LEAF Vodka

Leaf Vodkaby Spirits Contributor Neal Kotlarek

LEAF Vodka is sourced from two unique American waters. These water sources give LEAF vodkas their signature tastes.

LEAF Vodka made from Alaskan glacial water has a pure, smooth taste with a hint of sweetness, while LEAF vodka made from Rocky Mountain mineral water offers richness and complexity, lending a warm and savory impression on the palate. Both expressions are distilled five times, are made with USDA Certified Organic non-GMO wheat, and are unflavored. The difference is in the water, which constructs two distinct tastes for different taste profiles.

To date, LEAF has won over 20 awards since 2014 including multiple Double Gold and Best in Show awards from a variety of organization, including the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the San Diego Spirits Festival, TheFiftyBest.com, the SIP International Consumer Tasting Awards, and the Ultimate Spirits Challenge among others.


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Handcraft Wines

Handcraft WinesCheryl Indelicato is part of the third generation of the family that owns Delicato Family Vineyards. Delicato offers wines under such brands as Black Stallion, Bota Box, Gnarly Head, La Merika, Massimo, and others.

Although born into the wine business, doing odd jobs at the winery as a little girl, her parents insisted that their children graduate from college and gather outside experience
by working elsewhere for at least three years before coming back to the family business, if they wished to do so.

Accordingly, Cheryl earned a Registered Nursing degree in 1985 and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business in 1989. However, the family wine-making enterprise kept its hold on her, and she returned to the fold in 1990, working in various facets of the business.

All the while, she dreamed of creating her own wine brand. “I have always wanted to create my own wine with a style and flavor profile that appealed directly to women,” says Cheryl.

Cheryl began the project, called HandCraft Artisan Collection, in early 2010 when she teamed up with veteran winemaker Alicia Ysais to develop a wine that would be fruit-forward, distinct, and easy to enjoy—similar to the field-blend wines that Cheryl recalled from her family’s dinner table. The line includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvingnon, and Petite Syrah, as well as the more rarely seen (for California, at least) Pinot Grigio and Malbec, featured below.

As part of her passion to make a positive difference in people’s lives, Cheryl created “HandCraft Cares” to support important causes with financial and in-kind donations. She is involved in a number of initiatives at the community level to increase awareness and early detection of breast cancer. Since 2012, HandCraft has contributed $235,000 to support breast cancer research, prevention, and awareness.

HandCraft Pinot Grigio 2014

This Pinot gGigio underwent a cold-temperature fermentation and was aged entirely in stainless steel, for those of you put off by any oak. It is nearly colorless in the glass. But, no worries. The nose offers aromas of peaches and tropical fruit, with a floral background. In the mouth, the wine is medium bodied, with flavors of melon and key lime. It offers a nicely balanced, crisp acidity, and the finish is relatively short.

Enjoy this easy-going wine with Swordfish with Tarraogn Beurre Blanc, Tomatoes, and Black Olives; Chicken Marsala Burgers; or Crab with Bok Choy and Egg Stir Fry.

HandCraft Malbec 2013

Deep purple in the glass, this Malbec delivers aromas of plums and blackberries on the nose. The ripe plum continues as you begin to taste, complemented by a hint of dusty cocoa. The wine has a medium body and a medium finish, accompanied by a fair amount of tannins, but nothing excessive. A good value for the price.

This wine would go nicely with Guiness Pub Burgers, Oaxacan Black Mole with Braised Chicken, or Slathered Mesquite-Smoked Ribs.


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Good Wines for $15 to $30 per Bottle

Excellent Value at the Right Price


Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
La Crema Chardonnay
Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay (hugely popular)
Yalumba Viognier
Cline Viognier


Roederer Estate Sparkling Wine [California] (I prefer it to Roederer Champagne [France], which is twice the price)
Cline Nancy’s Cuvee Sparkling Wine [California]
Mionette Prosecco Treviso Brut [Italy]
Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico [Italy]

Old World Reds

Paul Jaboulet Aine Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone
E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rouge
Louis Jadot Macon Villages
M. Chapoutier Belleruch Rouge
Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly
Legende Medoc
Castello Di Monsanto Chianti Classico
Ruffino Chianti Classico (I’ve consumed gallons of this with Chicago-style deep dish pizza over the years)

New World Reds

David Bruce Pinot Noir
Chateau St. Michelle Merlot
Markham Merlot
The Federalist Cabernet Sauvignon
Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon
J. Lohr 7 Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon
Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Bota Box Malbec (Bota is one of the most reliable box wine lines)

I can also recommend just about anything from Truchard, Clos Pegase, and Cline, although quite a few of the first two will exceed the $30 ceiling.

Last, but not least, Estancia Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the best value in a California Cab you’re going to find.  Routinely available for $9 to $12 a bottle, and $32 per four-bottle box, I bought a case just six months ago for $6 a bottle.

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Sanford Winery

Sanford WinerySanford Winery, the first such operation in Santa Barbara wine country, was established when the Sanford & Benedict vineyard was planted in 1971. Botanist Michael Benedict and his friend Richard Sanford were committed to finding a cool-climate location with just enough heat accumulation to ripen, but not over ripen, wine grapes. A place where they could plant and grow grapes and craft wines, where they hoped the quality might equal the best of Europe.

Benedict began researching and touring the cool coastal regions of California in search of a site that would suit this mission. His pursuit took him to a unique part of the Santa Ynez Valley, to the property that would ultimately become the Sanford & Benedict vineyard. The area owes its magic to an unusual east-west mountain valley that runs from the vineyards to the Pacific Ocean. This passage allows a meteorological ebb-and-flow of air temperature between the mountains and the sea that is ideal for cool-climate varietals.( It was also this vineyard that supplied the cuttings for many of the surrounding vineyards that sprang up in the wake of its success.)

The Sanford & Benedict Vineyard was named one of the five most important and iconic vineyards in California by Wine Enthusiast. It is known for both its historical significance and the continued quality of the fruit it produces. Sanford farms 51 acres of vines from the original planting, the oldest in the region. These vines were planted on their own root stock (vitis vinifera), and these “own rooted” vines have flourished for more than 45 years. The vineyard features calcium-rich clay loam soils with fractured shale and chert (a hard, dark, opaque rock composed of silica (chalcedony) with an amorphous or microscopically fine-grained texture), a result of the sloughing off of the top half of this mountain over one million years ago. Primarily planted to Pinot Noir, the Sanford & Benedict vineyard features more than 20 individual blocks and 11 different clones.

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

The La Rinconada Vineyard was planted in 1997, and is adjacent to Sanford & Benedict. It is home to 20 vineyard blocks and 12 clones. The same soil and climate conditions make both areas ideal sources for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The individual blocks of these two estate vineyards are farmed and harvested to make the most of their subtle variations in soils and microclimates.

La Rinconada Vineyard

La Rinconada Vineyard

The property in total is comprised of nearly 1,200 acres, with approximately 262 acres planted to vine. Much of the property remains undeveloped natural land, including a 127-acre conservation easement pledged to the Santa Barbara Land Trust. It is this balance of farmed versus unfarmed land on the ranches which helps in creating and maintaining a balanced ecosystem and an ideal growing environment.

Irrigation systems are fully modernized and variable across the estate to dramatically decrease water usage and increase water conservation. Cover crops and composting are utilized to support and promote microbiotic soil health, which in turn promotes the sustainability of the vineyards and the overall health of the vines. Mechanical tilling and cutting of weeds dramatically reduces the use of herbicides in the vineyard. Owl and raptor boxes have been installed and maintained around the periphery of the vineyards to create nesting sanctuaries for indigenous predatory birds that control vineyard pests in a natural and eco-friendly way.

These two estate vineyards are now part of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, which was designated in 2001.

The winery itself is located at Rancho La Rinconada. It was completed in 2001 and was inspired by traditional California mission architecture. The walls are constructed of adobe blocks handmade on site. The insulating quality of this material makes it ideal for a winery. With adobe walls thirty inches thick, there is no need for either heating or air conditioning. The cellar interior is 55º to 65º year-round, with no energy use.


Sanford Winery

The Sanford Winery

Sanford Celler

The Sanford Cellar

The lumber for the winery was acquired by recycling timbers from a turn of the 19th century sawmill building originally located in Washington State. After this building was purchased and disassembled, its 500,000 board feet of first-growth Douglas Fir was transported to Sanford. Along with the wood came the sawmill itself, which was utilized on-site to re-mill the timbers to meet construction needs.

The winery uses a unique and gentle system to move wine through the facility: a gravity racking system. Four 3600-gallon wine tanks are positioned on hydraulic lifts. The winery crew can move a 14-ton tank of wine below ground or 20 feet in the air. The crew then uses gravity to move wine from tank to barrel (or bottling) without disruptive pumping and agitation of the wine.


Winemaker and General Manager Trey Fletcher leads a veteran winemaking team at Sanford. He spent eight years at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, as Winemaker and General Manager, and has also held winemaking roles with Littorai Wines in Sebastopol. Next is Laura Roach, Assistant Winemaker, who joined Sanford in 2012. Her career began at Schramsberg Vineyards in 2008 as a Laboratory Intern. Two years later, she gained her Bachelors of Science in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, and was awarded the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin Scholarship to work abroad in Burgundy, France, in 2010. Through this exposure, she gained an appreciation for terroir and honed her skills for producing quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Cellar Master Auggie Rodriguez has been a part of Sanford Winery from the very beginning. (Rodriguez’s father was one of Sanford Winery’s first employees hired to help plant the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. He worked on the estate for the next 20 years, retiring in 1991.) Rodriguez started working for Sanford in 1986 at the age of 16. While still in high school, he worked summers and weekends at the winery. Auggie attended the Culinary & Hotel School at Santa Barbara City College while continuing to be part of the production team and managing the cellar for Sanford. Erik Mallea, Vineyard Manager, comes from a northwestern Minnesota farming family. He majored in Biology and Geology at Oberlin College before heading west to start working in vineyards and wineries. Mallea worked for producers in Oregon, New Zealand, and California’s Central Valley before coming to Santa Barbara County. He started working with the Sanford estate vineyards in 2009 while completing his M.S. in Viticulture and Enology.

Alex Rodriguez

Cellarmaster-to-be Auggie Rodriguez (right) and family at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1972

Today, the estate is owned, farmed, and overseen by the Terlato family wine empire. The Terlato family has been involved in the US wine industry for over 70 years with, the motto “Quality Endures.”

Sanford Winery Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Nior 2017

The 2017 Sanford Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is a blend of fruit from the two estate vineyards: Sanford and Benedict (88%) and La Rinconada (12%). The vines were stressed in the midst of the sixth year of a severe drought. Fruit was selected from eight blocks of different soil types. The wine was then fermented in French oak barrels (25% new) for 15 months.

The wine is a deep, but transparent, violet red in the glass, with a nose of black cherry and cola. The dominant tart cherry notes and dusty berry flavors continue on to the palate; they are complemented by plenty of acid and supple tannins. It wraps up with a medium-long finish.

Serve this wine with Sauteed Duck Breast with Pinot Noir Sauce (just don’t squander this Pinot Noir on the sauce), or Salmon en Papillote.

Sanford Winery Sta. Rita Hills Rosé of Pinot Nior 2018

This Rosé is a lovely pale salmon pink. Perhaps predictably, it is a more subtle version of the Pinot Noir above, plus aromas of cranberry and rose petal. The tart cherry flavor is backed up by strawberry. Shows very crisp acidity and good minerality. Fermented in stainless steel, followed by aging in a combination of neutral barrels and stainless steel tanks before bottling.

Drink this with Cider-Marinated Bluefish with Spicy Sliced Tomatoes, Grilled Tuna with Fresh Peach and Onion Relish, or Oak Planked Salmon Charmoula.

Sanford Winery Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2017

The color is pale gold, with a subtle nose of lemon and crème brûlée.

This makes the intensity of this racy wine on the palate all the more surprising; plenty of bright lemon and grapefruit notes supported by “just enough” oak, a bit of floral character, and that zippy acidity.

I suggest you pair this Chard with Chicken Breast with Artichokes and Mustard Sauce, Smoked Turkey and Roasted Red Pepper Sandwiches, or Seared Scallops with Fruit Salsa.


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North Wisconsin Brandy

North Wisconsin BrandySteeerike Three! Yer Out!

Major League Baseball’s 2020 season was supposed to open today. As of this writing, that’s been pushed out to at least mid-May due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the season does begin though, at Milwaukees’ Miller Park, home of the Brewers, the official brandy served at the ballpark will be Central Standard distillery’s North Wisconsin Brandy. Your opening-day celebrations can include an iconic Wisconsin-style brandy Old Fashioned made with a spirit produced right there in town.

North is the first-ever brandy produced by a Milwaukee company. Made at Central Standard’s Clybourn Street distillery, the small-batch brandy is aged and finished in their bourbon barrels.  (By the way, North Wisconsin debuted as North 40, but was quietly rebranded shortly thereafter.)

“North is a recipe we’ve been working to perfect since we opened our doors more than four years ago,” notes Central Standard Craft Distillery co-founder Pat McQuillan.

Photo: J Matt

Photo: Mitchell Metcalf

Photo: Mitchell Metcalf

All well and good, and more than 40,000 people will be potential customers for North Wisconsin every game day. Unfortunately, the brandy is mediocre at best.  It is pale amber in the glass, perhaps a sign of not enough time in those bourbon barrels (a quirky choice on its own).  There are distinct whiffs of acetone on the nose, often indicative of a lower distillation temperature.  The taste is hot and one-dimensional.  And at about $20 a bottle, there are a number of better values out there, often at about half the price, including Korbel.

“Wisconsin is our number one state,” says Margie Healy, director of public relations for the California-based Korbel. “We export 385,000 cases a year, and 139,000 go directly to Wisconsin. That’s one-third of our total production.”

But perhaps a classic Wisconsin Old Fashioned will mask enough of those flaws for you to give it a try.  Here are three recipes:

Old Fashioned Sweet

1 orange slice (never an orange twist)
1 maraschino cherry
1-1/2 ounces maraschino cherry juice
1 teaspoon bitters
1/4 to 1/3 cup ice cubes
1-1/2 ounces brandy
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon orange juice
3 ounces lemon-lime soda

In a rocks glass, muddle orange slice, cherry, cherry juice and bitters. Add ice. Pour in the brandy, water, orange juice and soda.

Old Fashioned Sour

1 orange slice
2 cherries and their juices
1-1/2 ounces brandy (or about one shot)
dash of bitters (1 dropper full – 10 drops)
1 teaspoon of sugar
Collins mix, or 50/50 or Squirt soda
ice cubes

In a cocktail glass muddle sugar, orange slice, cherries and bitters, add shot of brandy and stir. Add ice to fill the glass, then top it off with Collins mix, 50/50 or Squirt soda.

Old Fashioned Press

Press is short for Presbyterian, and refers to finishing the drink with club soda.  So for a Press, simply substitute club soda for the sweet soda in either of the recipes above.

Listen to my podcast about brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac here.

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Hall Craig’s Red Wine 2014

HALL wines hail from five estate vineyards: Sacrashe (Rutherford), Bergfeld (St. Helena), Hardester (Napa Valley), Atlas Peak Estate, (Atlas Peak), and T Bar T Ranch (Alexander Valley). From these 500 acres come classic Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. In each vineyard, small-vine farming is employed to produce low-yield, high-concentration fruit.

The winery is dedicated to environmental responsibility. Only natural products are used for weed and pest control, and the vineyards are certified organic. The farming operations use 50% bio-diesel fuel to reduce carbon emissions.

The St. Helena winery qualified for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System, and was the the first in California to earn LEED Gold Certification.™

Finally, A portion of all business profits is donated to charity via the Craig and Kathryn Hall Foundation.

Photo: Mark Buckley

Photo: Urban Daddy

Photo: Jody Resnick

Photo: Vadim Lazar

Hall Craig’s Red Wine 2014

Craig Hall, with his wife Kathryn, is the co-founder of Hall Wines, and this wine is one of his pet projects. It is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Merlot from a number of Hall’s growers throughout Napa Valley. It was aged in 60% new French oak for 22 months.

This big, bold Bordeaux-styled red blend has a nose of black fruits, black cherry, raspberry, earth, and a touch of smoke. It offers a palate of blackberry, cherry, plum, and chocolate. There is good acidity and plenty of tannins. If you like a tannin punch, drink now. If not, wait a year or two. Either way, let it breathe for about an hour after decanting. The finish is long and concentrated.


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Benziger Family Winery

Benziger Family WineryBall of Confusion

Let’s clear up some confusion right away. This column is about the Benziger Family Winery of Sonoma, not the Beringer winery of Napa. But people often make this mistake, as Chris Benziger can attest to.

In the early 1980s, the Benziger family migrated west from White Plains, N.Y. to start a winery in Sonoma. Winemaker Joe Benziger learned his craft by making large production wines for the Glen Ellen brand, but eventually decided that his future lay with a series of small, artisan wines, sustainably produced.

Photo: Shannon Kelly

Photo: Sean Cuevas

Depending on location, every Benziger vineyard is certified sustainable, organic, or biodynamic, using the most up-to-date green farming practices. But, just what does that mean? Green, sustainable, and organic are words that are often used rather casually. At Benziger, they try to be more precise. Their third-party certified-sustainable vineyard program emphasizes environmentally-sound growing methods, such as biodiversity, soil revitalization, and integrated pest management. Their growers are required to participate in sustainable farming. Organic grape growing avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and uses natural methods like crop rotation, tillage, and natural composts to maintain soil health, as well as natural methods to control weeds, insects, and other pests. The winery itself is certified organic, too.

Photo: Etienne van Gorp

Organic is an evolutionary step up from sustainable. After that, many Benziger growers move on from certified organic to certified biodynamic. Animals and beneficial gardens play an important part in biodynamic farming techniques. Benziger relies on sheep for the removal of overgrown cover crop, and they replace the need for mowing, disking, and spraying herbicides; they aerate the soil while continuously depositing nutrient-rich fertilizer throughout the vineyard. Olive trees also support the health of the estate.

Benziger Pinot Noir 2017

Even thought deceptively transparent in the glass and light bodied, this Pinot packs plenty of flavor. The immediate sensation is that of cola, followed by juicy fruits, especially strawberry, and subtle spices. The acidity and tannins are in nice harmony.

Invite some friends over and serve this with roast chicken with endive and potatoes, baked fish with sorrel béarnaise (Pinot Noir often works with fish), or lentils with vinaigrette.

Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

This dark-ruby colored wine is very much in a Eurorpean, rather than California, style. It is quite dry, with zippy acidity. There are flavors of rich berry, cocoa, and mocha, with a hint of cinnamon. Seamless tannins play a supporting role.

This hearty red will go nicely with paté with herbs, steak with shallot sauce, or braised short ribs with carrots.


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Kelt Commodore Cognac

Kelt Cognac
For tasting notes, click here.

First, let’s talk about brandy vs. cognac. Brandy is a liquor distilled from wine and aged in wood. (Brandy can be made from fruits other than grapes as well, but that’s a story for another time.) Cognac is brandy that specifically comes from the town of Cognac and the delimited surrounding areas in western France. (The one which has the most favorable soil and geographical conditions is Grande Champagne.) So, all cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are cognac. For more detail on cognac, click here.

Until the early 1900s cognac was shipped in barrels. The long sea voyages had a profound effect on the quality of the cognac. When cognac started to be shipped in bottles, many felt something had been was lost. Hoping to recapture that quality, Estonian-born Swedish entrepreneur Olev Keltes established the Kelt Cognac company in 1987. He began his career with the study of the distillation of cognacs as well as madeira, rum, and aquavit. It was this study that led him to rediscover the lost secret that quality improved in spirits that were aged in barrels on a long trip at sea . It is this maturation at sea that sets Kelt apart from other cognac houses.

Kelt continued to expand on this idea, and sent his cognac on its first sea voyage in 1990. The cognac world looked on, many with skeptical eyes. After the voyage, a tasting session was arranged with some of the top names in the cognac industry, and it was with some surprise that the experiment was hailed a great success.

Subsequently, an optimum route around the world was established, and one which all Kelt cognac now follows. The aim of this travel around the world (tour du monde) is to produce cognacs similar to those of the past, where many cognacs and eaux-de-vie were subjected to this epic oceanic journey.

Continue reading “Kelt Commodore Cognac”

Keenan Winery Cabernet Franc 2012

Keenan Winery Cabernet FrancAs a reviewer and source of reliable information, I am supposed to be as objective and unbiased as possible. But not today.  Keenan wines have long been some of my favorites. If you need impartiality, please come back soon.  If not, read on.

Certain that mountain-side vineyards in Napa Valley could produce world class wines, in 1974 Robert Keenan purchased 180 acres in the Spring Mountain District at an elevation of 1700 feet. Located on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas mountain range, Spring Mountain District gained recognition as an American Vineyard Appellation (AVA) in 1993. The low vigor soils unique to the region were known to create a stressful environment for vine growth, setting up perfect conditions to encourage vineyards planted on the steep, rocky, mountainsides to produce wines of great concentration, structure, and pure varietal flavors.

The original acreage Keenan acquired included the crumbling Peter Conradi Winery, founded in the late 19th century and one of the first pioneering properties established on Spring Mountain. Peter Conradi had originally planted the vineyards to Zinfandel and Syrah, but they declined when the property was abandoned during Prohibition, and by the time Keenan arrived in 1974, none of the original vineyards were producing. Keenan cleared the estate of tree stumps and rocks, extended the original vineyard acreage, and replanted the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He built a new winery using the existing stone walls from the old Conradi building, and brought in Keenan Winery’s first harvest there in 1977.

Like many such operations, the winery is a collaborative affair. Keenan’s son, Michael, took over leadership of the estate in 1998. As a young boy, he was eager to learn about winemaking and began honing his winemaking skills “on the job” under the leadership of his father, as well as renowned winemaker Joe Cafaro. Michael Keenan works in concert with General Manager Matt Gardner, Cellar Master Aristeo Garcia Martinez, and Assistant Cellar Master Ricardo Segura. Matt has been with the estate since 1995. Together, they establish winemaking protocols, aging, and the finished style of Keenan wines.


In the tasting room and winery itself, Michael’s wife and Artistic Director Jennifer Keenan ensures that visitors enjoy the full experience of the winery through her creative and playful interior design and sumptuous event design. She is responsible for the classic Keenan image and created the unique label design for the brand.

The Keenan’s son, Reilly, predictably has been immersed in wine culture from a very early age. He became a member of the team at age sixteen, and works during grape harvesting, hosts tastings for visitors on the estate, pours for wine events, and is the dedicated point person for many consumer and trade events.

Under Michael Keenan’s supervision, the vineyards have been systematically replanted to increase grape quality. The program focused on increasing soil health throughout the vineyards, using superior farming methods combined with organic compost and cover crops. Matching each varietal clone to its optimum location, every acre is sustainably farmed and planted with specially selected rootstock. In addition, close attention has been given to row orientation on each site, combined with efficient irrigation. The winemaking team takes a conservative approach, to encourage the varietal flavors to stand out in each bottle of wine.


Keenan Winery produces four wines exclusively from grapes grown on the Spring Mountain Estate: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Cabernet Franc, and a Merlot Reserve from the Mailbox Vineyard. Keenan also offers wines produced from estate fruit blended with grapes grown in carefully selected Napa Valley vineyards: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and the Mernet Reserve, which is a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The Summer Blend, an annual spring release, is composed of mostly Chardonnay and blended with small amounts of Viognier and Albarino.

Keenan Winery Cabernet Franc 2012

This wine was produced exclusively from grapes grown on the Keenan Estate located in Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District. The fruit was hand-picked then, after de-stemming, the must was inoculated with Montrachet yeast and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine aged in French and American oak barrels for twenty months.

A dark plum color in the glass, this Cabernet Franc has a nose of blackberries, black currant, and a hint of leather.  This is followed by tastes of bing cherries, and a bit of cedar, cocoa, and dust. There is snappy acidity and somewhat recessive tannins, all wrapped up in a medium to long finish.  Let this wine breath for two hours for maximum enjoyment.

Serve with Chicken Vesuvio, Rabbit with Mustard Sauce, or Beef Tenderloin with Bordelaise Sauce.

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Fizzics DraftPour

By Spirits Contributor Neal Kotlarek

Fizzics DraftPourIf you love beer like I do, here’s a way to make it even better! Like an aerator to wine, Fizzics micro-foam technology dramatically improves the flavor, taste, and mouth-feel of any carbonated beer (bottles and cans). The Fizzics DraftPour is lightweight and durable. You will be the hit at any party or tailgating event.


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Khortytsa Platinum Vodka

Khortytsa Platinum Vodka

By Spirits Contributor Neal Kotlarek

The Ukrainian Khortytsa [Hor-Ti-Tsa] Distillery opened in December 2003. Although relatively new to the US market, is well-known globally, with distribution in over 87 countries.

It was named among the world’s best distilleries at the 2014 New York International Spirits Competition. Only 19 of the world’s leading distilleries were recognized with this honor.

The distillery is located in Zaporozhe near Khortytsa Island, a sacred place in Ukraine – considered to be the cradle and heart of Ukrainian national pride – and is one of the country’s seven wonders. For the purest water possible, the distillery uses a filter process containing schungite (a unique natural mineral), and is further enhanced with special birch and alder-tree charcoal and quartz sand sourced near the Ural Mountains.

Production capacity is 16 vodka bottles per second. The total volume in the alcohol cellar of the distillery is 1,000,000 liters, or 264,000 gallons. The company employs 1600, and is the dominant vodka in Ukraine.

Currently, there are four items within the Khortytsa line imported to the United States: Khortytsa Platinum, which is the most popular; Khortytsa Ice, specially formulated to be frozen with the bottle turning blue when chilled; Khortytsa Honey Pepper, which adds a spicy zing to a variety of cocktails; and Khortytsa De Luxe a “super premium” vodka for connoisseurs.


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Parallel 44 Winery / Door 44 Winery

Parallel 44 WineryKewanee, nestled in the heart of Wisconsin beer country, is 40 miles east of Green Bay and on the western shore of Lake Michigan. This is where Parallel 44 Winery calls home.  (They also market their wines under the Door 44 label, where they are offered in a tasting facility in Door County farther north.

The story of Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery began in 2005, when husband and wife team Steve Johnson and Maria Milano planted their first grape vines. Steve grew up in Green Bay, where his father Carl experimented early on with growing grapes. Maria grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where her Italian-born father continued his tradition of making wine for friends and family celebrations. Steve and Maria met while in school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and then attended law school together. While working as attorneys, they attended seminars on grape growing in Wisconsin, with an eye towards getting into the wine business.

Maria and Steve

After years of searching for a location with the soil, sun exposure, and temperatures for growing grapes, they found the location that Parallel 44 now sits on. Originally, it was a simple corn field and former gravel pit. As soon as they purchased the land, they began to plant vines, a novel idea at the time.

A year after the vineyard was planted, in 2006 construction was started on the winery and tasting room. Since opening on Memorial Day weekend in 2007, Parallel 44 has continued to grow and expand. Today, all of the wines produced by Parallel 44 are either made with grapes grown in their own vineyards, or at one of the vineyards that the winery contracts with throughout the state of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.


Cold weather grape growing, for sure.

The winery itself has undergone several remodels. The first major expansion of the winery occurred in 2009, which nearly doubled the size of the original. A second, smaller expansion and remodeling was completed in 2011. To capitalize on the resort trade, Steve and Maria decided in 2013 to open a second location, located in Door County forty miles due north, where tens of thousands of tourists flock each summer. (They like to promote this as a second winery, but it’s really just a tasting room and storage facility.)

The Door County tasting facility. Photo: Mike Stanford

The vineyard and winery are situated on 44° north latitude (hence the name), which is renowned for the world’s finest grape growing and winemaking regions, such as Bordeaux in France, and Tuscany in Italy. Parallel 44 shares many similarities with these regions, such as seasonal growing period, annual rainfall, and length of daylight. But, a big difference from their European counterparts is that Parallel 44 suffers through winters of subzero temperatures, adding the challenge of growing grapes on the “frozen tundra” of Wisconsin.

The estate vineyard in Kewanee. Photo: Dave Bloedum

Johnson and Milano decided to forgo the classic European varietals we are all familiar with, knowing that the vines would struggle to even survive the harsh northern Wisconsin winters, much less thrive.

So, they turned their attention to cold-climate grape varietals available for commercial planting, of which there were only a few. Most of the varietals were quite new to the world of wine and were less than 20 years old. Undetered, Steve and Maria carried on with their dream and today, 15 years later, there are approximately 7000 vines on 10 acres planted at Parallel 44.

The grape varietals they grow are known as “cool climate grapes.” This means that some of the vines can withstand temperatures as low as -36° F in winter, but as summer approaches they spring back to life!

These cool-climate varietals have the hallmark qualities of bright acidity, fruit forward aromas, and flavors that are unique to the region. Some of these varietals are Marechal Foch, Frontenac, Louise Swenson, St. Pepin, and Petite Pearl. These are the genetic cousins of such well-known varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Moscato, and Riesling.

Parallel 44 La Crescent NV

The La Crescent white grape varietal was invented by University of Minnesota researchers James Luby and Peter Hemstad as part of the university’s cold hardy-grape breeding program. Since its release to the market in 2002, La Crescent has been planted with success in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and, of course, Wisconsin. The variety can survive temperatures to −36° F (−38° C). Those wishing to propagate La Crescent must obtain a license from the university, as they hold a patent on the grape, awarded in 2004. It has parentage in the Moscato family.

This semi-dry white wine shows pale yellow in the glass. The nose has pleasant orange blossom aromas. Next come flavors of a summer fruit basket, including peach, apricot, and citrus, with a full mouthfeel. It all ends with a refreshing, crisp finish.

Pair this selection with Lobster Bisque, Swordfish Steaks with Mango and Avocado Salsa, or Cornish Hens with Cranberry Sauce.

Parallel 44 Vintner’s Reserve NV

This dry red wine is a blend of 60% Marquette and 40% Petite Pearl.

Marquette is another University of Minnesota offering, introduced in 2006. It is a complex hybrid, one that involves vitis vinifera as well as American species. It is named after Pere Marquette, a Jesuit missionary and 17th century explorer of North America, and has been said by the university to be a cousin of Frontenac and a grandson of Pinot Noir.

Petite Pearl was bred by Tom Plocher, a well-respected northern climate viticulturist and grape breeder; currently, Parallel 44’s is the largest planting.

Winemaker Steve Johnson sees Petite Pearl as “the holy grail, so far” and “to date, the one with the most promise” when it comes to northern red grapes such as Marechal Foch and Marquette that are transforming the quality of wine from the Upper Midwest. As he explains it, compared with other cold-hardy red grapes, Petite Pearl has a more balanced chemical makeup with lower acidity and higher tannin levels.

This medium-bodied red has a nose of bright fruit, especially strawberry and blueberry. Those are complemented on the palate by plum and black cherry, balanced acidity, and light but firm tannins. There is a bit of spice and pepper, as well. The mouth-feel is somewhere between Pinot Noir and Merlot.

Try it with Peppered Salmon with Snow Peas and Ginger, Spinach and Bacon Souffle, or Boned Pork Loin with Apple Cream Sauce.

Parallel 44 Salve NV

Salve is a traditional Italian greeting that comes from the word “to be well.” This unassuming red wine is fresh and easily approachable.

The source grape is primarily Petite Pearl, with a small amount of a white varietal called Prairie Star, bred by Elmer Swenson. It produces a neutral white wine with good mouth feel, and is perhaps even hardier than Frontenac, a widely-planted cool-climate varietal. It can have a strong floral nose. Prairie Star is also consumed as a table grape. The addition of a white varietal during fermentation is a traditional practice in some other countries, including Italy, and is more common than you might expect.

This light red wine has a quite transparent ruby color. The nose shows strawberry and red cherry. That light cherry follows through on the palate, joined by a hint of cola. The finish is short, and without much tannins.

This simple but food-friendly wine would play well with Grilled Butterflied Salmon, Spinach and Bacon Souffle, or Veal Escalopes with Tomato Sauce.

Door 44 F2 Red Blend 2018

This is a 50/50 blend of Frontenac, yet another  hybrid developed at the University of Minnesota, and Marechal Foch, a French-American hybrid created in the late 19th century.  Hence, F2, or perhaps F squared. It is dark ruby-red in the glass, with aromas of red cherry and plum.  This continues on the palate, which offers a slight sweetness as well as an effervescent acidity, typical of these grapes (although no actual bubbles are present). Steve Johnson noted, “While many California winemakers would feel intimidated by the high acidities that result from our cold-climate varietals, they would yearn for the structure our acidities can provide. As F2 matures, the toast of oak will add an expression of dark chocolate, a common characteristic of an aged wine made with the Frontenac grape.”


Here’s a post on another northern Wisconsin winery, but this one brings in juice from California rather than growing locally: https://winervana.com/?s=simon+creek

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Casa Silva

Casa SilvaCasa Silva traces its roots back to 1892, when Emile Bouchon immigrated from Bordeaux to Chile’s Colchagua Valley.

After decades of producing wines for others, in 1997 Bouchon’s great-great-grandson Mario Silva established Casa Silva to produce estate wines under the family’s own name. He had already  dedicated much of his life to recovering the old vineyards and wine cellar, and had acquired a unique understanding of the terroir in the Colchagua Valley, which is divided into the Andean sector,  influenced by the mountains, a central sector on the flatlands, and a coastal sector with significant influence from the Pacific Ocean.

Silva’s sons Mario Pablo, Francisco, Gonzalo, and Raimundo soon joined the winery operations and further contributed to growth and development.

Casa Silva is one of three pioneering wineries that have achieved certification of 100% of its vineyards under the new Wines of Chile Sustainability Code (www.sustentavid.org). It also has a large area under organic management and is constantly improving its processes in the cellar and its relationship with its community.

Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2009

This wine hails from the hills along the Colchagua Valley’s cool seacoast. The terroir combines the freshness of the South Pacific and the vibrant minerality of the valley’s coastal soils.

It  features pineapple, citrus, minerals, and a refreshing acidity. The clean flavor is free of the grassiness that can mar this varietal.

Casa Silva Microterroir de Los Lingues Carmenère 2005

The fruit for this wine was grown in the Los Lingues Vineyard at the foot of the Andes Mountains. This Carmenère (“the lost grape of Bordeaux”) has a nose of black fruits and coffee. The flavor reveals ripe red fruits, supported by spices, soft tannins, and a hint of pepper.


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Allaire Vodka

Allaire VodkaBecause it is a neutral spirit (or is supposed to be) vodka producers often rely on the bottle to make their product distinctive. That is certainly the case here. Allaire’s bottle stands an imposing 15” tall, and the metal cap alone weighs nearly a pound!

This Polish vodka has a rye-dominant mash bill. It is distilled six times and then filtered five times. It is clean, light, and slightly spicy. It is quite smooth and balanced. The finish is medium long with just a touch of dry slate at the end.


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How to Approach the Wine List at a Restaurant

Wine and Robbery at Restaurants

This rant is also available as a podcast episode.

First, don’t be rushed or intimidated. The server will often present you with a pages-long list, but then expect you to make a selection immediately, before you have any idea what foods you’re going to pair it with. That’s a bad idea. My suggestion is to just ask for water and then that will give you time to try and figure out what your entree is going to be. Sometimes the server will still try to rush you because he or she is on a schedule. Just politely say, “Well, we will have some wine with dinner, but we don’t know what we’re eating. So we need some time. Once we decide on our food, then we’re going to order some wine to go with it.”

Second, of course, you might not know what kind of wine you want. And this is where you can turn to help. You can rely on that selfsame server, because a restaurant, if they do have an extensive wine list, hopefully will have  trained their waitstaff on what kind of wines they have and what goes well with their foods. Sometimes this does not work and you’re on your own, but if the help is there, I suggest you use it.

Higher-end restaurants are likely to have a sommelier, which is, at its simplest,  a wine specialist. If so, that is a person you really want to use, because that is  a person who is a wine expert ,and they will know the restaurant’s wines, and that person should definitely be relied on.

Third, and the core of this rant, is that restaurant wine is always overpriced, and it’s been overpriced for a long time. You can discover some of these mark-ups when you’re at the table, if you dare. You can Google the wine you’re interested in, and find out what its retail price is.

Historically, the mark-up has been about 200% of retail cost. Restaurants have long been criticized about this. They’ve explained it away by saying, “Oh, well, look we have our fine glassware. We have our sommelier. We have our linens. This has to be paid for somehow, right?” Other times, the justification is, we’re not making enough on our food margins. We’ve still got to make a profit, and so wine is an easy profit center.

Both of these arguments are completely specious in my opinion, because on the one hand, yes if you have a higher-end wine service, there is glassware and linens, etc. There is cost in there. However, is that cost two or three times the price of the wine itself? I think not. And there are also BYOB (bring your own bottle) restaurants. They somehow magically manage to stay in business and turn a profit without any alcohol program at all. Now some places will kind of take a middle ground in that they will allow you to bring your own wine, but there’s a corkage fee. Now, that that can be fine. I think a reasonable corkage fee for a guy to come and pull a cork, and the glasses, and the linens, should be about $5 or $10. But I’ve seen corkage fees up at $35 to $45, which is just absurd if you ask me.

Here are some random examples of mark-ups that I discovered recently. One was for a J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon. This is from Paso Robles in the Central Coast of California. On this wine list it was $38 (you are going to be seeing wines at the mid-thirties price point a lot, by the way). That wine sells at the winery for $17. Now that’s a 200% mark-up, and that’s what people used to do, so that one is kind of OK. I found another one: Sterling Vintner’s Cabernet, $35, but you can buy it any day of the week for $10 at Walmart. And the one that I discovered that just really irritated me was this is: an Estancia Cabernet. I’ve been drinking this wine for literally 30 years. It’s also coincidentally from Paso Robles and is widely available. I found it on a wine list for $11 a glass. I just bought this wine at my local liquor store for $6 a bottle. Remember, a bottle will yield about four glasses, so this is an effective mark-up of 700%! These are the kinds of egregious price gouging that just make me crazy.

I will occasionally do a restaurant review on Yelp, and I’ve been calling restaurant owners out on this. I never get a response, but I find this to be abusive basically, and just unconscionable. I can live with a 200 to 250% mark-up, but anything more than that is simply greed as far as I’m concerned.

Restaurants tend to punish you if you’re used to enjoying wine with your meals. You go out to a restaurant and they know they’ve got you as a captive audience. You’re out on a splurge, right? If you don’t want to drink beer, cola, or water with your meal, then you’re you’re stuck with whatever prices they’re demanding on the wine list.

Here’s a tip: order mid list. The second least expensive wine on the list is often marked up the most. Why? People don’t want to appear cheap. So they order the second cheapest wine. Go one or two bottles higher for a better deal. Also, beware of common brand names, because restaurateurs know they’re always going to get a full mark-up because people know what to expect, for the quality of the wine, if not the price.

Another point is that most lists follow a graduated mark-up, with the highest mark-ups on the cheapest wines, and lower mark-ups on higher-end wines. A $10 wholesale wine may be marked up to $30, but a $50 wine might be just $80. So in a certain sense that presents a value proposition, but by the same token, how often can many of us swing $80 for a bottle of wine at dinner? So then that starts to restrict your choices too. I have to say, my wife and I often bemoan the fact that when we do go out to eat, when the bill comes, 50% of it is often the wine, which then restricts how often we feel like we can go out to eat, just because of the amount of money involved with that.

It’s been my experience that some, unfortunately not even most, restaurants do adhere to the traditional standard pricing mark-up of about 200%, and at the most 300%. Of course, if nobody adheres to it, is it a standard or not? But sadly, my experience in dining out is I’m seeing more places pushing this into the 300 to 400% mark-up range. These days, if you search long enough you may find a wine price that is merely insulting.

Last year my wife and I were in a resort town, and we went out to get a pizza at a little local joint. It’s summer and the weather is nice. Most of their seating is outside, and they had a bar outside as well. So of course, the first thing I do is walk up to the bar and order of a bottle of wine. I got a completely ordinary Italian selection since this is an unassuming pizza place. The bartender hands me the bottle and two plastic cups and says, “That’s $32,” and I thought well, alright I guess. We sat down at the outdoor tables and started drinking our completely ordinary wine, and this is the experience that really got me going on restaurant wine price gouging. I decided to look up the price of this wine. Well, it retails for $9. So you’ve got to figure the restaurant probably paid $6 for it wholesale. And of course this situation blows out the whole idea about the glassware, about the linens. It was: Here’s your bottle. Here’s your plastic cups. Hope you like it! Frankly, that experience was what really got me on this crusade, if you will, to call out overpriced wine. I’ve been aware of it in restaurants for a long time, and just silently suffered with it. But, it just seemed so egregious this time that it had to go remarked. What I said in my Yelp review of this place was hey, good pizza, they do a great job. But if you go, they have a takeout option, get your pizza to go, take it back home, and drink your wine and eat your pizza there. You’ll be much happier.

I’m frustrated because I don’t know what the solution is to this problem. It seems like the restaurant owners have all of the power in this transaction. If you’re going to get wine in a restaurant, you’re going to pay their prices. The only bright spot I see is that these days, with the prevalence of social media, people are willing to review, often extensively, a restaurant’s food, its service, its location, its cleanliness, whatever. I find it interesting that the issue of wine pricing just never seems to come up, and I don’t think that’s because people aren’t having wine with their meals. I think it’s just that people have been trained that this is just the way it is. You just have to accept this kind of pricing practice. I would like to issue a call to people: if you are into social media reviews, and if you are a casual wine drinker, and if you are irritated as hell by these pricing practices, do let the restaurant owner know through your review and call them out on this, and maybe, maybe, it’ll put the brakes on this a little bit. That would be my hope

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