloe Wine Collection is a new offshoot of The Wine Group, a California-based mega-bottler.

Chloe is starting up with three wines — two California bottlings and an Italian white. Thoughts on each follow.

2013 Chloe Pinot Grigio Valdadige Italy DOC – Mild on the nose, and steely. Tropical notes emerge, namely pineapple, with melon notes emerging on the finish. Easy to enjoy as an aperitif, and works well with food too. A- / $17

2012 Chloe Chardonnay Sonoma County – Big and buttery, almost to a fault. The nose starts off with something akin to butterscotch or cake frosting, before finally settling down into a brown sugar, vanilla extract, oak barrel character. Restrained pineapple notes emerge, but a weirdly herbal, almost astringent, finish wipes them all away. C+ / $17

2011 Chloe Red No. 249 North Coast California – A blend of Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Petit Verdot from the Northern California region. Fruity but not overblown. Big strawberry notes. A touch of blackberry. Some rhubarb. Long, semi-sweet finish, with butterscotch candy notes on the finish. B / $17

Review: Six Ciders from Tieton Cider Works

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It’s time for a gaggle of apple ciders from Tieton Cider Works, based in Tieton, Washington. TCW makes at least 10 different products. Here we review a half dozen, all spins on the classic apple cider formula, and arranged from dryest to sweetest. Enjoy.

Tieton Cider Works Tieton Blend Cider Dry – English style cider, bone dry with barely a hint of sweetness. This is a tough one for those more accustomed to fruitier, sweeter ciders, and even after putting on my dryest of dry white wine hats, I couldn’t cut through it. Herbs and minerals abound here, but the overall effect is like a weak sauvignon blanc. 7% abv. C

Tieton Cider Works Yakima Valley Dry Hopped Cider Dry – Dry cider blended with local hops. Cider plus beer is known as a “snakebite,” but I’ve never seen anyone actually drink one. Here, the sweet, sour, and bitter are combine to create an initially off-putting concoction, but over time your palate adjusts and reveals a complex and unique brew. The sour apple notes remain the heaviest component, the hops largely blowing off to show themselves primarily as a hint on the finish. 6.9% abv. C+

Tieton Cider Works Wild Washington Apple Cider Semi-Dry – Aptly described, with tart and sweet elements. Lots of mineral notes here, along with an earthy (“wild,” perhaps) pungency on the nose. This is a cider for those who are OK with sweeter stuff, but who might want to experience a somewhat dryer beverage from time to time. 7% abv. B

Tieton Cider Works Apricot Cider Semi-Dry – Blended with apricots, naturally. Quite fruity, with strong overtones of fresh and dried apricots. Seems sweeter than “semi-dry” would indicate, with a biting acidity on the finish. The simplest, but perhaps the best, of the bunch. 6.9% abv. B+

Tieton Cider Works Apple Cherry Cider Semi-Sweet – Plenty of cherry flavor up front here, so much so that it almost drinks like pomegranate/cherry juice. Heavy sour notes on the finish abate over time, leaving behind the essence of fruit, with an almost mineral edge to it. Not bad. 6.9% abv. B

Tieton Cider Works Blossom Nectar Cider Sweet – Includes apple blossoms in the mix. Quite sweet, and indeed very floral, with a pleasant balance between tart apple and the perfumy, rose-scented blossoms. The perfume does take on a “grandma’s house” note over time, particularly as it warms up, but hey, you’re drinking cider, so stop moaning. 7% abv. B+

$42.60 as a mixed six-pack of 500ml bottles (one of each of the above) /

Review: Young Ribera del Duero Wines from Garcia Figuero and Protos

Roberto BacigalupeSpanish wines are known for being released well-aged, with some Rioja reservas spending 8 to 10 years in barrel and bottle before hitting the market… and sometimes longer.

But not all Spanish wines are aged for such a long time. In fact, the Ribera del Duero has two lesser-known classifications, in addition to the older crianza and reserva bottlings, which are intended to be consumed young. Known as barrica and roble wines, these Riberas are released within a year of harvest, both spending between three to eight months in oak — though, by Spanish law, they are not required to spend any time in barrel at all. Basically: It’s prison rules wine, letting a winemaker do just about anything he wants to craft the best wine he can, without having to worry about Spain’s arcane aging and labeling requirements.

Both wines are made from 100% tempranillo (aka tinto fino) grapes — but otherwise couldn’t be more different. Thoughts follow…

2012 Garcia Figuero Roble Ribera del Duero – This “roble” wine spends only four months in new oak barrels (3/4 American, 1/4 French), then four more months in bottle before release. (The wine is also officially known as “Four Months in Barrel” in English — hence the big “4” on the label.) The nose is intense with bramble, dense wood, and meaty sausage notes. On the body, there’s more fruit than expected, but these thick blackberry jam notes are punched down by licorice, bitter roots, tobacco leaf, and tar characteristics. Chewy and more than a little tough. C+ / $20

2011 Protos Tinto Fino – This wine spends a full year in 60% French, 40% American oak barrels. The difference between the Figuero is remarkable, with the Protos showing a much more refined character on the nose and body. Aromas of blackberry and violets pervade, and the body is moderate to lush, with fresh fruit, some peppery notes, and a touch of floral character. This is a young wine that is sometimes a bit brash, but on the whole it’s finding its balance, with ample structure and smoothed out tannins. B+ / $15

Review: The Fat Trout Blended Scotch Whisky

the fat troutThe Fat Trout is a blend from the Speyside that’s produced by the world renowned Ian Macleod Distillers. A “standard 3 year old” blend, the whisky is comprised of approximately 30 different single malts, mostly from the Spey region, but also from Islay and the Highlands.

There is also a huge fish on the label of this, “the sportsmans choice.”

There’s lots of grain on the nose, as expected, but things are balanced with not insubstantial sherried orange notes. A fair amount of alcoholic heat makes things indistinct, however, at least until the Trout has had substantial air time.

The body is more interesting than expected, the cereal notes becoming more balanced here with some marshmallow, caramel, and gentle chocolate character. A sugared orange slice character takes hold — surprisingly strongly — on the finish, almost to the detriment of some of the other notes in the whisky. Initially brash and rustic, the palate of The Fat Trout also improves with some air time, but it never really elevates beyond a basic blended experience.

80 proof.

C+ / $23 /

Review: 2013 Chamisal Stainless Pinot Noir Unoaked Central Coast

Chamisal_Stainless_PinotNoirIf you ever wondered Beaujolais Nouveau would taste like if it was made in California, try this: Chamisal takes a Central Coast Pinot Noir and bottles it, completely unaged in oak.

For a red wine this is completely unheard of. I can probably count on one hand the number of unoaked reds I’ve had in my life.

And here’s why: Pretty much all red wines need the help of wood to reach their potential. Kudos to Chamisal for attempting to showcase the pure essence of the grape, but those aren’t always enticing qualities.

Here, Chamisal shows off the huge strawberry and raspberry fruit notes in the grape, but it’s tempered by bramble and wet earth notes, an unripeness that’s almost sour at times. But most of all, the body’s just not there. The wine is on the thin side, with a sharp finish that ultimately turns a little watery. Without the soothing vanilla punch that time in oak barrels brings, this comes off like a curious and incredibly instructive experiment but not something I’d want to serve at dinner.

C+ / $24 /

Review: Spirits of Santa Fe Spirits

santa fe apple brandy

Santa Fe Spirits is based, you guessed it, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Founded by Colin Keegan in 2010, the company now offers a range of five spirits, all with a southwestern bent and primarily column-distilled. We tasted four of them (all but the aged, single malt whiskey). Thoughts follow.

Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy – This was Santa Fe’s first product, made from New Mexico-grown Mountain West apples, including some from Keegan’s own orchard. Barrel aged “for years.” Big, punchy nose. It’s got mashed apples, sure, but lots of wood, and some coal fire character to it. The body is on the oily side, burly with overpowering wood notes and a big, tannic finish. Overall: A curiosity that never quite pulls it all together. C+ / $45

Santa Fe Spirits Wheeler’s Western Dry Gin – A newfangled infusion and the most avant garde of the bunch. This gun includes only botanicals that are sourced from within 30 miles of the distillery: white desert sage, Cholla cactus blossoms, osha root, Cascade hops, and local juniper. My first cactus-infused gin! The nose is a delight. Quite citrusy, like Meyer lemon, with distinct sage notes. On the body, those hops come through right away, while the sage and citrus character lingers. All of these things balance quite well, though the hops tend to dominate a bit too heavily. 80 proof (it could have stood to be 86, in my opinion). B+ / $32

Santa Fe Spirits Silver Coyote Pure Malt Whiskey – Made from 100% malted barley and bottled as unaged white dog. A lighter style of white dog, relatively restrained (comparatively) with a curious mix of grain and slate notes on the nose. The body isn’t overly complex, wearing its maltiness and youthful barley notes on its sleeve, with a lightly vegetal finish. Think green beans and sweet potatoes. Or competently made white lightning, anyway. 92 proof. B+ / $30

Santa Fe Spirits Expedition American West Vodka – 6 times distilled from a corn base. Interesting nose here, supple and sweet but not overdone. It’s not at all “corny,” but the aroma is almost like a nice bit of cotton candy or marshmallow. On the body, similar notes prevail, with a subtle fruitiness that recalls apples and banana. The finish has a touch of medicinal burn, but by and large it’s a smooth operator that offers a modern profile balanced by a restrained and refined backbone. 80 proof. A / $25

Note: This quartet is available in a four-pack of 200ml bottles. Total price: $55.