A trio of 2012 California reds gets it done for under $20

It occurs to me that $20 might be the ultimate sweet spot in the wine world. There are all sorts of benchmarks and barometers, but for most people taking a leap over the $20 barrier is done cautiously and with consideration. So when I find wines under that threshold that provide significant value and taste way more expensive than the price the cash register will ring up, I make a note of it. Here are three wines made from fruit sourced in various parts of California that offers tons of drinking pleasure and tremendous bang for the buck. One of them even has the necessary elements to lay down for a couple of years, should you so choose. That’s not something often in play in this price range. Whether you’re looking for a wine to bring to a dinner party or something to keep you warm all winter long, these selections will get it done for a minimal price.

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Layer Cake 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon – The fruit for this wine was sourced in two distinct appellations, Paso Robles and Alexander Valley. It’s composed entirely of Cabernet Sauvignon. Layer Cake was aged in entirely French oak for 46 months; 30 percent of the barrels utilized were new. This offering has a suggested retail price of $15.99. Plum, black raspberry, vanilla and toast aromas are all part of the tempting nose on this Cabernet. The palate is rich, lush and deeply concentrated with lots of appealing black fruit flavors. Leather, black pepper and earth are all part of the long finish. Soft tannins and solid acidity lend themselves to the food friendliness of this Cabernet. You could probably find a wine slightly more perfectly suited, as well as more expensively priced, to pair with a burger, but why go through the trouble and expense when this one works as well as almost anything?

Educated Guess 2012 Napa Valley Merlot – The vast majority of the fruit for this wine (95 percent) was sourced in Napa Valley, the balance (5 percent) in nearby Lake County. In addition to Merlot (85 percent), some Cabernet Sauvignon (15 percent) was blended in as well. Barrel aging took place in French oak over 12 months. The suggested retail price is $19.99. The color of this wine is striking, the minute it’s poured — the deep purple hue looks brilliant in the glass. A hint of cocoa underscores blueberry aromas on the warm and welcoming nose. The palate is studded with red and black cherry flavors galore that are complemented by black pepper and cinnamon spice. A dollop of chocolate, earth and thyme emerge on the above average finish, along with all the fresh fruit flavors. This is a textbook example of a Merlot that actually tastes like Merlot.

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The Sum 2012 Red Blend – Fruit for this offering was sourced throughout California. This selection blends together Cabernet Sauvignon (75 percent), Petite Sirah (15 percent) and Syrah (10 percent). The Sum has a suggested retail price of $19.99. The nose of this blend is big and incredibly floral, and the little bit of Syrah really makes its presence felt. The flavors are deep and dark lending to a layered and dense palate. It’s substantial in complexity and depth. Bits of chicory play alongside blueberry and blackberry flavors, which dominate the palate. Sweet, dark chocolate flavors emerge on the persistent and notably long finish, along with rhubarb and sour cherry. This would be a very good wine and a reasonable value if it was priced in the $35 to $40 range. At $20 suggested retail price, less if you shop around, it’s a fabulous and delicious bargain. Scoop it up before it’s gone.

I highly recommend all three of these wines for sipping and pairing with medium-bodied to full-flavored foods. Each of them is also quite drinkable on its own. The Merlot and the Cabernet will be at their best over the next handful of years when their young, fresh fruit flavors are in full bloom. The red blend (The Sum) is delicious now and will drink well over the next decade. Its structure is such that laying it down, for those with the patience to do so, will provide a nice reward. At such an appealing price point it would be a good choice for those who don’t want to spend a ton to experiment on age-worthy wines.

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Drink of the Week: The Blinker (Dr. Cocktail’s Version)

Dr. Cocktail's Blinker.If there is a more confusing matter in the world of cocktails than the naming of beverages, I haven’t come across it. It’s hard enough that the proportions of such basic drinks as the Martini and the Manhattan are so highly variable depending on which book or bartender you consult. It also doesn’t help that we cocktail writers can’t stop ourselves from continually messing with recipes to the point where two drinks with the exact same name and ancestry may have little in common, give or take an ingredient. At the same time, you might have two drinks with completely different names but which differ in only the slightest way. (Mr. Martini, meet Mr. Gibson.)

So, last week I brought you the original version of the Blinker, or something close to it, and I mentioned that famed cocktail historian Ted Haigh had unearthed this drink. Despite being a true revivalist, Haigh felt the drink needed an improvement, if not an actual update.

For starters, while the original version appears to have called for either bourbon or rye. (I limited myself to bourbon last week.) Haigh’s version is strictly rye. The original also had grenadine as its sweetener. Haigh’s version, which he has since christened “Dr. Cocktail’s Blinker,” contained not just raspberry syrup, but a very particular species of it. This is the stuff that tastes rather like jam, only without any trace of actual fruit, and which some people pour over ice cream. Apparently, it was an old school substitute for grenadine, and it certainly sounded like it was worth a try.

The Blinker, aka Dr. Cocktail’s Blinker

2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon raspberry syrup
1 lemon peel (garnish)

No surprises in terms of preparation. Combine the rye, juice, and syrup in cocktail shaker. You might want to stir it a bit before adding the ice to make sure the syrup dissolves, especially if it’s been kept in the refrigerator. Then add about a ton of ice and, well, you know the rest. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, throw in the lemon twist. Toast Dr. Cocktail/Ted Haigh, if only because he is the creator of by far the most popular modern day version of the Blinker.

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All in all, I have to agree with Ted Haigh that his tweaked version of the Blinker is superior. Rye is just a hair less sweet than bourbon and noticeably more peppery, and it makes a bracing contrast with the bittersweet grapefruit juice and the just-plain sweet raspberry syrup. For the sake of experimentation, I tried the Dr. Cocktail Blinker drink with bourbon, and it was a no go. Not awful, just not so good. My ryes produced nice but highly varying results. I used Old Overholt (Haigh’s preference), Rittenhouse  (my 100 proof default rye), and slightly more upscale/moderne Redemption rye.

Even more interesting is his choice of the jam-like raspberry syrup over grenadine. I used Smucker’s brand because it was the only choice the supermarket I happened to be in had, and it was fine. It’s a simpler kind of sweetness than a decent grenadine, and I think it really does make a better choice in a drink that’s already buzzing with the contrasting flavors of rye and grapefruit.

  

Drink of the Week: The Blinker (Duffy’s Version)

the Blinker.The Blinker was one of the many moribund beverages revived by Ted Haigh in his epochal 2009 book, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Haigh, in turn, found the drink in a 1934 tome by a Patrick Gavin Duffy but found it “unremarkable” and he therefore messed with it. We’ll try Haigh’s messed with version later, but we start with the unvarnished original.

The Duffy Blinker might not have knocked my socks clean off, but it really is a very nice drink enlivened by a generous portion of fresh grapefruit juice. I have to admit that the fact that I still had some extra-large citrus around after last week’s drink was my primary motivator for choosing the Blinker. I never used to like anything grapefruit but, by god, the bittersweet fruit is really growing on me. It’s certainly tasty enough in this beverage.

The Blinker (Duffy’s Version)

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce grapefruit juice (preferably fresh)
1 teaspoon grenadine
1 lemon twist (desirable garnish)

No surprises here. You guys probably have this drill memorized by now, but here it is again…

Combine your liquids in a cocktail shaker with an excess of ice. Shake most vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add your lemon twist if you’ve got one handy. As for the toast, let’s mix things up and salute, heck, Ethel Barrymore. I just saw her for the first time in 1948′s “Portrait of Jennie” (ask your neighborhood movie geek/film buff, or your great-grandmother) and she was extremely good in it. As a Barrymore, I’d like to think she might have tried a Blinker.

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This drink worked very nicely with the two different bourbons I had time to try before I was briefly sidelined by a small cold. (As I write this, I’ve been dry for a shocking four days!) Wathen’s Kentucky Bourbon made a fine, sweet base spirit, but there was more 100 proof, bottled in bond, punch when I killed my bottle of good ol’ Old Fitzgerald’s (my favorite bourbon bargain up to now).

I will also add that I suspect it’s probably very important to use a decent grenadine in the Blinker. Ted Haigh, you see, felt the need to make a substitution for this ingredient. He might have been partly moved by the fact that so many commercially available grenadines are hard to distinguish from any other high fructose corn syrup based concoctions.

At the same time, while it’s great to spend extra dough and go gourmet, or go crazy and make your own grenadine, as some bloggers insist, there is another option. Take a little time and find a reasonably priced product that includes a little real juice, pomegranate most importantly. Master of Mixes grenadine includes pomegranite and cherry juice; it has served me well for some time and it only costs a few bucks…and, no, they haven’t been sending me free bottles in the mail. Not yet, anyway.

  

Drink of the Week: The Ideal Cocktail

Image ALT text goes here.A long time ago, a boss of mine was discussing an upcoming project and said something to the effect that “in an ideal world, we’d complete this task in two or three days.” I said, something like, “No, in an ideal world we wouldn’t have to work at all; we’d be romping with bunnies wearing nothing but flowers and praising the Lord.”

In other words, of course, the ideal cocktail doesn’t exist. Thanks to the miracle of proper names, however, the Ideal Cocktail does exist. It’s not ideal but it’s definitely not bad. It did, though, require a bit of futzing with the proportions based on the somewhat vague instructions in the most reliable source for this early 20th century tipple, The Savoy Cocktail Book. I’m very okay with the rather stiff beverage I came up with based on Harry Craddock’s prohibition-era recipe, with just a little bit of bloggy help.

The Ideal Cocktail

2 ounces London dry gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 tablespoon fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
1 grapefruit twist (desirable garnish)

Combine the gin, vermouth, juice, and bittersweet cherry liqueur in a cocktail shaker and shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Toast the reality that, in all likelihood, there’ll never be an ideal anything. After all, if we all knew how to make the perfect cocktail, cook the perfect steak, make the perfect movie, or find the perfect love, life would either get really dull, or we’d all explode or something.

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Harry Craddock’s recipe is a bit vague by modern standards as it calls for 1 part vermouth to two parts gin, but specifically tells us to add a tablespoon of grapefruit juice regardless of how big our “parts” are. It also calls for an incredibly frustrating three dashes of maraschino, which can be anything.

When first trying this drink out, I took my cue from Erik Ellestad’s 2009 post on his Savoy Stomp blog. He interpreted 3 dashes of maraschino to equal a teaspoon of the bittersweet cherry liqueur. He also — reasonably enough — called for 1 1/2 ounces of gin and 3/4 ounce of sweet vermouth, with him using the pricey (and admittedly fantastic) Carpano Antica. I liked his orthodox take on the drink which differs from the very few other versions of this you’ll find online.

I chose my fall-back sweet vermouth, Noilly Pratt and started with Mr. Ellestad’s proportions, using a bottle of Tanqueray I’ve been itching to work with. I dismissed his suggestion to stir, not shake, the drink out of hand, however. Though I tend to be generally highly skeptical of the booze snob ban on stirring many cocktails for fear or spoiling the beauty and booziness of the drink, in this case most c-snobs actually have my back; conventional wisdom supports shaking any drink with citrus juice in it. I think it’s a necessity here.

In fact, even vigorously shaken, the Ideal Cocktail came out a bit cloying to my tastebuds at those proportions. After experimenting with both Maraska and Luxardo brands maraschino, I decided that, this time, Luxardo was definitely the better choice, justifying it’s higher price tag. More importantly, I finally settled on upping the amounts of the Tanqueray and Noilly Pratt I was using. The results were bracing and just sweet enough, though I admit that it’s a pretty stiff drink.

In an effort to make it a hair less stiff, I switched from the 94.6 proof Tanqueray  to value price, 80 proof, Gordon’s. Not bad, if less than ideal.

 

 

  

The Selvarey Chicago Fizz

Selvarey Chicago Fizz. Today’s drink is the most deliciously nutritious and possibly (though not definitely) the last of the cocktails we’ll be featuring here with a base booze provided by the skilled distillers of Selvarey White Rum. If you missed my earlier experiments with this brand, all I can say is that it’s a genuine Panamanian treat from a company which also boasts darn good taste in cocktails.

The Selvarey Chicago Fizz differs from most of the other Chicago Fizz recipes you’ll find online in that’s it’s made with Selvarey White Rum, instead of a sweeter dark rum. The result is a beverage that’s almost perfectly balanced between sweet and tart flavors. I’m not sure about actually curing a hangover, but if you’re determined to have a cocktail in the morning, which means you’re either drinking too much, on vacation, or both, this may be the most outstanding choice possible.

The Selvarey Chicago Fizz

1 ounce Selvarey White Rum
1 ounce tawny port wine
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1 raw egg white or 1 ounce of pasteurized egg white
1/2 ounce simple syrup or 2 1/2 teaspoons superfine sugar
Soda water

Combine all the ingredients except the soda water in a cocktail shaker, without ice. “Dry shake” without the ice to emulsify the egg. Then shake again, very vigorously and now with plenty of ice. Strain into a chilled Tom Collins-style glass. Top off with that soda water (preferably chilled) you’ve been holding back and you’ll find yourself with a nice “head” on your fizz. Sipp and salute the concept of carbonated water, without which life would be just a little bit more flat.

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I usually talk about ingredients in this section, but this time I’ll offer a note about your bartending equipment first. You’ll likely have better results with your Chicago Fizz if you use an old fashioned separate cocktail strainer like the pro bartenders use, rather than the built in kind. The pre-fizz portion of the drink is thick enough that’s it’s tricky to get out of those tiny holes at the top of the shaker. Regular readers will remember that I’ve made many drinks with egg whites, but this seemed to be more of an issue this week than with other egg white cocktails — either that, or I’m just losing my patience.

Fizzes are an entire mixed drink category I’ve barely touched on. What’s interesting is that the inclusion of relatively small amount of soda water renders a pretty massive change, and I don’t just mean bubbles.

A cocktail featuring an egg white usually has a lovely, soft and milky texture. Adding the fizzy water, however, causes the egg white to separate from the rest of the drink, which produces a head which is similar to what you might find in root beer or, even more to the point, that non-alcoholic New York/Jewish deli favorite, an egg cream. (If you know your deli beverages, you’re aware that an egg cream  contains chocolate syrup but no egg and no cream, but it has a very nice foamy head owing to the presence of milk and seltzer.)

In the case of the Selvarey Chicago Fizz, or the Jacques Straub 1914 take on the Chicago Fizz to the boozy historians, the result is fruity, not too sweet and — relatively speaking — not too heavy on the booze. In fact, it’s so not too sweet that I wouldn’t blame you if you amped up the amount of simple syrup or sugar.

Finally, it is definitely permissible to try this with other brands of white rum. I gave it a shot with a far older premium brand and, while I preferred the lighter, sweeter touch of the Selvarey, it wasn’t bad with Brand X. In any case, using a rum to your liking, not to mention a good tawny port (not my particular area of expertise; I used a brand called Almiro), will likely yield a better drink. Follow your instincts.

  

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