Lodi’s Markus Wine Co. home of unique and delicious wines

I recently spent several days in the Lodi wine-growing region of California as the guest of the Lodi Winegrowers. Over four days, the group I was with took a deep dive into all things Lodi. We visited wineries, vineyard sites and had lunch at the home of a couple who own a terrific winery. The overall variety of wines we tasted was stunning in its diversity, both in terms of grapes utilized as well as styles they were made in. One wine brand in particular that stuck out for me is Markus Wine Co.

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This project is part of Borra Vineyards. There are a few distinct differences between them, the biggest being that while the Borra wines are produced from fruit grown on the family’s own vineyards, the wines from Markus Wine Co. are made from sourced fruit. Winemaker Markus Niggli looks for great vineyards in the region and crafts wines in a fresh, modern style. We tasted Markus’ wines at the Mokelumne Glen Vineyard, one of his sources for fruit. The family that owns this vineyard and grows the fruit is dedicated entirely to German varietals. They carefully tend a broad array of grapes and sell them to artists like Markus who use them to craft lovely wines loaded with character. Markus also works with a nearby artist to create labels that merge imagery that brings to mind a place from his past, with the spot the grapes are sourced. Three of his wines really stood out for me. The fruit for all of these is from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.

Markus Wine Co. 2014 Nativo ($19)

This wine is a blend of Kerner (75 percent), Riesling (19 percent) and Bacchus (6 percent). Fermentation took place over 10 days in stainless steel utilizing native yeast. It was aged in-tank for five months prior to bottling. Granny Smith apple aromas dominate the nose. The refreshing palate is studded with appealing flavors such as honeysuckle and white peach. Bits of sweetness emerge on the finish, which shows lemon zest and wet limestone characteristics. Firm, racy acid keeps everything in check. If you want to blow away your wine-loving friends, bring a few bottles of this gem with you, and they’ll be in awe of your wine-selecting abilities.

Markus Wine Co. Nuvola ($19)

This selection is entirely Gewürztraminer. All of the fruit was hand-harvested. Fermentation took place in stainless steel over 10 days using native yeast. It was aged in stainless for five months prior to bottling. Apricot and lychee fruit aromas dominate the welcoming nose. Hints of savory herb lead the palate. They’re joined by copious amounts of stone fruit, lemon zest, minerals and a touch of orchard fruit. The long finish is layered with continued fruit, spice, minerals and crisp acid. This is a lovely and singular expression of Gewürztraminer loaded with charm.

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Markus Wine Co. 2013 Nimmo ($22)

This offering is a blend of Kerner (69 percent), Gewürztraminer (11 percent), Riesling (10 percent) and Bacchus (10 percent). Fermentation took place in a combination of stainless steel and barrel over seven days. Barrel aging occurred over nine months in a combination of French and American oak; 60 percent of them were new. Hints of smoke lead the nose here. The body has some nice weight and heft to it. Lychee, pineapple and lemon curd are all in play. There is a viscosity and mineral-driven nature to the mouthfeel which dances alongside a core of tart green apple notes and spice. The finish is crisp, long and refreshing. All of these elements come together to make this a remarkably appealing wine. This is one of those wines I had trouble putting down.

Lodi California has some truly exciting things going on for wine lovers. Projects like Markus Wine Co. are really setting a new standard. These are remarkably well-priced wines, produced from grapes one might not expect to find in Lodi. Of huge importance, of course, is the fact that they are exceptionally delicious, well-made wines that stand apart from the pack. The wines of Markus Niggli, along with those of quite a few other artisanal family producers in Lodi, are worth a special effort to seek out. Spend your money on these; they will make your tongue do a happy dance.

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Drink of the Week: The Brojito Mojito

the Brojito Mojito It’s probably not the focus of your weekend plans, but you might be interested to know that this Sunday is National Rum Day. I wound up getting a few pitches for rum-based cocktails for the day, but the makers of Shellback Silver Rum got to me first with a pretty interesting variation on possibly the most popular of all rum drinks (as well as the usual free bottle in the mail). It’s a pretty good way to show off their light rum, an intriguingly vanilla-forward entry in the very crowded silver rum arena.

The Brojito Mojito differs from the classic Mojito in two ways.First, there’s the addition of a-little-goes-a-long-way anise flavored liqueurs to the mix, and, second, it adds, well, more — more lime juice, more simple syrup, even more mint leaves. In fact, while there’s nothing overtly bro-ish about Shellback’s Mojito variant, it’s definitely a drink that goes big and refuses to go home. The emphasis on excess actually made me think of a key scene from the tough-guy movie classic “Key Largo,” in which bad-guy gangster Edward G. Robinson admits to basically just wanting “more.”

Still, there’s nothing at all nefarious about the Brojito Mojito and it’s probably not fair to compare it to the fascistic criminal from John Huston’s enjoyably overheated film noir. It’s a tasty and fun variation on a drink with a great many variations. If more isn’t always more, it’s often very nice indeed.

The Brojito Mojito

2 ounces Shellback Silver Rum
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce absinthe or Herbsaint
2 ounces soda water
10-15 mint leaves

Start with a highball/collins glass and add the mint leaves. I personally get impatient counting out ten to fifteen mint leaves and therefore prefer to think of it variously as either a “bunch” of mint leaves or perhaps a “buttload of mint leaves.” Muddle them very lightly — you don’t want to bring out of the bitterness that over-muddling can result in. A light tap or two will suffice.

Next, add all the liquid ingredients and stir. Then add plenty of ice and stir some more. Prepare for one big mojito.

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I have to admit I’m not in love with the name but, beyond that, this is a pretty decent not-so-little beverage with a nice kick. It’s a bit on the sweet side, but it’s balanced by the addition of  the very strong, somewhat bitter anise flavors of an absinthe, or the somewhat milder variation of Herbsaint (marketed as substitute absinthe, back when absinthe was illegal,). I leaned slightly towards the absinthe simply because, with an entire ounce of simple syrup and a relatively sweet base spirit, the Brojito Mojito is plenty sweet enough and needs as much counterpoint as it can get.

Finally, regular readers might notice that I didn’t include an option for using superfine sugar in place of simple syrup. That’s because — and I have no idea why this should be — the result simply didn’t taste very good. Don’t ask me why. The ways of cocktails, like the ways of men, are mysterious.

  

Drink of the Week: The Sloe Gin Fizz

the Sloe Gin Fizz.I don’t remember what we were mixing it with, but one of my first experiences with hardish liquor during late high school or early college days involved a very sweet and inexpensive product calling itself sloe gin. I don’t remember much from that night, but I do remember that it went down pretty easy. I think I actually might have liked it, callow youth that I was.

I also remember, even then, having heard of something called a Sloe Gin Fizz. I somehow feel sure that I had heard of it from a W.C. Fields radio program or movie or some such. Actually, until I looked at the bottle, I had assumed the Fields cocktail was a “Slow Gin Fizz.” Little did I know that there such a thing as a sloe, not so much a berry as relative of a plum. In all the years to come, I would never see a Sloe Gin Fizz on a cocktail menu.

Cut to last week. While lingering in a little known San Fernando Valley discount booze emporium, I looked up and a bottle of Plymouth Sloe Gin was staring down at me. I had been used to seeing the stuff in the liqueur section of Bev-Mo and Total Wine, bottled by the likes of DeKuyper and Hiram Walker. This seemed to be a far more authentic brew, coming from the same company that is now the one and only known purveyor of Plymouth style dry gin.

My interest ran high and, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I purchased both a $30.00 bottle of the Plymouth product and $10.00 bottle of DeKuyper’s Luscious Sloe Gin. (As in “for lushes,” I guess.) Next came the research into recipes for what turns out to be a really outstanding drink that’s definitely deserving of a major revival…assuming you use the right products in the right recipe. I’ll give you two of them.

The Sloe Gin Fizz

1 1/2 ounces sloe gin
1/2-3/4 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 large egg white or 3 tablespoons of pasteurized egg white
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Soda water (to top)

or

2 ounces sloe gin
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Soda water (to top)

Combine all of your ingredients except the soda water in a cocktail shaker. If you’re making the first version with egg white, particularly egg white straight out of the egg, you’re going to want do start out with a dry (ice free) shake to emulsify the egg white.

Then, whichever version you’re making, you’re going to add lots of ice to the liquid and shake it very vigorously. Next, you’ll strain into into a well chilled collins/highball glass. Try to make it a fairly small glass if you’re doing the egg white free version.

The final stage is topping it off with chilled soda water (club soda and seltzer seem to work about equally well). What you’re going for is a nice foamy cap on your drink. If you’re using egg white, that won’t be a problem. In fact, you’ll want to be careful about pouring too much soda water and creating an overflow situation. If you’re doing the egg-white free recipe, there are serious bartending contraptions you can buy that might help out with your foam, but David Wondrich (who I pretty much stole recipe #2 from outright), suggests it’s also just fine to pour the soda water in “carelessly”…and, as the picture above proves, the man is right!

Next, take a sip and beware. The Sloe Gin Fizz, particularly the egg white version, has brainfreeze potential.

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I truly dug both versions of the Sloe Gin Fizz, and which you choose is really your call, depending on your personal preferences. Either way, it’s achieves a very nice balance of sweetness and tartness and it’s extremely refreshing and light, as your base spirit is only about 50-60 proof. The egg white version is obviously creamier and may feel a bit colder in a milky sort of a way, but it’s actually a bit less picturesque in that you get a merely pink foam. While using the Plymouth Sloe Gin proved dramatically superior here — it’s very defintely “the good stuff” in this category — it is still a very acceptable drink using the DeKuyper el cheapo sloe gin.

I cannot say the same for the egg white free variant, however. In terms of appearance, the drink was not the scarlet hue you see in the picture, but an ugly,  synthetic bright red. It didn’t taste pretty either.

Sloe gin, by the way, is not technically gin at all, but a liqueur traditionally made by soaking sloes in gin or neutral spirits. As to whether you should buy the cheap stuff or the good stuff, well, if you’ve got only $10.00 bucks, a lemon, soda water, and eggs or egg white in your fridge and you have your heart set on a semi-authentic sloe gin fizz, it’s a defensible purchase. Otherwise, I’d save up for the Plymouth. There’s only so much magic you can make with inferior ingredients.

  

Drink of the Week: The Black Ginger

The Black Ginger.In the world of higher end hard liquor, it seems as if whiskey is the big man on campus these days. I say that because the relative new kids in the world of super premium booze — tequila and rum — often try to emulate whiskey just a little. I am not opposed. While it might be less than advisable for Richie Cunningham to go around in a leather jacket like the Fonz, many of these whiskeyish expressions are actually pretty interesting cross pollinations, retaining enough of their own essential character to be interesting.

So it is with Hornitos Black Barrel, this week’s intriguing free-booze-I-got-in-the-mail. It’s been aged in wooden barrels to give it a more woody and very slightly sweet flavor that will likely remind you of a decent rye or bourbon, while also making you think even more of a pretty good tequila. It works nicely in an Old Fashioned, which is always my test for just about any booze, but especially one that has whiskey aspirations.

As for this week’s recipe offered by the Hornitos people, it’s not the flat-out cocktail home run they offered for my July 4th post a few weeks back to promote their perfectly-good plata, but it’ll do if you like sweet, refreshing drinks with a small dash of complexity.

The Black Ginger

1 1/2 ounces Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
ginger beer (to top off)
1/2 ounce simple syrup or roughly or 2 1/2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1 sprig of fresh rosemary

Get a collins or highball glass and place your sprig of rosemary in it. Muddle it gently — think of it as a love tap — to get a bit more of the flavor into your glass. Next, combine all the remaining ingredients, except for the ginger beer, in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into your glass, to which you have added fresh ice. Top off with the ginger beer of your choice.

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As I mentioned above, this drink is definitely not one for sweet phobics, but it’s not at all bad if you get one of the tangier ginger beers and use enough of it. Due to some confusion, I first tried this in a smaller rocks/old fashioned glass, and it wasn’t as good. Lesson learned.

The Black Ginger reminds me somewhat of a better than average tiki drink, minus a little exoticism, with the rosemary being a nicely subtle alternative to the mint you find more often in cocktails. (If mint’s totally your thing, by the way, the Hornitos folks are also promulgating their own version of a Mint Julep…which could be the perfect thing to have during one of the many years when Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo coincide.)

I tried the Black Ginger with a couple of different brands of ginger beer, which both worked fine. However, my first night out, I used some Verner’s ginger ale — which I thought might be fine because it’s the most-gingery of the well known commercial ginger ales. It wasn’t. I know that ginger beer, which is always non-alcoholic, is comparable in price to actual beer, but you need it for this drink. Proper cocktailing is not the cheapest hobby.

  

Paso’s Niner Wine Estates offers variety and value

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The city of Paso Robles is located almost exactly between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two of the largest and most distinct cities in California. When wine from Paso hit the national stage, it was Zinfandel that stole the show. Soon after, lots of Rhone varietals began to emerge. In earlier days, many of the efforts were big, extracted wines featuring high alcohol. Things started to change, and today, Paso Robles is home to a truly wide array of different grapes, many of which thrive in its varied climates. In addition to that, many producers are making proportionate wines, so much so that the cartoonish wines of years back are well in the minority. One of the producers that is part of that sea change is Niner Wine Estates. In addition to Paso Robles, they have estate vineyards in Edna Valley. Here are some terrific Niner wines from each.

Niner Wine Estates 2014 Estate Albarino ($20)

All of the fruit for this wine came from their estate vineyard, Jespersen Ranch, in Edna Valley. This is a 100 percent varietal wine. After fermentation, it was aged for 10 months in stainless steel prior to bottling. Toasted hazelnut and lychee fruit aromas fill the welcoming nose here. Stone fruits such as white peach, apricot and nectarine are all in abundance on the delicious and full-flavored palate, along with bits of spice. The finish is long, mellifluous and dotted with topical fruits. Firm acid contributes to the mouthwatering nature of this Albarino. It’s delicious, refreshing and hard to put down.

Niner Wine Estates 2013 Estate Chardonnay ($25)

About 1,200 cases of this Chardonnay from Jespersen Ranch in Edna Valley were produced. It’s 100 percent varietal and was aged in entirely French oak; 30 percent of the barrels utilized were new. Orchard and stone fruit aromas fill the nose, along with toast and spices galore. The palate shows off apple, peach and pear flavors with baker’s spices. Toasted pecan, crème fraiche and continued fruit flavors fill out the above average finish. This is a fine example of Chardonnay that is enhanced by time in new oak without it becoming a distraction. Lovely sipped by itself, this Chardonnay will excel with soft cheeses, pastas with creamy sauces or a simple roast chicken.

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