Calaveras County – 41 Wineries, 3 traffic Lights

With his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Mark Twain brought attention to this small region in the heart of the Sierra Foothills. A century and a half later, Calaveras County is celebrating its notoriety as one of California’s premium wine growing wine regions, now home to 41 wineries.Visiting the sleepy little town of Murphy’s will conjure up images of an earlier time when fortune seekers filled the saloons and boarding houses during the height of the gold rush. A handful of immigrants brought grape vine cuttings along with their gold pans and sluice boxes, soon realizing that they could make more money selling wine to the miners than with the back breaking work of prospecting.

In 1870 there were over 100 wineries operating in Calaveras County. Eventually, the mines played out and prohibition put an end to this once thriving industry leaving the majority of the old vineyards unattended for the next 50 years. The current renaissance began in the 70’s, as new vineyards were planted and the old vineyards were brought back into production. “Old Vine” zinfandel is some of the most intense and complex wine found on planet Earth and Calaveras County is home to a handful of vineyards over 100 years old!

A visit will reward you with great wines, friendly tasting rooms and a touch of history at no additional charge. You might even catch one of Dan’l Webster’s relatives and see how far he can jump!

 

Don’t Fear the Wine List

If you’re like most people, you are handed a nice leather bound restaurant wine list and panic begins to set in as you try to choose what to order. It is likely that everyone at the table shares the same fear and are quite content letting you shoulder this heavy burden. A few simple rules will have you ordering wine like a pro while your dinner companions admire you as some sort of “wine god”.

If the restaurant has a sommelier (Soh-mell-yay), the proper name for a wine steward, ask them to guide you through choosing an appropriate wine for your meal. A good sommelier will know which wines on their list pair well with their menu items. If not, ask the waiter what they recommend. Even if the extent of their knowledge is that they have both white and red wine, they should know what is popular. If this fails, you may wish to look somewhere in the middle of the wine list price range and select a variety that you like. If you’re still confused, a safe bet is cabernet sauvignon or merlot for a hearty red and chardonnay or pinot grigio for a white.

Now that you have ordered the wine, the real fun begins. You are ready to show the waiter and your guests that you know wine! When the waiter brings you the bottle he/she should hold it for you to inspect the label. Make sure that it is the wine you ordered.

The waiter will open the bottle and may hand you the cork. Many experts advise against smelling the cork but since you are paying for the wine, it is up to you. The waiter will pour you a small sample that you should hold at a 45-degree angle and inspect the wine for clarity. Ponder the wine for several seconds while looking intently at the wine against the tablecloth. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it will impress everyone!

Next, swirl the glass for about three seconds and take a really good sniff of the wine. If the wine smells clean and “fruity” you can taste the wine and nod for the waiter to pour it for the table. If the wine smells of moldy hay or wet cardboard, send it back. The wine is “corked” and even the best wines can be affected. Cork taint is caused by contaminates in the cork, not the wine. This is a valid reason for asking for another bottle.

You now have the basic tools you need to stand up to the snootiest waiter and show the world that you will not be intimidated by a 10-pound wine list.

Austria – A New Taste of an Old Wine Region

If you think that Austria is about Mozart, Strauss, the Sound of Music and Arnold Schwarzenegger you are missing out on one of wines best-kept secrets. Austria produces less than one percent of the worlds wine but most who taste it believe it to be some of the most interesting and exciting wine ever to traverse their taste buds.

For those looking to tangle their tongue, look no further than pronouncing the names of Austria’s native grape varieties Gruner Veltliner, Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, Rotgipfler and Schilcher. These indigenous varieties are staking a claim internationally and the emphasis is on big fruit, good acidity and early drinkability.

No newcomer to wine production, Austria has a winemaking history that dates back to somewhere around 700 BC. It is the quality of the wine, however, that has lead to the wine worlds rediscovery of this tradition rich region. Situated south of Germany, Austria’s continental climate, many rivers and fertile soils make the land ideal for wine production.

The majority of wine produced is white and overwhelmingly, Gruner Veltliner, an aromatic and flavorful wine showing lively citrus and peppery spice yet crisp enough to be one of the food-friendliest wines available. If you are looking for the perfect wine to pair with sushi or Mexican food, here it is. The best examples are grown on the steep hillsides of the Wachau and Kamtal regions along the Danube River on terraced vineyards that are not for the acrophobic. Storybook villages dot this breathtaking landscape making it easy to understand why Austria inspires so many great artists. In addition to the Gruner Veltliner, some of the greatest Riesling we (and many wine critics) have ever tasted can also be found here.

Red wine production accounts for 25% of the total wine produced but thanks to modern winemaking practices and a new generation of winemakers, the ratio is becoming narrower each year. In the Eastern wine regions of the Burgenland, red wine accounts for over 50% of the wine produced. St. Laurent, Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch (known as Lemberger in Washington State) are the rising red stars of Austria. St. Laurent is often similar in taste and aroma to Pinot Noir. Zweigelt offers seductive cherry fruit with velvety spice and for those looking for a more powerful wine, Blaufrankisch typically offers notes of dark berry, licorice with rich tannins.

Sweet wines to die for are predominantly made near the shore of Lake Neusiedlersee. This huge shallow lake creates conditions perfect for the formation of Botrytis or “Noble Rot”, shrinking and concentrating the grapes to make sensuous dessert wines that don’t need dessert. The region’s first official Trokenbeerenauslese (a sweet wine) was made in 1526, the last of which was drunk in 1852 (326 years later). Talk about aging potential!

If you visit Austria, prepare yourself to fall in love. From the opera houses of Vienna to the small country inns called “Heurigen”, there is something for everyone (even if you don?t drink wine).

You may have trouble finding Austrian wine locally but it’s worth the effort.