Toad Hollow Vineyards: Delicious wines & great value

Toad Hollow Vineyards was founded in 1994 by a group of friends. They launched their winery with “Francine’s Selection,” an unoaked Chardonnay. At the time, particularly in California, this was not only uncommon, it also ran against the trend. Defying what was popular, Francine’s Selection was a huge hit and sent the vineyard off and running. In the years since, their portfolio has expanded to include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet and more. I tasted through some brand new releases and found a lot of deliciousness for a small amount of money.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay ($13.99)

This Chardonnay is produced from fruit sourced in Mendocino County. It’s made up entirely of Chardonnay. The 2014 bottling represents the 22nd vintage of this wine, the most popular in their lineup. The moment you stick your nose in the glass, a burst of fresh, unadulterated apple and pear aromas leap out. The palate is similarly stuffed with oodles of fresh fruit flavors accompanied by hints of spice. All of these characteristics continue on the long, fruit-laden finish. This is a delicious, easy-to-drink Chardonnay that you’re going to want a second glass the moment the first is empty.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 “Eye of the Toad” Rosé ($11.99)

This dry Rosé is composed entirely of Pinot Noir sourced at a variety of vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Toad Hollow has been producing a dry Rosé for 20 years, well ahead of its current popularity in the U.S. A hint of crème fraiche underpins the freshly picked strawberry aromas that inform the nose here. Bing cherry and continued strawberry notes are in evidence on the beautiful and bone dry palate. White pepper and continued red fruit flavors are evident on the crisp, zippy finish. If you need a perfect pairing partner for fried chicken, this is it.

Toad Hollow Vineyards Merlot ($16.99)

This offering is composed entirely of Merlot sourced at the Richard McDowell Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. These 16 acres were planted in 1995. Ripe wild strawberry and raspberry aromas fill the nose. The palate is loaded with darker fruit flavors such as black raspberry and cherry, as well as black pepper and hints of toast. Light bits of espresso and a touch of dusty cocoa emerge on the finish, along with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. This is a well-priced and tasty example of Merlot.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($19.99)

This is a single-vineyard Pinot with all the fruit coming off of “Goldie’s Vineyard,” their estate property. After fermentation and being racked twice, it was aged in French oak for 14 months. Rose petal and red cherry aromas leap from the nose here. The palate is full of even-keeled red fruit flavors supported by a significant spice component. Bits of savory herb, sour red fruits and continued spices are apparent on the long, even finish. This terrific under-$20 Pinot Noir will pair well with a remarkably wide array of foods.

All of these wines represent better than average values. The Pinot Noir, though, is the steal of the bunch. This notoriously fickle and difficult to master grape is also one of the hardest to find at a bargain. At under $20, this offering from Toad Hollow Vineyards is precisely that. Buy a case and drink it as a house wine. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value in California Pinot Noir.

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Drink of the Week: The Leap Year Cocktail

The Leap Year Cocktail.As I’ve been busily harvesting Harry Craddock’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book” for cocktails, I’ve managed to ignore a number of holidays and special events, including Valentine’s Day, the Super Bowl and, I suppose now, my personal Super Bowl, Oscar night. However, all of those occur every year.

Leap Year is obviously a different story. It would have been an act of sheer idiocy to have ignored Craddock’s Leap Year Cocktail, and the embarrassing truth is that’s very nearly what happened. I’m glad to say, I re-stumbled over the drink in the nick of time, and it’s as good a way as any to wrap up this series of Craddockian posts.

In any case, as we are told, the Leap Year Cocktail was invented by Mr. Craddock for celebrations held at London’s Savoy Hotel on February 29th, 1928. Craddock claims a large number of marriage proposals were associated with the drink. That might be impressive until you remember, as numerous other cocktail bloggers have already pointed out, that 2/29 was traditionally the only day when it was once considered appropriate for a woman to propose a marriage to a man, rather than vice versa.

Of course, we’re sorta kinda almost beyond a lot of those outdated gender roles, and women are now free to risk the humiliation of a rejected proposal. So, I suppose, Leap Year in the here and now doesn’t mean much more than getting an additional day to get our taxes ready. As for the recipe Craddock debuted 88 years ago this Monday, it’s definitely not bad, but I’m not going to get married to it.

The Leap Year Cocktail

2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
1 dash (or more) fresh lemon juice
1 lemon peel (garnish)

Combine the liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add your lemon peel garnish. Craddock wrote that you should “squeeze your lemon peel on top,” but I’m not sure what that means. You can do the traditional lemon twist thing instead, if you like.

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I tried this drink with a number of gins and a few different sweet vermouths. There’s only one type of Grand Marnier, though. If I had more time, I might have tried this with another orange liqueur like triple sec and/or Cointreau.

Such gins as Bombay Dry, Plymouth and Gilbey’s all worked fine; the result was pretty consistently floral and bittersweet, a decent combination that, even so, failed to knock my socks off. I noticed a marked improvement when I switched up my vermouth from Martini and Dolin’s and went with wonderfully bittersweet Carpano Antica, which blended more harmoniously with the bittersweet flavors in the Grand Marnier. I’m not sure if that version of the Leap Year Cocktail was worth a marriage proposal, but it certainly wasn’t a bad proposition.

  

Drink of the Week: The Improved Poppy Cocktail

The Improved Poppy Cocktail.Today’s drink is very possibly the most obscure cocktail yet that we’ve explored from Harry Craddock’s post-prohibition classic, “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” and I sense that most of the people who care about such matters would say it’s obscure for a reason. In fact, they would probably agree that the Poppy Cocktail, which contains no poppy or poultry products, is nevertheless pure poppycock.

Here’s the thing: cocktalians may occasionally be alcoholics, but they are rarely chocoholics. I, however, love chocolate. In fact, I’m having some right now. So, when I stumbled over a chocolate flavored drink that, lacking any heavy cream or non-liqueur sweetener, was actually also not horrifically fattening, I was not easily dissuaded.

Nevertheless, I had to reluctantly agree that, as written, the original recipe — two parts gin, one part creme de cacao — was simply bleh, lacking any backbone. Still, perseverance payed off and I figured out a way to make it pretty darn good with just a dash of the right product. I’m sure many of you might have already guessed where I’m taking this, but let’s get started anyway.

The Improved Poppy Cocktail

2 ounces gin
1 ounce creme de cacao (brown or white)
1 or probably 2 dashes chocolate bitters

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Say a silent prayer of thanks to the Aztecs for using cacao to make, what else, an alcoholic beverage!

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So, yes, we can’t really blame Harry Craddock for not thinking of using chocolate bitters in his Poppy Cocktail as they were likely not widely available or perhaps were not even really an idea back in 1930. Nevertheless, they are absolutely what’s needed to save the Poppy Cocktail from entering the scrap bin of cocktail history. For one thing, they actually turn this drink into a proper cocktail in the strictest sense because it now contains bitters. Vastly more importantly, they give it the balance it requires to be a decent drink for grown-ups.

I often compare bitters to the bass in an audio sound mix. A few year back, I found myself growing vaguely disenchanted with my Yamaha home theater system until I realized I was forgetting to turn on the subwoofer. The sound was tinny and lacking depth without it, but with it, my music and movies sounded just about right. The same is true of a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned and, very definitely, a Poppy Cocktail, when it comes to adding bitters.

My bitters, by the way, were Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate, but I did experiment with plain old Angostura. The cola-esque flavor of the default non-chocolate based bitters didn’t quite hit the bulls-eye, but it was way better than using no bitters at all. I wonder why Harry Craddock didn’t think of that.

As for the base spirit, the Improved Poppy Cocktail worked well with Gilbey’s and Bombay Dry Gin, though I’d give a slight edge to the slightly less dry Plymouth Gin. More important was my choice of a creme de cacao which, like creme de menthe, is pretty much just flavoring and alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with my white Gionello’s, but my dark Hiram Walker Creme de Cacao doesn’t only look more chocolatey, it’s tastes that way too. Not surprisingly, it further improved the Poppy Cocktail.

 

  

Drink of the Week: The Presto Cocktail

The Presto Cocktail. I have to admit that, for a cocktail blog, we haven’t been super-festive here at DOTW Central lately. Last week, I failed to make any mention of the then-upcoming Superbowl Sunday. This week, I’m ignoring both Valentine’s Day and President’s Day. It’s not because I have anything against drinks that celebrate either romantic love or our nation’s commanders in chief, it’s just that I’ve feeling a bit more workaday in my beverage choices of late.

This week we’re doing a drink that’s a more or less complete obscurity from Harry Craddock’s oh-so-canonical “The Savoy Cocktail Book.” It’s not a bad booze twist on a sweeter Manhattan variation, especially for those who like their drinks heavy on the citrus and who don’t mind a little bit of an anis-spiked absinthe kicker. Indeed, just a few people seem to have tried this drink online, most-notably blogger at his now-suspended Savoy Stomp blog back in 2009. So, anyone who tries this is among a proud and lonely few.

Beyond that, I don’t have any stories to go with this week’s drink and no heavy duty cultural references to make, so let’s get right into the recipe.

The Presto Cocktail

2 ounces brandy
1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/8-1/4 teaspoon (1 dash) absinthe

We’ve got a simple one here. Just combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice, shake, and strain into yet another one of those chilled cocktail glasses you always need to have laying around.

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I tried this with two brandies and two vermouths, and I’m tempted to say your choice of a vermouth may be at least as important as your brandy selection this time out. Indeed, I was downright disappointed with my first attempt, which used Maison Rouge Cognac — the best brandy you’re likely to find at my place — and Martini sweet vermouth, which should be good enough for most drinks but really wasn’t here. Substituting Cocchi Vermout di Torino worked wonders, however, even when I was using Pierre Duchene Napoleon Brandy which, the outdated yet highfalutin name notwitstanding, is kind of a cheap ass product. I think the Presto Cocktail requires a more complex, bottom-heavy vermouth to keep it balanced.

Other than that, clearly the biggest difference came down to how I defined the term “dash” when it came to the absinthe. Admittedly, I used the appropriately named Absinthe Ordinaire — the only stuff I could find for under $50.00, but it’s actually been doing the trick for me since I bought my bottle some years ago now. Nevertheless, reducing my “dash” down to 1/8 of a tablespoon still provided enough anise flavor to give the drink an edge, but without getting in the way of the ingredients that I actually like enough to consume on their own.

  

Drink of the Week: The Japalac

The Japalac.If the first thing you think of when you see the name “the Japalac” is an unfortunate racial slur that is now fortunately mostly relegated to old movies about World War II, you can be forgiven. Cocktail historian Ted Haigh unearthed the drink earlier this century and calls its name a “gut-level red herring” because it was actually named for a type of varnish produced by the Glidden company. Jap-A-Lac was named for Japan drier, a product still in use that Wikipedia tell us that borrows its name from the term “japanning,”  “the use of drying oils as an imitation or substitution for urushiol based Japanese lacquer.”

While these kind of terms make us think of the sort of cultural appropriation that followed back in the day when non-European countries suddenly emerged into the Western cultural context to be pop-culturalized in all sorts of fascinating and problematic ways, there’s no getting around the fact that the Japalac carries some odd associations. Still, I think we can find a way to enjoy without offending either people of Japanese ancestry or, for that matter, myself, since — at least in the broadest possible outlines — I was once arguably a Jewish-American Prince.

Well, that’s enough backstory, let’s get to the drink which really ain’t bad at all, though your choice of ingredients can make a more enormous difference than usual.

The Japalac

3/4 ounce rye whiskey
3/4 dry vermouth
1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon raspberry syrup
1 orange twist (garnish)

Combine the whiskey, vermouth, juice and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously and strain into chilled, relatively small, cocktail glass — this is a drink of the sensibly modest size that was once the standard. Add the orange twist and sip relatively slowly and quietly. Remember not to  say “Japalac” too loudly in a public place, lest you be misunderstood.

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First of all, I was forced to depart from Ted Haigh’s recipe…in a sense. For starters, it calls for “juice of 1/4 orange.” I have a bone to pick with such non-specific instructions since oranges come in all sizes and levels of juiciness, so I settled on 1/2 an ounce…which turns out to have required about a fourth of the particular oranges I was using, so I guess Haigh’s not completely insane.

The possibly bigger departure was that I used Torani raspberry syrup, which is typically used for coffee-house style Italian sodas as well as cocktails, and it worked out just fine. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that, as I learned last year, Mr. Haigh typically prefers the sort of raspberry syrup that was traditionally used as a substitute for grenadine, and which is made by companies like Smuckers and more closely resembles jam without any fruit. Alas, four visits to area markets reveals that there appears to be some kind of Smucker’s Raspberry Syrup drought out here in the San Fernando Valley area, though boysenberry and strawberries flavors are easy to come by, if that’s your thing.

In any case, while I tried the Japalac with four different types of rye — Rittenhouse, Bulleit, Alberta Dark Rye, and George Dickel — the really big difference was apparently made by the orange. Indeed, my first attempt was pretty much ruined by my choice of a grapefruit-esque cara cara orange. Later attempts with some very sweet navel oranges changed the tenor of the drink completely, making it more of a sweet and fruity treat. I think I liked the Alberta Dark Rye/navel juice version the best, though George Dickel Rye, and a slightly less sweet navel orange was almost perfectly balanced.

Finally, let’s get back to the name. While it’s true there was no anti-Japanese malice that we know of in the naming of today’s DOTW, the term “Japan drier” from whence the Jap-a-Lac varnish got it’s name, clearly harks back to late 19th century, when the West and East Asia were engaged in the beginning of a long love-hate relationship. The result of the early honeymoon period was at least two operas, Puccini’s tragic “Madama Butterfly” and Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic “The Mikado.” I’m more of a comedy guy, so let’s drink to the topsy turvy folks who gave us that one.

  

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