Bar Review: NICO, Mt. Pleasant, SC

The upscale bedroom community of Mount Pleasant is just a few minutes and a big bridge away from Charleston, South Carolina, and a decade ago no one would have thought to put a high-end French bistro in these parts. Things have changed, though, as Mt. Pleasant has continued to vault its way upmarket.

NICO, which opened here five months ago, isn’t just a restaurant and bar, it’s also a man: Nico Romo, who is one of the world’s youngest French Master Chefs. The man clearly has a passion for seafood, and his and general manager Cal Goodell have even extended that to the drinks menu with the Scotch Oyster.

Put simply, the Scotch Oyster is a raw oyster with a small shot of Scotch served on the side. You drink the brine, pour a little whisky on the bivalve, gobble the combination up, then pour the rest of the Scotch into the shell to finish it off. NICO used to use Bowmore in the menu item, but at $12 it was a little ritzy. At $6 with a shot of blended whisky John Barr, it’s something you can probably have by the tray instead of just a single. The combination works well, too: I’ve had the oyster-whisky mix in the past, and I think it works better with a milder blend than with a stout Islay spirit. This one’s a great little combo.

NICO’s cocktail menu is heavy on the classics, though most have a bit of a Charleston spin to them. The French Martini takes Dixie vodka and mixes in house-made creme de cassis and pineapple juice to make for a fruit-heavy crowd pleaser. Also quite summery is the Absinthe Swizzle, which is not made with absinthe but rather Absentroux, an anise-flavored vermouth-like wine, plus Green Chartreuse, lemon and lime, Angostura bitters, and house-made ginger beer. Refreshing and fun, it’s served on a mountain of crushed ice — but I’d have loved to see it with even more Chartreuse… and served with a straw to help keep the ice off my face.

My favorite cocktail of the evening was the least “spun” of them all, the Coleman Boulevardier, which is made with Rittenhouse Rye, Campari, and Dolin Rouge vermouth. The garnish is a cool-looking wood-fired orange that adds a bit of creme brulee character to the mix, though not so much to really change the structure of the drink. All told, it’s a solid conclusion to a nice roundup of beverages — and next time I’m going for a plate of fresh, raw oysters to pair with it all!

Harvest in Chile’s Casablanca Valley – A Dusty Paradise

View from the top of Montsecano

“In many ways, for wine, Chile is like a mirror image of California,” said Byron Kosuge as we strolled from the winery to view the vast expanse of Kingston Family Vineyards in Casablanca Valley. Byron has been consulting winemaker for Kingston Family since 2003. He spends part of each year in Chile and the rest in Northern California where he consults for other labels and produces his well-regarded eponymous label B. Kosuge Wines.

Wonderful hosts at Espiritu Santo Restaurant

His comparisons to California stem from Casablanca’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which provides a recurrent marine layer that protects and nurtures the fruit in an otherwise hot and dry climate, the valley’s mineral rich soils and the temperatures ranging from roughly 45 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit—warm days, cool nights.

I was lucky enough to get an insider’s recommendations about which other Casablanca wineries to visit on my trip, and all the wines I tasted were very well made. The following four producers, distinct in character and vision from each other, all produce beautiful expressions of the land they’ve planted. And the land in Casablanca! The mountain ranges are massive and never-ending, mountains behind mountains behind mountains. They’re rocky and full of cactus, dotted with trees and terraced with grapevines. As you exit from a long tunnel (if you’re driving from Santiago), Casablanca Valley appears as an oasis of green vines, every row dreamlike and enticing.

Pro tip: Go to Valparaíso for lunch or dinner and enjoy the punk rock lux of the city by the sea and the delicious food and drink at Espiritu Santo. You can also stay there. You won’t regret it.

María Luz Marin and Renee Humphrey


Consulting winemaker Byron Kosuge taking us through a Kingston Family tasting

Owner/Winemaker María Luz Marin is like a triple shot of fine whiskey, petite with an impressive punch. The Viña Casa Marin property is 4km from the ocean just Southwest from Casablanca in the San Antonio Valley. Before planting there in 2000, the common wisdom was that land that close to the water was entirely inhospitable for wine grapes. She stuck to her guns though, and is now producing spectacular, cool climate wines.

I was particularly drawn to the whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. However, the 2011 Casa Marin Pinot Noir also made me do a happy dance. The 2016 Gewürztraminer had an uncommon, wonderfully nutty funk on the nose and was deliciously dry. One of her sons, Felipe Marin, is her co-winemaker and also produces his own label from the estate called Viñedos Lo Abarca. His 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was so unusual to me, and very enjoyable over the course of three days. Less than 300 cases produced, the wine showed wet stone and asparagus on the nose, minerality with a hint of tropical fruits and dried plantains on the palate, and a lingering citrus, lemon peel finish.

Like so many small wineries, Viña Casa Marin is a family affair. Maria’s eldest son Nicolas Marin is Operations Director of the company and runs their scenic estate restaurant Cipreses Vino Bar. If the plate of salami, cheeses, fruits and nuts, and baguette topped with avocado, red onion relish, white fish, and crème fraiche they were kind enough to whip up for me was any indication of what else is on offer, run don’t walk and have dinner there too.

Cipreses Vino Bar with view of Viña Casa Marin vineyards


When I first drove through the gate at Kingston and headed up the dirt road lined with majestic palm trees, I took a wrong turn. I wound around the rows of vines into a pack of wild horses. It was a surprise! I found out later that the horses lived there, and weren’t supposed to be in the vineyards but sometimes sneak in to eat the grapes. The animals are so loved by the family that the wines are named after them

The first Kingston to come to Chile in the later 1800s was a Michigan mining prospector. He bought the land and, through several iterations, his farm is now the vineyards plus a stunning tourist property. They receive lots of visitors stopping in from Santiago en route to Patagonia, or the End of the Earth, and are building a house to host visitors overnight that will soon be ready. The multilingual family and staff are gracious, knowledgeable and ready to help with whatever travel information you may need. They also export and ship their wines from the U.S. so it’s easy to join their club, but I highly recommend a visit to the winery if you can swing it.

The wines are great, organically farmed and very reasonably priced. They currently produce Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Rose. As I mentioned, Northern CA winemaker Byron Kosuge consults, and Amael Orrego is the winemaker, a Chilean native whose family owns Cascada de Las Ánimas. On our tour, we started with their lovely Syrah-based Rose. While taking in the beauty all around us, we learned that Chilean vines are rare because they have native roots rather than imported rootstock.

The Kingston wines all had characteristics of a slightly warmer climate than Viña Casa Marin, more fruit-driven, but still fresh with a nice acid balance. My favorite was the 2013 Lucero Syrah, a savory bit of brooding blackberry that will perfectly complement your steak, bloody or otherwise.


Julio Donoso showing us 2018 Refugio juice from its concrete egg

I had to get a ride from Byron to Montsecano because no easy directions were available. If they were, they’d have been in the nature of ‘once in Casablanca, turn right at the flowering bush, then hard left at the broken tree,’ etc. So we drove through a magical forest, up a mountain and landed at an industrial, thatched-roofed hut busy processing the final grapes of the 2018 harvest. Julio Donoso appeared out of the construction site for the new underground cellar, and swept us into a tour of the winery.

All fermentation for Montsecano and his other Pinot Noir label, Refugio, is done in either stainless steel or concrete eggs, with only concrete planned for future harvests because Julio prefers working with it. From tank and egg we tasted the juice of freshly picked Pinot for both labels, and a new Chardonnay project he’s working on. He was pleased with the rapid fermentation and the fine acid levels the 2018 harvest was producing. Many of the Pinots were surprisingly close to ready to drink.

Next we hopped in his car and survived a death-defying road trip to the top of the relatively small vineyard site. The inexpressibly beautiful 360 vista, a huge bird—that Julio called a white eagle—flying overhead, and the newly planted, fertile rows of vines along with some more mature blocks made me want to find a sleeping bag and stay right there for the night. These wines are sometimes hard to find, but I urge you to make the effort. The farming practices are all biodynamic and the whole operation just couldn’t be cooler.

Montsecano Vineyard


Bodegas Re tasting by appointment

The Re in Bodegas Re stands for reinvention, revive or rebirth. A second-generation project from a Concha Y Toro alumni winemaker, the Casablanca vineyard property is vast but most of the fruit is sold to other vintners. A small amount of fruit is chosen for the Bodegas Re brand to make intriguing blends with historical resonance and names that highlight rather than obscure the blending, like SyrahNoir, Cabergnan or Pinotel. (5 points if you can figure those out without looking at their website).

I enjoyed the Re 2014 SyrahNoir quite a bit, a blend of Syrah and Pinot Noir. It had the light on its feet character of many Pinots coupled with the meatiness and savory notes of Chilean Syrah, all well-balanced together. I also liked the Re 2010 Cabergnan, a blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and a small amount of Carignan that is still wildly fresh and could probably lay down for another ten years. It was most pleasurable to drink after being open for 24 hours.

Bodegas Re amphora and oak barrels

Being a tourist at Bodegas Re is easy and fun. My guide spoke perfect English, although I assaulted her with my broken Spanish now and then. She took me through the vineyard, the old school Licor de Frutilla room filled with booze-soaked fruit in pretty bottles, and the winery where they use amphora-inspired clay vessels as well as neutral French and American oak to age their wines.

The tour culminated in a lovely wine tasting accompanied by bread, cheese and olives, and a superb olive oil that is also produced on the property. The tasting room is open daily from 10 to 6 P.M. and tours are scheduled by appointment.

Revisiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, 2018

Back in 2011, I took my first trip to Kentucky, endeavoring to visit every distillery that was open to visitors at the time. Since then, a lot has changed, as bourbon mania has led in turn to bourbon tourism mania. In the last seven years, the region, and the Bourbon Trail itself, has exploded with new distilleries, bigger visitor centers, and enhanced touring experiences.

On a recent visit to Kentucky, I re-toured a few old faces plus one of the new guard, to see how the picture of Kentucky had changed in the intervening years. Fresh thoughts on each of the four distilleries we visited follow — though note, there is plenty more going on in Kentucky beyond this!

Jim Beam

Beam built a new visitor’s center in 2012, tripling the size of its old space (the old center is now the tasting room). It’s also wildly revamped its tour, thanks to the construction of a miniature version of the Beam fermentation tanks and column still. In this mini-distillery, visitors can get the full distilling experience on a more manageable scale — though the setup is fully operational and actually making whiskey. As the lengthy tour continues, visitors get to physically turn out (some of) a barrel of Knob Creek, sanitize a bottle of KC Single Barrel on the bottling line, and put their own thumbprint into its wax seal (presuming you want to actually buy said bottle). Afterwards, well over a dozen of Beam’s products are available for tasting via tricked-out wine bar dispensers: Insert your key card and the dispenser ejects a bit of Baker’s, Knob Creek, or even, god help you, Jim Beam Vanilla — everything but Booker’s, really — into your tasting glass. Three samples max! (That’s the law!)

Wild Turkey

Like Beam, Wild Turkey recently upgraded its visitor’s center, dramatically increasing its size and installing a tasting room that overlooks the Kentucky River from several hundred feet up. It’s a breathtaking space, though you might miss it if you spend too much time chatting with legendary distillers Jimmy and/or Eddie Russell, who are seemingly fixtures here, happy to chit-chat with just about anyone who happens inside. Wild Turkey’s tour is quick and informative, ending with a tasting of four of Turkey’s products — none of which, oddly, is its flagship 101.

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace never seems to stop moving, and though this was my third visit to the distillery, I saw nothing but new features on a private tour. The first stop was BT’s gargantuan new warehouses, which are still being painted as they’re being filled with whiskey. Barrels were being rolled into the ricks right in front of us, trucked up from the distillery just downhill. (Check our Instagram for some video.) The distillery will build a new warehouse every five months for the next ten years, clearly a sign that it thinks bourbon mania isn’t about to let up. The other attraction — and one which regular visitors can actually experience — is the distillery’s “Bourbon Pompeii,” an excavation of the original OFC Distillery, on top of which Buffalo Trace was (much later) built. The ruins of the original fermentation tanks and bits of stills have been unearthed and preserved in a full museum-like experience on the BT grounds. It’s a fascinating journey back to nearly 150 years ago that any whiskey (or history) fan should experience should they find themselves at the distillery.

Town Branch

The young gun of this mix, Town Branch’s brewery/distillery opened only in 2012, and it’s unique because a) it’s in the city of Lexington, not out in the boonies, and b) it started off as a beermaking operation. On a tour here you can see both sides of the street (literally), seeing the (very small) brewery and tasting a number of its products (including its whiskey barrel-aged beers). Next you can visit the distillery, where two copper pot stills are used to create not just bourbon, but single malt whiskey, gin, and, now, rum, which was fermenting on site during our visit. Town Branch’s spirits tasting is impressive, running through all of the above (including an imported rum and Irish whiskey). While the distillery has not won many plaudits for its lackluster rack bourbon, its single barrel bourbon expression is a delight, as are both of its single malts (particularly the reserve expression), which are aged not in new oak but in its twice-used bourbon/beer barrels, proof that new oak makes a tragic mess out of single malt. Best of all, it’s all about a mile from downtown Lexington, making it easy to get in and out of.

A Visit to Taft’s Ale House, Cincinnati

You’ll find Taft’s Ale House in the Over-the-Rhine District of Cincinnati, Ohio, a region still grappling with its rapid gentrification, a place where burned-out buildings will dominate one block, chick boutiques the next. Taft’s occupies the remains of a church here, rebuilt and converted into a working microbrewery/taproom, with long picnic style tables replacing the traditional pews.

Taft’s — named for the last president to come from this town — produces 10 or so beers at any given time, drawn from a rotating collection of recipes in its cookbooks. In our visit to Taft’s, we shot the breeze with GM Keith Maloy and bar manager Kiri Crawford, sampling the brewery’s full lineup as of late February 2018, and later visiting the smaller downstairs bar, where more traditional cocktails are whipped up. Thoughts on all of the beers tasted follow.

Taft’s Gustav – A nicely malty Vienna-style lager, some apple and pear notes; quite chew. 5.5% abv. A-

Taft’s Panic! Do Nothing – Juicy with bold grapefruit character, a classic hazy IPA. 7.2% abv. A-

Taft’s Nellie’s Key Lime Caribbean Ale – A wacky American ale brewed with key lime juice and coriander; you can certainly taste the lime, which gives it a particularly spicy finish. 4.8% abv. B+

Taft’s 27 Lager – A (very) German lager, burly with malt but crisp on the finish. 5.3% abv. B+

Taft’s Gavel Banger – A classic IPA, piney and very bitter, with a bit of a smoky bacon edge to it; chewy orange peel and pine hit hard on the back end. 7% abv. A-

Taft’s Cherrywood Amber – An amber ale brewed with cherrywood smoked malt. The smoke is light, but the cherry notes are bolder, lasting on the finish. 6% abv. B+

Taft’s Maverick Chocolate Porter – An evenhanded rendition of a brown porter, brewed with cacao nibs and husks from a local chocolatier; a lovely interpretation of this style, lightly raisiny at times and surprisingly engaging from start to finish. 5.5% abv. A

Taft’s Skronk Juice – Taft’s session IPA, simplistic and style and gently bitter, slightly green. 5% abv. B

Taft’s Kettle Sour #1 – Bold apple notes hit first on this big sour, along with lemon juice notes; after the first rush of sourness fades, elderflower notes emerge on the finish. 3.5% abv. B+

Taft’s Big Billy Goat – A Helles Bock — a big pretzel beer, through and through. A bit over-malted (or over-alcohol) though, and quite sweet at times. 6.8% abv. B

A Visit to Alameda Island Brewing Co.

Established in 2015, Alameda Island Brewing Company is the third brewery in this small suburb of Oakland, California, where a naval base moved out and legions of hipsters moved in. Here you’ll find one of the most richly cross-cultural communities in the U.S. (want Lithuanian food, you got it!), despite a tiny population of well under 100,000 residents.

You’ll also find some incredible beer here: Our pop-in to Alameda Island, which brews some 19-plus beers at any given time, all sold on premise in its taproom and at select establishments around the Bay Area, turned up some really impressive beers. Turns out that in less than three years, Alameda Island and owner Matthew Fox have learned an awful lot. We tasted 10 of the brewery’s offerings and took a short tour around the facility. Thoughts on all brews, and a few pictures, follow.

Alameda Island Rapid Pils – A Czech pilsner, wholly appropriate in style with a nice chew to it. 5% abv. A-

Alameda Island Uncommon Common – A pre-Prohibition dark cream ale, toasty and rustic, with a touch of smoke to it. 5.7% abv. B+

Alameda Island Island City IPA – West coast style, straightforward with a boldly piney bitterness. 7.3% abv. B+

Alameda Island Sea Haggis – A massive Scotch ale, barleywine in style with big fig notes and a hefty malt profile. 8% abv. A-

Alameda Island Control, ALT, Delete – A German ALT bier, bready and malty, with pretzel notes. 5.5% abv. B+

Alameda Island Cavanaugh Kolsch – Probably the most boring beer that Alameda makes, a straightforward brew with a bit of fruit, otherwise quite mild. 5% abv. B

Alameda Island Island Haze – An unfiltered IPA with a pineapple bomb that absolutely explodes on the tongue. The haze gives it a silkiness on the palate that only enhances the experience. Utterly beautiful. 6.1% abv. A

Alameda Island El-Ager – A dry-hopped lager with notes of citrus, lemongrass, and apricots; an entertaining hybrid. 8% abv. B+

Alameda Island Nacht – Schwarzbier, black as night, chewy and dank, with a touch of smoke and mushroom notes. 5.4% abv. B+

Alameda Island Mt. Olympus – A classic double IPA, with ample tropical notes and a massive bitterness that punches hard on the finish. A beautiful bruiser. 9.5% abv. A

Chateau Montelena’s Dream Tasting: A Retrospective of Five Decades of Wine

Chateau Montelena broke ground in 1972, and the winery has remained a stalwart of northern California wine country ever since. Best known for winning the white wine portion of the Judgment of Paris in 1976, today Montelena continues to churn out top-notch chardonnay and, more notably, cabernet sauvignon sourced from its Calistoga estate.

For no particular occasion that I could find, Montelena recently hosted a few dozen wine writers and industry types in its cellar, where longtime winemaker Bo Barrett and current winemaker Matt Crafton guided attendees through a once-in-a-lifetime “dream tasting,” a retrospective of Montelena’s cabernets spanning five decades, from the 1974 vintage (its first) to 2013. It’s hard to overestimate how unique and impressive this experience was, not only tasting the wines (all poured from magnums) but hearing Barrett’s tales of working in this industry for over 40 years.

My thoughts on all wines tasted follow, along with photos and other tidbits…

1974 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon – “Basically a prototype,” Barrett explains, with sourced fruit from “available grapes,” likely from all over Sonoma. Definitely well aged, the wine is showing gamy notes and moderate oxidation, though the the color is still intact thanks to a quite present acidity. There’s a greenness to it, though the wine remains approachable and often enjoyable as a window into the past. B

1975 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast – This wine was released after Montelena’s chardonnay had won the Judgment of Paris, right as the AVA system was beginning in California. With all eyes on Montelena, this wine — sourced from Rutherford grapes — has much more body than the 1974, but it’s still quite acidic, keeping things lively in the glass. There’s less going on here than the ’74, a relatively straightforward wine showing currant, plum, and a bit of blueberry. Definitely beginning to fade, but it still has some life in it. B+

1979 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – The first estate wine in this tasting, 1979 was a tough year that experienced crop damage and a very early harvest. Barnyard and match head notes lead the way here, the wine a bit sulfurous on the nose. The palate is lightly balsamic, showing more opulence and a clearer wood influence, but otherwise a relatively indistinct character. B

1980 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Showing more earth and leather here, with licorice notes and tobacco. Why the flavor shift? Because Montelena rotates its barrels through production, using them many times — up to five or more — until they are fully spent. Here we see some of those older barrels starting to influence the finished wine, giving it a spice element and some nutty almond notes. B+

1983 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Generally a maligned vintage in California, this wine is bold and rounded, with more alcohol and a stronger tannin level still hanging in there. Slightly chewy, with moderated fruit. B+

1988 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – A heavy drought year, this wine is dense and intense, with lots of dark fruit, licorice, and dark chocolate. The currants are particularly dense here, but in classic Montelena style there’s plenty of acid to go around. ’88 is considered a weak vintage, but as of 2018 there’s a balance and lushness here that is showcasing a glorious wine. This is a gateway wine between the restrained wines of the 1980s and the somewhat bolder modern vintages, a wine that deftly and capably straddles two styles. A

1990 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – 1990 marked the beginning of a long string — at least eight years — of excellent weather in Napa and Sonoma. ’90s cabs remain highly collectable. This wine immediately stands out as exceptional, bold with plum and currant notes, showing perfectly today, melding fruit and wet earth into a seductive whole. A

1994 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – An utterly intoxicating nose shows perfumed florals, almost bordering on a potpourri character. Elegant and refined, the finish takes the fruity core toward chocolate, vanilla, cola, and gingerbread notes. Incredible and perfectly balanced, it’s my top wine of the event. A+

1996 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – More perfume here, with lots of florals. Quite similar to the 1994, but slightly riper, with more bright fruit. So fresh it tastes like it could have been released two years ago, not 22. A

2001 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – As we enter the zeroes, we see more wood and eucalyptus notes in this, a “wet” wine that’s juicy and berry-forward. Again, it’s quite fresh with no real indication of its age, its tannins softening beautifully. A-

2005 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – An outlier for Montelena, relatively cool and wet, this wine shows ample incense, eucalyptus, and plenty of fresh red fruit. Slightly nutty at times. A-

2007 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine received some of the industry’s highest accolades at the time, but today it’s not showing its greatest charms, with an overload of chocolate and plenty of tannin still holding on tight. Less acidic than many other Montelena vintages, it feels like it’s already on the decline. B+

2010 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – A very cold year, here we get a flood of chocolate, vanilla, and big blackberry notes, though time is taking its toll here, now also showcasing a ton of earth that borders on vegetal. (prior notes hereB

2011 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Another tough and cold year for Montelena, this wine returns to some of those eucalyptus notes, with more incense, lavender, and heavy floral notes. These flavors aren’t as elegant as the similar ones found in the 1994/96 bottlings, but there’s an interesting spice and blueberry character on the finish here. A much better wine than its reputation claims. A-

2013 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Our final wine of the day, it remains young and developing, and needs time in bottle to mature. That said, its heavy herbal and eucalyptus notes create an enigmatic cedar box character. This is a wine with a future though it drinks a bit green today. B+

And some bonus tastes…

1988 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay – How does 30 year old chardonnay taste? Outstanding, it turns out. Fresh as a daisy, this wine feels a mere 3 to 4 years old, full of tropical notes, fig, melon, and a bitter lemon/quince kick that are all chardonnay standbys. The time in bottle gives this wine an austerity that comes across with a hint of almondy oxidation. This only adds depth and complexity to an already delightful wine. Gorgeous! A

2015 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (pre-release) – Very tropical, with tons of pineapple and baking spice, layered with vanilla and cardamom notes. A-

2015 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (pre-release) – This won’t hit shelves for more than a year, so I won’t offer a rating here. It’s already a quite expressive wine, very fruit-forward with a Beaujolais character at present. Clearly developing, it’s showing promise that we’ll revisit sometime in 2019.

Wine and Beer Touring in California’s Paso Robles, 2017

In 2014, the U.S. TTB finally approved a longstanding plan to split Paso Robles up into 11 AVAs. It was just the latest move that is turning this sleepy region into a top wine destination, with some 300 wineries (plus or minus, depending on who you talk to) cranking out some excellent bottlings. Rhone grapes — syrah, grenache, mourvedre, viognier — are the general focus here, but you’ll find just about everything being produced in this area, which experiences a wide range of microclimates but also undergoes huge swings in temperature.

Recently we spent four days in the region. Tasting notes on just about everything we encountered follow.

Need more Paso? See also notes from our previous road trips here in 2012 and 2014.

Calcareous Vineyard

A perennial favorite in Paso, Calcareous is one of the first stops you’ll reach as you head into the mountains — and the source of one of the area’s best wines, too. Calcareous is a geological term describing calcium carbonate, which the soil here is so rich with that it’s white.

2015 Calcareous Estate Chardonnay – Bright and lemony, melon notes and some lightly tropical character. The moderately creamy body is spot on. A- / $34
2014 Calcareous York Mountain Pinot Noir – Burgundian in tone, with light smoke and leather notes, and a bit of a balsamic edge. Restrained cherry notes give it life. A- / $40
2015 Calcareous ZSM – 48% syrah, 28% zinfandel, 24% merlot. An odd blend, the zin giving the wine a sweet attack. The merlot dials it all back and gives it a touch of cocoa on the back end. B+ / $45
2014 Calcareous Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Bright and fruity, with bold cherry, spice, and lingering cola and tea leaf notes. A- / $50
2015 Calcareous Grenache Paso Robles – A lightly floral nose is a surprise, as the wine winds its way toward dark raspberry, orange peel, and blackberry notes. A- / $49
2014 Calcareous Lloyd Paso Robles – 31% cabernet franc, 28% merlot, 24% cabernet sauvignon, and some other stuff I didn’t get written down. Chocolate, blackberry, and blueberry notes explode up front, leading to a bold, chewy palate with a citrus edge on the finish. A- / $62
2014 Calcareous Cabernet Sauvignon York Mountain Carver Vineyard – A quieter nose, chewy but stone-heavy, with balsamic notes and a silky finish. A- / $100
2013 Calcareous Signature Cabernet Sauvignon – Boldly minty with eucalyptus notes, brambly blackberry fills the palate. A- / $NA

Tablas Creek Vineyard

A titan of Paso Robles and one of the founding wineries of this area, Tablas makes a huge selection of Rhone-specific blends and single-varietal wines. Play nice and maybe they’ll pull out some of the “VINsider” stock for you.

2016 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc – 43% viognier, 40% grenache blanc, 14% marsanne, 3% roussanne. Very dry, mineral-heavy, with notes of green apple and sea salt. High acidity brightens it up. B+ / $30
2014 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc – 72% roussanne, 23% grenache blanc, 5% picpoul blanc. Slightly vegetal, bold but grassy, with light acid. B / $45
2014 Tablas Creek Full Circle 
– 100% pinot noir, not a grape this region is known for. Earthy, with licorice and a meaty underbelly; cherry notes develop over time. B+ / $45
2015 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas
– 39% granache noir, 35% syrah, 16% counoise, 10% mourvedre. Bright fruit here, with strong cherry and vanilla notes. A- / $35
2015 Tablas Creek Mourvedre
– 100% mourvedre. Bold and a bit funky, meaty with a strong bacon character. B+ / $40
2014 Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas
– 40% mourvedre, 35% grenache noir, 20% syrah, 5% counoise. A great combination of earth and fruit, bold raspberry and cherry notes. Sharp. A- / $55
2015 Tablas Creek En Gobelet
– A GSM wine made from “gobelet” trained vines. A salami and cheese-friendly wine, meaty, slightly gamy. B+ / $NA
2016 Tablas Creek Picpoul Blanc
– Light honey and peach notes, like a viognier-lite, with mild acidity. A- / $24
2015 Tablas Creek Tannat
– Yes, tannat! Strong currant notes, some earth, and a hint of eucalyptus. B / $32

Justin Winery

Since selling to Fiji Water in 2010, Justin Winery has undergone significant expansion and seen numerous upgrades. Today it’s a major destination in Paso Robles, complete with a luxury inn and gourmet restaurant.

2016 Justin Sauvignon Blanc Central Coast – Fueled by grapefruit, lemon, and some lime, this sauv blanc is bold, with a slight creaminess. A- / $NA
2016 Justin Viognier Paso Robles – A classic, peach-heavy wine with a mix of fresh herbs hitting on the back end. Some marshmallow notes emerge midway, but the finish is quite dry. B+ / $NA
2015 Justin Trilateral – A syrah, grenache, mourvedre blend (in that order), made in the style of a Cotes du Rhone. Heavily meaty on the nose, with notes of beef jerky and a leathery finish with notes of dried cherries. B / $NA
2015 Justin Malbec Reserve Paso Robles – Chewy, with some pepper, fresh plum, mint, and a long finish, with hints of cocoa. A- / $NA
2015 Justin Justification Paso Robles – 52% cabernet franc, 48% merlot. In pre-release, bold chocolate notes, big tannins, but will soften in time. Lightly floral, with some caramel on the finish. A- / $NA
2014 Justin Isosceles – 73% cabernet sauvignon, 15% cabernet franc, 12% merlot. Fragrant and spicy on the nose, iconic currant notes, a bit of baked apple, and a slight lilac note. One to watch. A / $NA
2015 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Paso Robles
– Quite bold with milk chocolate and blackcurrant notes, a barnburner or a wine with a semi-sweet kick to it. B / $NA
2014 Justin Isosceles Reserve
– The nose is quite spicy, and the palate is loaded with same. The body is mountainous with fruit and some floral notes, but this wine needs ample time for its disparate flavors to integrate. A- / $NA

And one from sister winery Landmark Vineyards, whose facility is located in Sonoma…

2014 Landmark Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Escolle Road Vineyard – Dense and powerful, with rich cherry and cola notes; a gorgeous wine. A- / $NA

Law Estate Wines

This high-end operation only produced its first vintage in 2010, and already it has built a reputation as one of Paso’s most luxurious wines — and most upscale places to visit, perched in a modernist castle atop a ridge studded with beautiful views. Nearly all of its wines are blends and all are made with estate fruit.

2014 Law Cirque – 32% tempranillo, 23% mourvedre, 23% grenache, 22% carignan. Smoky on the nose, with a palate full of meaty bacon. Very dense and dry, with cocoa powder leading to a tight finish that’s only just starting to open up. Not altogether there yet, but it may focus in time. B / $75
2014 Law Sagacious
– 42% mourvedre, 38% syrah, 20% granache. More floral, with green olive notes, lots of chocolate, and some tobacco character. Better integration of flavors, with a silky finish. A- / $75
2014 Law Audacious
– 30% cabernet sauvignon, 29% syrah, 23% granache, 18% petit verdot. Again, cocoa and cassis carry the day, with eucalyptus notes on the back end. Blueberry hits on the finish. One of may favorites of the grouping. A- / $75
2014 Law Beyond Category
– 75% syrah, 13% petit verdot, 12% petite sirah. A bit dusty, with violet and plum notes, plus blueberries and pie crust, lifting it up. B+ / $75

Epoch Estate Wines

Located on the western edge of the Paso region, getting to Epoch requires some minor off-roading, but it’s worth the trip for Jordan Fiorentini’s lineup of rich wines. Don’t miss her “vinpressions,” Jordan’s drawings that visualize on paper her experience of tasting each wine. (Winery cat pictured above!)

2016 Epoch White – 47% grenache blanc, 39% viognier, 14% roussanne. Rather bold, with some vegetal notes atop a core of quince, brown butter, and baking spices. B+ / $35
2013 Epoch Veracity – 49% grenache, 34% mourvedre, 17% syrah. A creamy expression of a Rhone with notes of graphite and leather. Vanilla kicks in on the back end before some fruit washes over you. A- / $65
2013 Epoch Estate Blend – 32% syrah, 25% grenache, 25% mourvedre, 10% tempranillo, 8% zinfandel. Silky and a bit spicy, with solid vanilla notes, raspberry, and chocolate sauce on the finish. Tons of depth here. A / $50
2013 Epoch Ingenuity
– 54% syrah, 21% mourvedre, 16% grenache, 9% petite sirah. A pepper, raspberry, and currant explosion. Earth with more chocolate notes, silky tannins, some mushroom, and blueberry fruit on the finish. Elegant and balanced. A / $70
2013 Epoch Tempranillo
– 87% tempranillo, 10% grenache, 3% zinfandel. Tannic and heavy, with some mint notes. Lots of earthy, leathery notes. B+ / $75
2013 Epoch Tempranillo Reserva –
78% tempranillo, 22% grenache. Intense, with a mouthful of eucalyptus, dark chocolate, and a lingering sweetness. Massively tannic. B+ / $NA

Pelletiere Estate Vineyard and Winery

Janis Denner, a Bay Area transplant, purchased this dilapidated vineyard and winery in 2014 and built it back into something that is gaining some real attention for its focus on Italian grapes, unusual in this area. On the day of our visit, she was the only one working in the winery’s small tasting room.

2016 Pelletiere Viognier Paso Robles – Classic, golden and bright, well structured, with bold notes of peaches, honey, and a little spice. A / $NA
2015 Pelletiere Montepulciano Paso Robles – A massive barnyard funk mars this wine, pungent and earthy, with blown-out licorice and smoky bacon notes. B- / $NA
NV Pelletiere Vino Rosso Paso Robles – A nonvintage table wine, with a bit of olive, fruit, and ample leather and spice notes. Some earth and licorice underneath. B+ / $NA
2014 Pelletiere Sangiovese Paso Robles – A classic representation of its style; Italian in structure, with leafy olive notes, ample acid, and a cherry core. B+ / $NA
2015 Pelletiere Zinfandel Paso Robles – Peppery and bold, but a bit restrained, allowing some pretty spice notes to show through. A- / $NA
2015 Pelletiere Syrah Paso Robles – Notes of toasted bread, with an ample meaty bacon character. Could use some time in bottle to soothe its leathery tannins. B / $NA

Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery

Vina Robles is one of only a handful of wineries on the “east side” of Paso Robles, across the 101 freeway. Flatter and drier, the wines here can be considerably different from those just a few miles away to the west. Vina Robles is also home to a large concert venue which hosts some of the biggest names in music and comedy to venture through this region.

2016 Vina Robles WHITE4 – A blend of 45% viognier, 27% vermintino, 17% sauvignon blanc, and 11% verdelho. Aromatic and lightly peachy, with gentle lemon notes. Lightly creamy, it’s a big crowd-pleaser. A- / $16
2016 Vina Robles Vermintino Huerheuro – Great acidity here, with floral and vanilla notes; creamy at times with ample zippiness. A / $18
2015 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Estate – Blueberry and currant notes galore, with bold chocolate and fruit notes. The finish is surprisingly dry. B / $26
2014 Vina Robles Petite Sirah Estate – Lovely milk chocolate notes, some florals, and a bit of raspberry. A- / $29
2014 Vina Robles Zinfancel Estate – 88% zinfandel, 12% petite sirah. Fresh strawberry and baking spice notes, almond on the finish. Light body for zin. A- / $32
2013 Vina Robles Syree – 80% syrah, 20% petite sirah. Chocolate cherry, but quite dry, with bold pepper and eucalyptus notes. Some blueberry at the back. B+ / $46
2013 Vina Robles Petite Sirah Creston Valley Vineyard – Bolder and higher in acid, but seeing some gamy, meaty notes. B / $46
2013 Vina Robles Signature
– 79% petit verdot, 21% petite sirah. Violet notes lead some heavy floral notes, with cocoa powder and a slight grassiness. B+ / $46
2013 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Mountain Road Reserve
– Eucalyptus notes, with dark chocolate, vanilla, and brown sugar all heavy. A little beefy at times, but the tannins are softening. A- / $54
2014 Vina Robles Syrah Terra Bella Paso Robles
– A punch of dark chocolate leaves behind more eucalyptus, cassis, and a mound of roast beef. A- / $NA
NV Vina Robles Brut
– Sourced from New Mexico, this is a fresh and creamy sparkler, with apples, pears, and some fig fruit. B+ / $NA

Firestone Walker Brewing Company

Paso Robles isn’t just home to some world-class wines, it’s also got a major beer operation calling the region home. Firestone Walker has become one of the biggest successes in craft brewing in recent years, driven largely by the runaway success of its ubiquitous 805 Blonde Ale. (This beer is sold in 30 states, but 80% of the total goes to California.) The tour here is quick, informative, and well worth taking.

Firestone Walker DBA – Firestone’s original beer, with lots of lemon and chewy malt. Slightly hazy, its a winner that drinks easily. 5% abv. A-
Firestone Walker 805 – Punchy with malt, fresh and lively. Easy to see why it’s a hit. 4.7% abv. A-
Firestone Walker Unfiltered DBA – A slight woodiness here vs. the standard DBA, some vegetal notes. 5% abv. B
Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
– A hoppy pilsner, with bold grain notes plus a punch of hops. 5.3% abv. B+
Firestone Walker Nitro Merlin Milk Stout
– A beautiful stout with a supple body, rich with fresh and toasty cocoa nibs, but light on the finish. 5.5% abv. A
Firestone Walker Pale 31 
– Floral with nuts and lots of toasty malt, a big and rounded “pretzel beer.” 4.9% abv. A-
Firestone Walker Luponic Distortion 008 
– Tons of fruit here, apples and spice, lemon, grapefruit, and a playful bounty of hops. Supple and well balanced. 5.9% abv. A
Firestone Walker Wookus 
– A Leo vs. Ursus black rye, very chewy and chunky, with notes of burnt toast and hard pretzels. A big departure, stylistically, for this series. 8.2% abv. B+
Firestone Walker Dark & Stormy (2017)
– An ale blended with ginger and lime; it sure does smell like its namesake, but the sweet malt and spicy ginger make for some unusual sipping. Hard to get your head around it. 13.6% abv. B+
Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee (2017) 
– A molasses bomb with maple syrup and baking spices; a bit thick for me. 13.8% abv. B
Firestone Walker Sucaba (2016) 
– This barrel-aged barley wine has dill on the nose and ample balsamic notes, with a bold finish of molasses, vanilla, and cocoa powder. A monster. 13.4% abv. A-
Firestone Walker XXI Anniversary (2017) 
– Gorgeous, loaded with caramel and chocolate, raspberry, and ginger notes. Tons going on, and doing it perfectly. 11.8% abv. A
Firestone Walker C-Hops Pale Ale – An exceptional pale ale, with loads of citrus, piney resin, and just a great all-around balance. 6% abv. A
Firestone Walker Highland Park Brewing Collaboration
 – Not a collaboration with the distillery but rather with another brewer in Venice Beach. A rather dull beer, a Czech-style lager with chewy malt notes and not a lot more going on. 5.3% abv. C

A Visit to Copper Fox Distillery

While only an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia seems worlds away from any city. Many new distilleries today are taking up shop in suburban business parks or urban warehouse spaces, which makes this location, in an old 1930s apple warehouse and cider mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the more unique. Rick Wasmund, the founder of Copper Fox, likes to point out that his distillery is still in the apple juice business, using applewood (along with cherrywood and, more recently, peachwood) to smoke the malted barley that goes into their whisky.

You’ll notice that’s whisky with a “y” only. Virginia is most definitely not in Scotland, but Rick learned the art of whisky-making on Islay studying under the legendary Jim McEwan at Bowmore Distillery. Copper Fox was also the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln since Prohibition, so if any American distiller has earned the right to drop the “e,” it’s probably Rick. It was his desire to understand the potential for fruitwood-smoked malt (vs. more traditional peat) that took Rick to Scotland. After returning stateside in 2000, Rick searched for the perfect location, recruited investors, and opened Copper Fox in 2005 (with only his mother and another partner) and set to work perfecting the malting process that has made him famous in the craft distilling and brewing community.

Our tour began in the malt house, where Copper Fox uses traditional floor maltings to germinate their grain, all of which is sourced from farms across Virginia. Next was a peak inside the malt kiln, an unassuming space behind a large chalkboard door that bears a list of nearly three dozen breweries from around the country brewing with Copper Fox malt. Inside, an old pot-bellied stove and Weber charcoal grill are used to dry and flavor batches of malted barley resting on the perforated floor above. Copper Fox uses a unique system of pot stills: one large pot still, a secondhand Vendome, feeds a smaller custom-designed all copper pot still with a curiously wide and squat reflux chamber. The tour ends with a look inside the barrelhouse, where all of Copper Fox’s whisky is aged in used cooperage, typically for under two years, with toasted fruitwood added — although how much and how often remain trade secrets. In keeping with the refreshingly quirky aesthetic of the distillery, a large painting of two cherubs hangs high on a wall in the barrelhouse, a nod to the angel’s share of spirit lost to evaporation.

After my informative and entertaining tour, I had my pick of drinking options and settings. In addition to their traditional tasting bar, Copper Fox just recently opened an on-site cocktail bar that has a riverside patio with great mountain views. While many distilleries have started offering cocktails, Copper Fox is raising the bar with homemade shrubs and even a line of custom bitters that will soon be for sale.

I saddled up to the tasting bar and sampled Copper Fox’s core range, as well as a couple of limited edition offerings only available at the distillery gift shop. Thoughts follow.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky – The flagship 100% malt product. This single malt really showcases the applewood and cherrywood smoke. It’s cereal-forward and earthy, typical of a younger single malt, but plentiful fruit notes round the edges nicely and give it a surprising balance. 96 proof.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (“Green Top”) – This is a distillery exclusive release of the standard single malt extra aged in an apple brandy barrel. The brandy really compliments the applewood smoke in the malt and sweetens the overall experience with spearmint and honey notes. 96 proof.

Copper Fox Rye Whisky – While the mashbill is a robust two-thirds rye, the one-third malted barley still contributes a lot to the flavor. There are great pepper and cinnamon notes on the palate, but the lingering fruit quality and subtle smokiness make this a truly unique rye. 90 proof.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye Whisky (“Blue Top”) – Another bottling only available at the distillery, “Blue Top” takes the standard Copper Fox Rye and ages it in used port style wine casks from a local Virginia winery. The wine-finish amplifies the fruit component in the rye, ripening the cherry notes and producing a wonderfully syrupy mouthfeel. 90 proof.

Vir Gin – The only product in the current line-up that is not a whisky, this is nevertheless a single malt gin made from 100% malted barley with a special emphasis on anise hyssop. Other botanicals used in production include Mediterranean juniper and citrus, as well as seasonal offerings from the distillery’s garden, making each batch unique. My sample was full of licorice on the nose and palate with a rich, malty body and peppery finish. 90 proof.

Cupping Coffee with Intelligentsia

Intelligencia Coffee
There is no scent warmer and more inviting than that of coffee beans roasting. The moment we stepped through Intelligentsia’s front door, all traffic woes were forgotten in favor of a good mood. We knew the afternoon would only get better. We walked past huge bags of newly roasted coffee beans and paused a moment before an enormous roasting machine with its large paddles for stirring the beans as they roast.

Large roaster machineHave you ever experienced cupping coffee? During our visit to Intelligentsia Coffee’s San Francisco facility, we learned how to perform this delightful ritual used by coffee roasters to determine the quality of their newly roasted coffee beans. There are elements each bean is rated upon with regards to types of aromas and initial flavor profiles. We discovered that each roaster has their own proprietary checklist they work from.

Cupping coffee — a tasting system that involves a significant amount of protocol — isn’t quick and there’s a specific way to sip the coffee from the spoon. Loud slurp noises are acceptable! However, it is worth the time because fine beverages meant to be savored — including coffee.

For cupping, the first thing you do is lean over the cup to take in the aromas. You can use your hand to wave the scents toward your face. Aromas range from floral to leguminous; the goal is to identify additional scents, such as botanicals, floral, or citrus.

Next you sip the coffee and determine the following factors:

  • Taste – There are sixteen types of taste descriptors, ranging from acrid to delicate; then from soft to creosol. Elements like saltiness and bitterness levels are notated on a checklist.
  • Sweetness – How prevalent or how missing sweet notes are present in the brew. The type of sweetness can vary as well; honey-like or sugary or syrupy if overdone.
  • Acidity – Varying types of acidity can enhance a coffee’s flavor or add to bitterness. Acidity ranges from lactic to acerbic with the harshest being kerosene like.
  • Complexity – Complexity involves the balance of the flavors present in a cup and whether elements in the flavor profile complement one another or compete, creating odd or negative tastes.
  • Aftertaste – This is typically used to describe negative tastes at the end of a beverage. While it is often a sign of something wrong with the bean or during the roasting, it can be a pleasant association as well.

A Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel put out by the Specialty Coffee Association shows all the common elements to look for.

Our host, Mark Cunningham explained how any coffee is at its finest during the cupping and that it will never be better than at that moment. He told us that a good coffee will still taste good after it’s gone cold, but lesser quality coffees get bitter and harsh.

Our cupping completed, we came back to our coffee after touring the roasting floor to discover the truth in his statement. The cups of varying roasts tasted just as amazing as when we first sipped from the spoon. The big chain coffees’ burnt-tasting dark roasts are no longer palpable. Strong doesn’t need to be bitter or charred; in fact, it is much better when it isn’t.

Cupping RitualIntelligentsia also offers a variety of artisan teas called tisanes. We sampled two of them at the cupping. Both were wonderful blends of tea, spices, and botanicals such as cardamom, rose hips, and turmeric. They are expanding in the tea area by continuing to produce new blends.

Just how does Intelligentsia obtain their high quality coffees? By working with small, family owned coffee bean farmers around the world. Their buyers are very hands-on in their search for the best beans to purchase, taking the time necessary to visit the farms and sample the raw product. With the climate and soil compositions determining the flavors of the coffee after roasting, this is an important step. It makes sense when you realize that beans mature at different times of the year, depending upon where in the world the plants are growing. One thing Intelligentsia insists on are beans properly matured on the plant before harvesting. We liken that to the taste difference between garden grown tomatoes and those picked early and expected to ripen on the way to the grocery store. Most fruits and vegetables stop ripening once harvested so their flavors aren’t robust as those garden grown. Coffee beans wouldn’t be any different.

Just recently opened to the public (previously their clients were bars and restaurants), Intelligentsia has red coffee trucks which make appearances around town in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Follow them on Twitter to find out where you can catch them. They also recently opened a monthly coffee subscription service. Additionally, Intelligentsia offers classes on brewing for barista training.

In closing, we learned that Two Sisters Bar and Books in San Francisco created a couple of cocktails featuring Intelligentsia coffee. They were kind enough to share those recipes with us. We made them with the Intelligentsia coffees and found them both to be amazing cocktails. Give them a try and let us know what you think.

The Bluegrass BuzzThe Bluegrass Buzz
created by Mikha Diaz for Two Sisters Bar and Books
3 oz. Intelligensia Cold Brew from cold brew concentrate (diluted at a 6:1 ratio)
1 1/2 oz. Old Forester 86 bourbon
1/2 oz. brown sugar simple syrup (equal parts brown sugar, gently packed, and boiling water; stir to combine)
lightly whipped heavy cream

Combine cold brew, bourbon and brown sugar simple syrup in a small tin or pint glass. Fill with ice and shake. Strain into a small rocks glass. Top with 2-3 tablespoons of lightly whipped cream.

The Sharp Shooter
created by Kathryn Kulczyk for Two Sisters Bar and Books
1 1/2 oz. Cold Brew Cognac (4 oz. El Diablo blend, ground for cone drip filter, infused into 750 ml. Maison Rouge 100 proof cognac)
3/4 oz. Ancho Reyes liqueur
1/2 oz. Carpano Antica vermouth
3 hard dashes Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters

Combine cognac, liqueur, and vermouth in a small tin or pint glass. Fill with ice and shake. Strain into a small rocks glass. Top with three whole coffee beans.

A Visit to Casa Herradura

Casa Herradura

The region of Jalisco, Mexico (near Guadalajara) has been, and still is, responsible for the entirety of the Earth’s tequila for over 400 years, though the history of tequila dates back several thousand additional years. Everything in this region is designed to contribute to fine tequila. Beautiful warm weather, natural underground soft water, perfect terroir of red volcanic soil, and the variation of agave plants that produce the most natural sugars are the building blocks of a tequila meant to be sipped and savored. Toss out your salt and lime, and join me in a visit to Casa Herradura — the maker of Mexico’s most popular tequila, produced the same way for generations.

Jimador cutting the pinaHerradura has been instrumental in developing some of today’s key tequila standards, and they continue striving to improve them. They were the first to introduce Reposado tequila to the world in 1974 and Extra Anejo tequila in 1994 — after twenty years spent perfecting it. The excellent quality of their tequila proves that sometimes the old ways are best.

Natural is the way to describe what’s best about Herradura (which means “horseshoe” in Spanish). While there are tequila industry standards, Herradura prides themselves, and rightly so, for exceeding those across the board. Others may harvest their blue agave plants at four or five years; Herradura lets theirs mature a full seven years or more. Herradura enjoys access to their own underground water resources and have their own cooperage through owners Brown-Forman. Even though the fermentation process is quicker in tequila than other spirits (due to the warm weather year-round), Herradura also ferments at each stage of the tequila production process for longer, nearly double what other tequila distillers do. How do you top all that? By cutting the heads and tails, which are unhealthy alcohols that come out at the beginning and end of distillation, not once but twice.

Tequila aging barrelsSeveral interesting things about agave and tequila were brought to our attention during our visit to Casa Herradura. The agave is roasted and then the sugars are pressed out, leaving behind fibers from the agave plant. Those fibers are then rinsed with water to obtain as much agave nectar as possible. This is where the importance of soft water plays in. The liquid is pumped into fermentation tanks, where fermentation begins within a day or two and lasts for 92 hours. No yeast is added, no heat applied, and the mixture foams and bubbles as the sugars are converted into alcohol. The agave nectar you can buy at the store as a sweetener is this same agave liquid used in making tequila. The difference is, in order to turn it into something with a shelf life and no natural fermentation, it must be immediately pasteurized in the same way milk is.

Pinas waiting to be processedBack to the tequila. There are five types of tequila produced by Herradura. They all come from the very same blue agave and are initially processed the same way. So, what’s the difference between Blanco (Silver), Reposado, Añejo, Ultra, and the Seleccion Suprema Extra Añejo? It’s all in how long the tequila is aged. All of it begins life as Blanco tequila. After 45 days in the fermentation kettles, the clear Blanco is either bottled or put into American White Oak casks to age. If a cask has previously been used, the insides are scraped out before being charred all over again. The next tequila is Reposado, which has a light golden color from the oak. The industry standard is aging for two months, but Herradura ages its Reposado for eleven months. For the Añejo, the aging time lengthens to 24 months. Again, the industry standard is only 12 months. The Ultra starts as the base Blanco but goes through a second distillation process, emerging as a very floral tequila. Seleccion Suprema, the Extra Anejo, ages for a full 45 months, at which point 40% of the original liquid will have evaporated. That “angel’s share” is comparable to a 12-year-old whiskey.

Train viewBecause all tequilas begin as Blanco, you can really tell the overall quality of a distillery by the quality of the Blanco. It makes sense; if you can’t sip the Blanco and have to mask it with salt and lime to get it down, then you’ll likely have a similarly bad experience with the aged ones. Any cocktail created with a good quality tequila tastes significantly better.

Visiting Casa Herradura begins in Guadalajara, where you hop onto the Herradura Express — a train opening to the public on April 29. Riding this lush train, while sipping on a margarita or Paloma, is just the thing to set your visit off to the right start. As you ride along, the train passes by fields of blue agave in various stages of growth. You also see the rustic lifestyles of many people living in this area of Mexico. Wood and barbed wire fences surround the fields, while bright frescos decorate the sides of some buildings.

Agave greetersOnce you disembark from the train, it’s a short bus ride to the Casa. The first thing that greets you upon stepping through the stone gates are pathways lined with blue agave. The lush grasses and native plant life give the place a feeling of being a tequila oasis in the desert. The staff are friendly and greeted our tour group with the house margarita — a tamarind version in a glass rimmed with a chile powder mixture. It tasted wonderfully spicy and tangy.

When you embark on the tour, be sure you are wearing good walking shoes. Casa Herradura is a big place, and you will want to see it all. First up is seeing an agave piña (the center) being stripped of its long, bladed leaves and the green portions sliced away. This is because those green skins will make the tequila bitter if left on. Then, the piña is cut in half and taken to the ovens to be roasted.

Herradura uses the oven baking method for roasting agave piñas. There are other distilleries that use an autoclave to speed up the process, but they sacrifice taste as a result. Our host explained it to us as the difference between cooking meat on the grill as opposed to in a microwave oven. Once roasted, the agave has turned a dark pink-brown color and is ready for removing the syrup from the fibers.

Agave roasting in the ovenThe syrup is pumped into large, open fermentation vats. The reason for the open tops is to allow the natural yeasts from the plantation’s trees and other plants to permeate the syrup as it naturally ferments. On our tour, we sampled the syrup in five stages, all straight from the vats. It is interesting how, in each stage of fermentation for only a few days, the taste of the syrup changes. Some of the sweetness is lost as it converts into alcohol; then flavors of banana and florals begin taking shape.

At this stage, the tequila is pumped into large copper kettles and distilled. Afterward, water is added to the Blanco to bring its alcohol content down before bottling. The remaining tequila is sealed into oak barrels to age.

Antique agave crushing wheelHerradura is a charming place, filled with enchanting beauty and history. We drank tequila from barrels carried on the back of a donkey and toured the old factory. Rumors are that the old areas are haunted by the souls of those who died there: workers, priests hiding from persecution, and people seeking refuge from revolutionists. There are underground tunnels where Herradura actively helped smuggle many people to safety in generations past. Those tunnels are now filled with water. Here we also learned that tequila was originally sold solely at barrel-strength and only to men. Times have indeed changed.

The tequila donkeyIn Mexico, people seldom drink tequila cocktails. They prefer sipping it neat or mix it with Squirt or Coke. Drink good tequila from champagne flutes or brandy snifters, as those were recommended as the best glasses to bring the scents and tastes to your experience.

An interesting note: when creating your own tasting, line the glasses up in order — Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, etc. Take in the scent of each after swirling it in the glass to observe the color before tasting. Once you’ve tasted them all, go back to the Blanco and Reposado. Taste one and then the other without any water in between. Then, sip the Blanco again. The change in flavor is immediate and wonderful. Do the same for the Añejo, bouncing among all three. When you do this, the more elusive flavors come forth for you to enjoy. It is a bit of a ritual and a perfect way to enjoy Herradura at your next dinner party.

A Visit to Napa Valley Distillery

Like many small distilleries, Napa Valley Distillery — the first distilling operation since Prohibition to open its doors in a town that’s synonymous with wine — has a two-pronged approach to making product. It distills some spirits on its own (vodka and brandy, mainly, distilled from sauvignon blanc grapes) using a couple of neat, small stills, and it sources everything else. The focus with its sourced products is heavily on barrel finishing, and the company often makes use of local wine barrels to give rum, whiskey, and a variety of liqueurs a Napa-style spin.

Recently I took a tour of NVD as part of the Flavor! Napa Valley event, which included a quick tour of the small facility, followed by a cocktail tasting and food pairing in the reception hall situated upstairs from the distillery and warehouse. Owner Arthur Hartunian explained that his focus is really on hospitality foremost, and the speakeasy-like environment up here is designed as a bit of a nostalgic oasis for wine-soaked tourists looking for something a little different after a day of sipping chardonnay.

NVD plans to expand its distilling operations this summer, partnering with local breweries to make whiskey out of beer. Meanwhile, you can drop by the operation (note that reservations are required), take a quick spin and pay your respects to Walter White, and head upstairs for bespoke cocktails made exclusively from ingredients Napa Valley produces, including its own syrups and shrubs. If you can get an Aviation (made with its own clear creme de violette) or a Sazerac, I highly recommend both.

Understanding the Wines of France

To an average wine imbiber, a trek through the new world wine section of their store of choice is a painless ordeal; a California Cabernet has “Cabernet Sauvignon” written right there on the label. Same with an Oregon Pinot Noir, an Australian Syrah, and just about any other “New World” wine. Blends might be trickier, but oftentimes they’ll have a breakdown of which varietals they’re made of somewhere on the label.

This is not so for the labels from most wine-producing countries in Europe, which to the uninitiated can seem maddeningly confusing and needlessly opaque. How can someone tell what is in a bottle of Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, for instance? The answer is that, while French wine labels might be vague, France’s wineries are dominated by the governmental body Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC (with France’s entry into the EU, technically the term is now AOP, but many wineries still use the designation AOC). The AOC’s laws are very, very strict about what grapes can be grown in what region of the country, in order to maintain the terroir, or the individual taste of a wine region, and so by knowing how these grapes and regions match up, you’ll always have at least a basic idea of what to expect in any bottle of French wine. Join us today to take a whirlwind tour through four of France’s top wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux is the most famous of France’s wine regions — perhaps of all of the world’s wine regions — and is the region that most people think of when they think of French wine. Located just inland from the Atlantic Ocean on France’s southwest side, split in two by the Gironde estuary, some of the most expensive wines in the world come from Bordeaux, including the several-thousand-dollar Château Cheval Blanc, which featured heavily in the movie Sideways. The grapes most regularly used in red Bordeaux wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carbernet Franc, but of course it can’t be so simple as to just say that and call it a day. The split in the region caused by the Gironde also causes a split in the varietals of grapes used in the wines: on the left bank of the river, including areas like Médoc and Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the wines, whereas on the right bank, typified by areas like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, are heavily Merlot-based wines. White Bordeaux blends are typically made between the two rivers that form the estuary, and are blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Thanks to Bordeaux blending processes, a good Bordeaux can be endlessly complex, with fruit notes subordinate to tastes and scents like pencil lead, flat stone, loam, and others, depending on which grapes are used. They can be intimidating for new wine drinkers, but a Bordeaux blend has incredible aging potential and can continue to surprise you with new flavors and aromas hours after it’s been opened.

Across the country from Bordeaux, nearing the central east of France, is the region of Burgundy. The regional names you’ll see on the label for Burgundy include Chablis, Macon, and Beaujolais, but unlike Bordeaux, things are simpler here: With one exception, all red Burgundy is made with Pinot Noir grapes, and with no exceptions, all white Burgundy is made with Chardonnay grapes. So why not just slap the grape name on the bottle? Because terroir is still strongly in effect within Burgundy, and white Burgundies made in different regions, for instance, can taste completely different. A white Burgundy from Chablis, for instance, usually tastes very dry, with a white stone minerality, not at all like a Chardonnay someone used to California butter bombs like Rombauer would expect, whereas white Burgundies from Pouilly-Fuisse tend to be more woody and creamy. The one exception to the Pinor Noir-based red Burgundies are the wines from Beaujolais. As you may know if you join in the tradition of opening a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau around Thanksgiving, Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape, which is more fruit-forward and immediately ready to drink than a drier, earthier Burgundy made from Pinot Noir.

North of Burgundy, in the upper northeast of the country, right on the border with Germany, lies the region of Alsace. In the history of the two countries, Alsace has always been a point of contention, and it has changed hands between the two countless times; this gives the region a strong German influence that is shared with their wines. Alsatian wines are made almost exclusively with white grapes, especially Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They’re made in a more dry, mineral-forward style than someone used to United States Riesling and Gewurz might expect, but like an Italian Pinot Grigio, they’re very refreshing and go great with food. Alsatian Rieslings especially also have excellent aging potential among white wines due to their acidity, and in good conditions can continue to age well for decades.

Too cold up in Alsace? Head south, starting in the Swiss Alps and ending at France’s beautiful eastern Mediterranean coast, near Italy, where you’ll find the wine-growing region of the Rhône Valley. For someone used to a more fruit-forward style of red wine like those found in California or Australia, the wines from the Rhône area might be a good jumping-off point into the world of French wines. The primary grapes used in Rhône blends include red grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, as well as white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier, though AOC allows additional varietals to be blended into the wines in more prestigious regions. Starting up in the north of the Rhône, around the Swiss Alps, you’ll find regions like Crozes-Hermitage that make spicy, savory Syrah that will age wonderfully for years. Further south you’ll find more of an influence of Grenache and Mourvèdre in the wines, from inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône, to pricier, more complex Gigondas and Vacqueyras, to gorgeous, sumptuous blends from around the former Papal enclave of Avignon, called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While the northern Syrahs tend to be savory and meaty, the climate of southern Rhône produces rich blends with a perfect balance of berries and the natural terroir that French wine strives for.

This is of course only very a basic overview of France’s four best-known wine regions. Whole books have been written about each of these, and there are many more lesser-known regions within the country, like the Loire Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon. Hopefully this overview will help you try a new French wine or two, and discover the wonders that the country has in store for a curious drinker.