Review: 2015 Big Smooth Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon

With its velvet labels and funky scripting, first impressions of Big Smooth wine mainly run to raised eyebrows and tempered expectations, even though it is part of the Don Sebastiani & Sons empire. Made from grapes grown in Lodi, the wine is actually produced and bottled in Napa. We tasted both expressions available from the wine’s 2015 vintage.

2015 Big Smooth Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi – This is a curious expression of zinfandel, meaty and earthy, with overtones of both prunes and violets. A very “purple” wine, the body is somewhat chalky, with notes of bell pepper and cocoa powder emerging on the finish. Overall, the wine feels scattered and a bit lost, in search of a focus. C / $27

2015 Big Smooth Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi – A bit of a chocolate bomb, with vanilla and cherry highlights, this wine starts out promising, with a rich nose and a bold palate, but it doesn’t last. As the finish emerges, the wine gets a bit thin, and a healthy dose of sugar comes to the fore, muddying the fruit and cocoa notes up front. B- / $27

Review: Evans Brewing Co. Son of a Beach, Joaquin Dead, Breakfast Black, and Chocolatte

Evans Brewing sent more of its offerings for our consideration. We tasted them all from 16 oz cans, but they’re available in bottles of various sizes, too.

Evans Brewing Co. Son of a Beach Blonde Ale – This foamy blonde ale is bursting with lemon notes, something like a shandy on steroids. Honestly it doesn’t do much to elevate an otherwise simple beer, giving it a sour sharpness that can be a little off-putting against a brew that should be all about freshness and easy granary notes. 4.2% abv. C

Evans Brewing Co. Joaquin Dead Mexican Red Ale – No question, I love the name. The beer, a bit less so: Again it features a heavy citrus element, here coming across a bit like a preservative, which decidedly muddies the freshness and crispness of a typical Mexican-style beer, though some amber-like nuttiness does peek through a salty-sour finish. 5.2% abv. C-

Evans Brewing Co. Breakfast Black Pilsner – A weird little beer, but probably the best in this lineup, it’s malty and (again) heavy on citrus, a crazy disconnect in comparison to the near-black color of the beer. Before too long, the darkness of the beer starts pushing its agenda, with toasty, coffee notes emerging on the finish. Wild. 4.8% abv. B

Evans Brewing Co. Chocolatte Chocolate Porter – Ink-black and pungent, I’m not sold on the “latte” part of the equation, but there’s an ample dark chocolate character here that at least fits the bill. Winey and strong, it’s got a drying finish with a Port-like, nutty character to it. 6.8% abv. B

each $5 per 22 oz. bottle /

Review: Charleston Distilling Co. King Charles Vodka, Jasper’s Gin, Vesey’s Bourbon, and Calhoun’s Rye

Charleston Distilling is a South Carolina-based craft distillery that takes a farm-to-bottle approach to all of its spirits, starting with South Carolina-grown corn, rye, wheat, and millet that are milled at its own millhouse in Summerton, South Carolina, and then distilled at its operation in downtown Charleston. Its whiskeys are aged in new, charred oak barrels.

Today we look at a spectrum of Charleston Distilling’s products, including a vodka, a gin, and two whiskeys.

Charleston Distilling Co. King Charles Vodka – Distilled from a mash of corn and rye. This vodka is distinctly weedy, with mushroom overtones and a corny, white whiskey character to it. A modest sweetness offers a brief respite from the funkiness at the core here, but it’s a tough road to overcome the heavy notes of forest floor and pungent grains. 80 proof. C / $25

Charleston Distilling Co. Jasper’s Gin – Somewhat mysterious, Charleston doesn’t disclose the mash nor the botanicals in the bottle. While there is ample evidence of underlying grains on the nose, there’s a hefty spice element here, showing hot pepper, ginger root, and lemongrass notes. The palate is juniper-moderate, with strong citrus peel, baking spice, and licorice elements, brisk and a little pungent, but surprisingly balanced among its constituent flavors. The finish is a bit ragged, but not unpleasant, making for a gin that would work in a more herbal-focused cocktail. 94 proof. B / $30

Charleston Distilling Co. Vesey’s Straight Bourbon – A wheated bourbon, though no age statement is offered. Youthful on the nose, but soft, it’s a quiet bourbon with notes of fresh popcorn, some cherry notes, and ample barrel char. The palate is heavier on the grain, as is to be expected from a young spirit, but there’s notes of fruit, vanilla, and nutmeg here, enough to temper that cracking barrel char, at least until the rather rustic, heavier finish arrives. Part of that is driven by abv; a little water isn’t a bad idea here, which tempers granary character quite well. 94 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #1-6. B / $57

Charleston Distilling Co. Calhoun’s Single Barrel Straight Rye – 100% rye, bottled from a single barrel, sans age statement. Nice depth of color here, but the nose is a real oddball, with notes of candy corn, spun sugar, and overripe banana and stone fruit. The palate is somewhat more traditional, though it’s also quite sweet, bold with butterscotch, but touched with a bit of mushroom, burlap sack, and that rustic granary note. The finish is sharp, with a hint of gunpowder, which sprinkles some spice and heat atop the otherwise sugary proceedings. The more I sip on it, the more I enjoy it. 100 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #6. B+ / $56

Review: 2016 Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

This year, Mendocino-based Fetzer celebrates its 50th anniversary, marking, as it says, “50 years of pioneering leadership in sustainable winemaking.” And, I would add, building a legacy of low-cost wines “for everyday enjoyment.” To mark the occasion, Fetzer is releasing one of its most iconic wines — its California Cabernet — in a special bottle with a fancy new label. We tried it, along with the 2016 release of its Sundial Chardonnay. Thoughts follow.

2016 Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay California – Instantly on the funky side, starting off with a kind of pink lemonade character, and later dosed with notes of nougat, coconut, and something that I can only describe as a kind of vegetal, mushroom soup. Also vaguely cheesy. C- / $10

2016 Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon California Anniversary Reserve – Unbearably sweet, this budget cab takes its time but eventually settles into a reasonably drinkable groove that showcases strawberry jam and carnations, perhaps with some blunt vanilla and chocolate notes in the mix. Uninspired on its own, but it would work well as a base to sangria. C / $13

Review: Evans Brewing Co. Pollen Nation, Approachable Bastard, and Krhopen

Irvine-based Evans Brewing Co. bills itself as “Orange County’s oldest craft brewer,” and by all accounts the company has seen impressive growth since its 1994 opening, especially in recent years. Recently the company sent us three of its brews (out of many) to check out, representing some of its most popular offerings. Let’s take a look at what the OGs from OC can brew!

Evans Brewing Co. Pollen Nation Honey Blonde Ale – A honey blonde ale sounds straightforward, but this was not at all what I was expecting. While an initial hit of honey and malt arrive as expected, the beer takes an almost immediate turn into sour territory, with a sharp, fruit-driven pungency, driven by notes of lemon juice and sour apple. There’s a possibility this is a bad bottle (I’ve never seen sour notes referenced with this beer before), in which case I’m happy to re-review. 5.2% abv. D+

Evans Brewing Co. Approachable Bastard Session IPA – Approachable, sure, but there’s not much there once you arrive. A straightforward hoppiness comes across as almost vegetal, with a muddiness that endures well into the finish. Toasty malt notes remain visible beneath the hops, but without any real nuance to them. 4.8% abv. C

Evans Brewing Co. The Krhopen IPA – A play on “the kraken,” this is another weird brew, positioned as a proto-IPA (with 73 IBUs), brewed with Nugget, Apollo, Cascade and Chinook hops — but it’s loaded up with unusual flavors, including (most notably) coffee, tangerine, and lemongrass. Beyond that, it’s a pretty straightforward experience, finishing on a hefty hop top note with hints of mushroom and some spice. 6% abv. B

each $5 per 22 oz. bottle /

Review: Wines of Barefoot, 2018 Releases

Hardly the first name in high-end wine, Barefoot has made a major name for itself in the world of wines served exclusively at baby showers.

But seriously, the number of wines this mass producer is churning out is incredible, and today we look at no fewer than six of them, none priced above $9.99, including six “Champagnes,” a term used very loosely here.

NV Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee Champagne – Approachable with notes of fresh fruit, including lemon and figs, all whipped up with a bit of bready brioche. I get an interesting cherry kick late in the game, but the finish is otherwise quite clean and refreshing. Altogether a pleasant surprise from a winery that’s mainly known for churning out ultra-sweet monsters. B+ / $10

NV Barefoot Bubbly Brut Rose Champagne – The pink version of the above is markedly sweeter and full of fruit — think maraschino cherries and strawberries, all infused into whipped cream. Heavily perfumed on the back end, it drinks a little like a fizzy version of Hawaiian Punch. C- / $10

NV Barefoot Bubbly Pink Moscato Champagne – Super sweet, and super pink — it’s moscato, plus fizz! Initially peachy, overtones of strawberry pie quickly overtake the any potential subtleties in the wine, culminating in a marshmallow sweet finish. It’s blunt and straightforward with its sugar bomb sweetness but, for what it’s worth, it’s nonetheless surprisingly approachable as an aperitif. C+ / $10

NV Barefoot Bubbly Sweet Red Champagne – Daunting in its redness, this tastes a lot like moscato, only filtered through strawberry syrup. That’s not inherently a bad thing — who doesn’t like strawberries? — but the wine does tend to suffer from the same Hawaiian Punch problem as the Brut Rose, relying too much on fruit and sugar to do the heavy lifting. C / $10

NV Barefoot Pinot Noir California – A bit of a bacony mess, sweetened to within an inch of its life. There’s no real essence of pinot noir here, just a super-fruity strawberry bomb that could be anything. D / $7

NV Barefoot Merlot California – A mild improvement, if only because some tannin gives this wine a touch of much-needed structure. Otherwise, it still carries a ton of that intense roasted meat character, dusted with brown sugar and a bit of dried cherry. D+ / $7

Review: Minute Mixology Craft Cocktail Mixers

The big new trend in home cocktailing? Powdered cocktail mixers that give you a true “just add booze” method to cocktail crafting. Taking a cue from the Crystal Light model, Minute Mixology comes in a box of single-serve packets designed to dispensed directly into a glass, with the addition of the appropriate liquor, ice, and water (or soda water, in the case of the mojito).

Can a powder provide a credible shortcut to a “craft cocktail?” Is it even appropriate, say, for mixing drinks on a plane? (Spoiler: No!)

We tried concocting cocktails by mixing up all three of Minute Mixology’s products according to instructions, using premium spirits for the backbone. Thoughts follow.

Minute Mixology Margarita – Largely undrinkable, this is comes across like a margarita in Kool-Aid form, chalky and overwhelming with pungent fake lime flavors and saccharine sweetness. This chemical note manages even to mask the tequila in the mix, which may be good or bad, depending on your evening. D-

Minute Mixology Coconut Mojito – Better than I expected, this is a pina colada-lite beverage that effectively masks that funky lime (and barely-there mint) note from the margarita with a decent coconut kick. While it’s hardly an elevated cocktail, thin and more than a little boring, the cloudy beverage might work well enough poolside, mixed on the fly in a plastic water bottle when your server has gone missing. C

Minute Mixology Spiced Old Fashioned – This one’s different because it’s a short drink, requiring just a splash of water alongside two ounces of bourbon. There’s simply not enough liquid to dissolve this heaping mass of sugar, which ends up making the finished drink extremely chalky and granular. While the promised flavors of orange peel and spicy black cherry notes do indeed make themselves known, there’s so much gunk in the glass — plus a powerful chemical note that percolates out of it — that it’s impossible to actually enjoy. F

each $14 per box of eight packets /

Review: Backpack (Canned) Wine

Is canned wine a thing? Yes. Is canned wine necessarily a good thing (as it has been for beer)? Not really.

The latest entry into this burgeoning field is Backpack Wine, which comes in picnic-friendly one-and-a-half serving cans, four to a box.

What’s in the can? Who knows!? This trio of low alcohol, nonvintage wines are made in Modesto of complete mystery varietals — they don’t even carry a state appellation. For that matter, they don’t even claim to be made from grapes, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on that one.

Well, I got to try them. Jealous?

NV Backpack Snappy White Wine – The nose is immediately off, with aromas of wet dog and mildew. If you can get past the aroma, it at least tastes better, a moscato-style citrus sweetness and some tropical notes giving its meaty undertone a slight lift. Just a hint of effervescence. D-

NV Backpack Cheeky Rose Wine – The nose is nearly indistinguishable from the Snappy White, a sweaty, garbage smell overpowering all else. A hint of floral perfume attempts to mask the funk, but fails. The palate here is much worse than the white, a mix of rotting flowers and old beef jerky. Again, slightly fizzy, but so hellishly pungent it’s hard to even pay attention. F

NV Backpack Rowdy Red Wine – The newest addition to the group, it’s a rowdy wine indeed. The nose here is a happy respite from the stink of the white and rose, offering a relatively traditional red berry jam aroma and a hint of cola. The palate is slightly sweet but dry enough for dinner. Hints of smoked bacon add some nuance — and here, the meaty character is more welcome. C

each $20 per four-pack of 250ml cans /

Review: Friends Fun Wine Coconut Chardonnay and Sangria

Based in Miami, Friends Fun Wine produces low alcohol wine flavored drinks that, they say, “could only have been created from the cool and chill vibe of South Florida.” Friends Fun Wine beverages are reminiscent of wine coolers and seem designed to appeal to a party crowd. Unlike virtually all other wine based beverages on the market today, Friends Fun Wine lists the ingredients on their bottles along with all of the standard nutritional information. Their bottles are festive and colorful, boasting designs by world-famous graffiti artist Miguel Parades. Tasting notes for its first two expressions follow.

Friends Fun Wine Coconut Chardonnay – This Fun Wine variety bursts with sweet artificial coconut notes on the nose and palate. I am not entirely sure I would have guessed that it includes Chardonnay if the bottle didn’t say so. But in the ingredients, I find it listed first: Chardonnay wine, water, sugar, juice, carbon dioxide, flavorings, citric acid. The sugar plays a major role here, taking over after a few sips. Perhaps some ice would help keep it chilled, as the bottle recommends, and you might also add water to tame the sweetness. At only 5.5% alcohol, and relatively low in calories (71 per 4.2 oz. serving), Coconut Chardonnay seems designed to be enjoyed in hot weather and in significant quantity. C+ / $9

Friends Fun Wine Sangria – More candy sweetness appears in this variety, although this time it resembles grape Jolly Ranchers. The nose is a bit more restrained than the palate, which explodes with sugar and then is followed by a touch of bitterness. Just a bit of tannin can be discerned, but it can’t stand up to this sweet summer beverage that again calls for some ice to tamp down the sugar content. The ingredients listed for Sangria are, oddly, the exact same as the ones for Coconut Chardonnay except that instead of “Chardonnay wine,” this beverage lists “Red wine.” The alcohol content is also 5.5% and this beverage is also fairly low calorie (81 per 4.2 oz serving). C / $9

Review: Anchor Distilling Old Potrero Straight Malt Whiskey – Stout and Port Finished – and Hotaling’s 11 Years Old

In August 2017, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing was acquired by Sapporo. Though many assumed that meant its small distilling operation next door was going with it, that’s not the case. Anchor Distilling was effectively spun off and remains an independent operation today.

Anchor’s been busy in the distilling department, and today we look at three new whiskey releases, including two special editions of Old Potrero whiskey with unusual cask finishes, and a new 11 year old rye. Thoughts follow.

Anchor Distilling Old Potrero Straight Malt Whiskey Finished in Stout Barrels – This starts with standard Old Potrero single malt that is finished in a barrel that (follow closely) began as a rye cask, then worked as an apple brandy barrel, then spent time as a stout cask. For round four, it’s a single malt again, and things are getting a little murky. The nose is incredibly hoppy, to the point where I would have guessed this was from some kind of IPA cask, not a stout cask. Aromas range from fun vegetal compost notes to old wine to lemon peels to, ultimately, skunky hops. On the palate, similar flavors dominate, though a malty character at least gives it some sweetness, along with flavors of dusky spices, prunes, and cooked green beans. Somehow that all comes together with a finish that isn’t as off-putting as it may sound, though the overwhelming savoriness of the whiskey doesn’t exactly recall a pint of Guinness. 110.8 proof. C / $100

Anchor Distilling Old Potrero Straight Malt Whiskey Finished in Port Barrels – More straightforward, with single malt aged in new oak and finished in Port casks. This one’s an ever bigger surprise, and not in a good way. All the Port casks in the world cant mask the funk in this whiskey, which pushes past the barrel treatment almost completely. The nose is heavily hoppy, though secondary notes include a touch of butterscotch to temper the green bean character. The palate is sharp, almost acrid at times, with no real trace of Port sweetness. Instead I get a pile of roasted carrots, tar barrel, and coal dust, very little of which is what sounds appealing right now. 114.6 proof. C- / $100

Anchor Distilling Hotaling’s Whiskey 11 Years Old – An unusual whiskey, made from 100% malted rye (making it both a rye and a “single malt” of sorts). Aged in once-used charred fine-grain American oak barrels that previously held Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey for 11 years. This is a solid whiskey that eschews trickery in favor of old-fashioned maturity. The nose is mild, lightly grainy with a modest wood profile, perhaps a bit of banana bread underneath. The palate shows a remarkable integration of flavors, including maple, toasty oak, brown butter, and some racy spice and dried fruit notes. There’s still a rustic character to it, but, unlike that same character in the cask-finished whiskeys above, here that roughness comes across as almost charming. Very limited, with under 200 bottles made. 100 proof. B+ / $115

Review: Wines of Cycles Gladiator, 2016 Releases (Plus Canned Pinot)

Cycles Gladiator (we last covered its 2014 vintage) is known as a solid budget brand — and now it’s adding to that notoriety its first canned wine. Today we’re looking at the full cycle of Cycles, so to speak, in bottles, plus taking a peek at its pinot noir in a can. We’re including thoughts on that wine in both bottled and canned formats.

2016 Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay Central Coast – Workmanlike but fully workable, this is a California chardonnay in its native form, full of (but not overloaded with) vanilla, oak, and brown butter. Lemon and apricot give the wine its fruit core, with lingering spiced apple notes. Not at all bad. A- / $12

2016 Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir Central Coast (bottle) – Budget pinot is never a major thrill, but Cycles gets it close enough here, with a bottling that is heavy on raspberry and strawberry notes, with a light undercurrent of beefsteak. Short finish, with some light florals on the finish. B+ / $12

NV Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir California (can) – Technically there is no vintage information on this expression, and it carries a California designate instead of a Central Coast one, so it’s probable not actually the same wine. It’s a sweeter expression of pinot than the above, lacking almost all of those meaty tones, replaced instead with pure strawberry jam. It’s nonetheless still approachable and drinkable, provided you pour it into a glass (or, to be honest, a Solo cup) first: Straight from the can it tastes like pure, sugary fruit juice. B- / $6 per 375ml can

2014 Cycles Gladiator Merlot Central Coast – OK, back to bottles. This merlot is a bit of a surprise, slightly peppery, with ample blueberry and blackberry notes. Notes of pencil lead and tobacco give the finish a more savory kick, which seems uncharacteristic for this varietal. One of the most balanced wines in this collection, and one which flirts with elegance. A- / $12

2015 Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah Central Coast – The 2014 petite sirah was a bust, and this one’s no better. Again it’s a combo of pruny, jammy fruit and leathery, vegetal funk — overripe plums meet the compost heap in a pungent, overwhelmingly earthy way. The finish lingers on the palate for an eternity. C / $12

Review: Copper & Kings American Dry Gin and Old Tom Gin

From brandy to orange liqueur to absinthe, what doesn’t Louisville-based Copper & Kings make? You can take off of that increasingly short list gin, thanks to two new expressions now being distilled here — a dry gin and an old tom. Both are double distilled in alembic stills.

We sampled both expressions. Thoughts follow.

Copper & Kings American Dry Gin – Made “using 100% apple wine from fresh-pressed apple juice. No neutral spirits are used in the distillation.” Botanicals include the classics: juniper berries, coriander, angelica, orris, and “other accent botanicals are steeped in apple brandy low-wine, then redistilled together with vapor distilled citrus peels & lavender in the gin basket.” Rather musty on the nose, I get notes of wet wool and earthy mushroom over anything approaching juniper. Lavender makes a significant appearance too, but it’s particularly impactful on the palate, where it gives a soapy/perfumy impression to the proceedings. The finish is leathery and full of minerals and masonry, with a fruity component that must be being driven by the apple wine distillate. Weird stuff, and far from the course compared to even the most oddball of gins. 92 proof. C / $35

Copper & Kings American Old Tom Gin – A higher-proof expression, with a grape brandy base and a bourbon barrel finishing treatment. Specific botanicals are not disclosed. On the whole this presents like a more typical barrel-aged gin, a pale yellow spirit with notes of vanilla and barrel char on the nose, alongside a smattering of dried herbs, pine needles, and a slight hospital note. The palate is less sharp than you’d think, mellowed out by the barrel time, displaying some floral elements, a racier perfume note, and some camphor that lingers particularly on the back end. That conclusion is particularly pungent, which will likely polarize drinkers. 100 proof. B / $35