Sunday, August 31, 2008

For the Boys

September is National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, and fellow cocktail blogger Rick Lyke has shared his personal experience with the disease in an attempt to encourage other men to get tested. Here is his note and some suggestions of what you can do to remain in good health:

“As some of you know, I was diagnosed with the disease earlier this year and had surgery in April in Chicago. Luckily, my cancer was caught early… I was lucky. I did not have any symptoms and my primary care physician told me I did not need a PSA test until I turned 50. At the urging of a good friend who was previously diagnosed with the disease, I insisted on having the PSA blood test. The test caught the cancer early and saved my life. Since my surgery, I've talked to all of my friends about getting tested and started a campaign called Pints for Prostates to use the universal language of beer to reach men about the importance of prostate health screenings.”

1. If you are a male and 40-years-old or older, schedule a visit to your doctor and get the simple PSA blood test.

2. Tell the men in your life over 40 years old to get tested. There are more new cases of prostate cancer detected in the U.S. each year than breast cancer cases in women.

3. Visit for more information. Us TOO International works to support, educate and advocate for men with prostate cancer and their families.

4. If you have a website or blog, consider running the Pints for Prostates banner ad or badge during the month of September. Get the code at "Support the Cause". The more men reached with the message about PSA testing and regular prostate health screening, the more lives that will be saved.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

La Casa Azul

How better to get to know an artist than in
their own home?

While taking a self-guided recorded tour through the Blue House in Coyoacán, I got some insight into Frida Khalo’s existence. Born in 1907, she was one of the most intriguing feminist icons of the 20th Century.

Openly bisexual, Khalo endured a tumultuous marriage with an equally celebrated eccentric artist, Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1929, divorced in 1939 and remarried in 1940. She lived with him at La Casa Azul until her death in 1957.

Frida Khalo was one of four girls born to a German immigrant father and Mexican mother. Due to an unfortunate series of mishaps – polio as a child and a serious bus accident when she was 18, Khalo was sometimes wheel chair bound, and I couldn’t help but wonder how she managed up and down the many stairs in the home.

In addition to painting, Khalo loved to sew and some pieces of clothing are on display in the home. She was also an avid reader on topics ranging from science to philosophy to politics and culture. She and Rivera mingled with North American and European famosos, such as Mexican film star Maria Felix and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who are alluded to around the house. Andre Breton invited her to do an exhibition in Paris in 1939, and the Louvre bought The Frame, which according to Wikipedia is “the first work by a 20th century Mexican artist ever purchased by the internationally renowned museum.”

Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the home, so I shot some around the exterior of the house and in the lush courtyard.

I hope you enjoy this peek into an important piece of Mexican pop culture and history as complementary reading material with your favorite south of the border libation! There is a Frida Khalo tequila, which I have yet to try - but I have been sampling my share of Cazadores tequila down here and highly recommend it.
Getting Kinky With Groove Armada in Mexico City

I've just seen one of the best shows of my life! The B-Live concert headliner Groove Armada totally kicks ASS. I have totally dug that group for nearly a decade. Their performance tonight was truly amazing. Better than imagined. And, I am stoked to have seen them in Mexico City.

The crowd was great - hipsters without attitude who danced and sang and quite literally got their groove on. There were several groups leading up to Groove Armada, and the most exciting of those was the Mexican group Kinky who totally rocked. So much that I am running out to track down the CD as soon as I wake up in the morning.

The show hits 25 cities around the world and is called B-Live and is sponsored by Bacardi, which by the way, endorses responsible drinking. Just so you know...

Friday, August 29, 2008

First Meal in Mexico

Las Calandrias Resort and
Bacardi Rum Fuel Day One!

Obviously, one of my favorite things about travel is eating and drinking – and we embarked on that endeavor within an hour of
landing in Mexico. Fellow L.A.-based spirits writer Dan Dunn and I joined Joe Gerbino from Bacardi U.S.A. at the airport and piled into a chauffeured van. We set off to the Bacardi Distillery, a couple of hours south of Mexico City - but not without filling our bellies with an authentic lunch along the way, just outside the town of Puebla.

The brick and stone building houses an eclectic mix of painted ceilings, religious trinkets, brightly colored linens and every cut of steak you could wish for making Las Calandrias Hotel, Spa & Restaurant is an exclusive resort off the beaten path AND mecca for meat-lovers’ Mexican delight.

The servers even present raw steaks tableside prior to ordering to help guide the selection process, and peacocks make like ‘living art,’ decorating the gardens just outside the window.

We sampled 3 varieties of Mexican salsa followed by meat-stuffed empanadas and ceviche as a first course - but don’t think for one second we didn’t kick things off without a rum-based libation!

In the U.S., a lot of hoopla is made about the “right” way to make cocktails, in recent years. While consistency and adherence to tradition are important, I also enjoy the freedom of a drink maker comfortable enough to turn out a great libation without getting uptight about it!

This mojito is a good example of that. The barman eyeballed Bacardi rum, yerba buena (a type of Mexican mint), sugar and lime juice, served it in a Rocks sized glass (versus a tall one) and it tasted simply and deliciously homemade. No pomposity, no frills, slightly rough around the edges – rather perfect.

Next up, I opted for Rib-Eye Tacos which were so delectable I worked to finish all 4 on the plate despite feeling well satiated half-way through. Apart from being succulent little morsels, the juicy meat and house made corn tortillas doubled as vehicles to get more fresh & spicy green and red salsa into my pie-hole!

Another round of mojitos and our driver got us back on the road toward the distillery hooting “Viva Mexico!” before our food comas took effect.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sobieski Vodka: A Royal Deal

…and A Walk Through Polish History

Everything in Europe feels extra special because it h
as so much more history behind it. Whether a 400 year old castle in Germany or a 2000 year old ruin in Rome, we Americans realize that we are merely pip-squeeks in the scope of Western Civilization. While the cocktail is an American tradition, the spirits from which they are made date back hundreds of years before Columbus “sailed the oceans blue.”

The Sobieski Distillery (or Destylarnia Sobieski) is an hour-long drive from Gdansk down winding country roads, past fields of corn and livestock wandering grassy knolls. Originally a privately held spirits factory dating back to 1846, the distillery’s first owner, Herman Aleksander, produced vodka, cognac and liqueurs, which encompassed more than 60 brands by 1939. When the Germans invaded Poland during WW2, the factory was used to make spirits for the Army throughout most of the 1940's. After the war, the Germans left and the Russian invaded. All privately owned businesses became property of the state, including the distillery.

By 1998, after the fall of Communism, commercial businesses were once again allowed in Poland, and the French spirits company, Belvedere S.A. invested $25 million in Sobieski vodka to bring the distillery up-to-date. Belvedere currently owns 80% of the share capitals and runs both distribution and marketing for the brand. As of 2003, the Sobieski Distillery is the largest in Poland, and owns 4 production plants around the country.

We toured the distillery to learn how Sobieski vodka is made. In a nutshell: the company outsources the “raw spirit” made from certified Dankowski rye grown in central Poland. Potatoes are more expensive and rot quickly, making grain spirits a more attractive option to producers. Simultaneously, the tastebuds of today’s consumer are more geared toward grain vodka, as potato and corn vodkas tend to be slightly sweeter. Having the opportunity to taste a potato vodka and grain vodka side-by-side, it was easy for me to understand that the sharper, tangier, more pungent flavor of potato vodka is quite different than that of the “neutral spirit” (no taste / smell) of grain vodka. I liked both – but can see that some people might have a preference.

Sobieski has agreements in place with their sources to ensure the highest level of quality control over the raw spirit it receives, and once it arrives at the Sobieski plant, it goes through a 3-column distillation: purification, rectification and refinement. We climbed up to the top of the highest column for a wonderful view of the surrounding area. (Luckily we hadn’t yet sampled too much vodka before making that climb!)

Walking around the plant is like taking a trip to an industrial space-age wonderland. Shining metal silos and cylindrical chutes criss-cross sideways, beneath us, and overhead. The mechanical whirr of engines and the din of glass bottles knocking against each other shuffling along the conveyor belt makes it necessary to wear earplugs in parts of the property. Forklifts heft heavy loads into waiting 18-wheeler trucks. And, several huge warehouses store thousands of cases of 9-liter bottles… but not for very long. More than 6000 cases arrive in the U.S. each day.

Belvedere S.A. also owns Imperial Brands which began importing Sobieski to the United States in 2007. In only a year, Sobieski vodka has exploded onto the American market. Florida-based Timo Sutinen (pictured left), Vice President of Imperial Brands, attributes much of Sobieki’s success to its positioning in the U.S. Market, “Poland is the birthplace of vodka… and proud of it,” he points out. “We are the only Polish vodka that makes a big deal out of being Polish.”

The concept of substance over style is evident in their "Truth in Vodka" promotional campaign, which clearly takes potshots at competitors who hire celebrities to hock their wares, and position themselves as "super premium," "ultra premium," etc., in order to appeal to the unsophisticated (yet pretentious) American club goer or barfly. Unlike Ciroc, Chopin and Belvedere (no longer owned by Belvedere S.A., ironically) which run $25- $50 per bottle, Sobieski is only $10.99, and believes that results in blind tastings speak for themselves.

For example, last year Sobieski came in #2 out of 108 vodkas tasted by the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago and awarded 95 points, on a scale of 1-100 calling it “An incredible value in a world of high priced vodkas.” Sobieski enjoys strong export in Europe, as well. Behind the U.S., leading importers are: Bulgaria, Ireland, U.K. and France (in that order).

In Poland, Sobieskis is #1 in the “premium category” alongside Finlandia and Absolut, and the #5 overall vodka. (Less expensive brands sell more). In an attempt to endear itself to the hearts of locals, the main vodka brands under the Sobieski umbrella are named after Polish heros. The most notable, of course, is King Sobieski who lived from 1629 – 1696. Upon defeating the Turks on September 12, 1683, in the Battle of Vienna against invading Ottoman empire, the reigning Pope declared him the “savior of Vienna and Western European Civilization.”

Zawisza Czarny vodka is only available in Poland and named after a Polish knight who lived from 1380 – 1428. He is so well loved by history that his name has become synonymous with being honorable as demonstrated in the Polish saying, “You can rely on him / her like Zawisza.”

While in Poland, last week, we tasted dozens of products owned by the Sobieski brand. In addition to specialty bottles and various patriotic labels, there are a plethora of flavors not yet popular on American soil: bitter sweet, cherry, herb, rose, canteloupe along with usual suspects such as vanilla, cranberry, green apple and pear. The company also owns Marie Brizard liqueurs, which are particularly popular in Spain and France, and pop up from time to time as ingredients in American cocktails. And, it sells Krupnik liqueur (infused with honey and aged in oak for 35 days) in the U.S. (You’ll notice it in liquor stores if you keep your eyes peeled.)

Due to the favorable response of Americans to Sobieski plain vodka, the company plans to launch 3 flavors in 2009. They haven’t declared which will hit our market, yet, but I’m guessing the “sweet bitter” will come over… only with a different name which would appeal more to the American market. And, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the rose (pictured left).

It seems a sure bet that if the prices are as competitive as the plain Sobieski vodka, and the quality is as impressive for a low price point, they are sure to make a royal splash!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tweet Much?

I decided to copy the cool kids and just added Twitter (see it in left column on this blog). So if you want to follow The Liquid Muse cocktailian updates, please feel free to sign on! I promise to only use it for cocktail-related purposes from this moment on!
First Sips of Poland

Upon arriving in Warsaw, we immediately boarded a small plane for Gdansk. But, not without a little refreshment in the airport first! The creamy iced coffee, pictured on right, is more like a milkshake than the watery iced coffee we have in the U.S. (love that its served in a beer glass!)

Next, we boarded a small plane for a 45-minute flight to Gdansk, a charming city on the Baltic Sea, known for amber (petrified tree sap – the more bugs in it, the more expensive). It is also known for its shipyard and has been an important port city for Poland.

As we approached Gdansk, I noted the very green terrain, below and small houses. On the ground, we piled into taxis and checked into our hotel, situated right in the heart of the Old Town.

Fifteen minutes later, we started off in the drizzling rain for lunch to a restaurant whose name roughly translates to "under the salmon."

It was originally founded in 1598 and blends traditional decor (big brass light fixtures, lace curtains, large wood tables topped with candelabras and fine china) with typical cuisine. The waiters were polite, thought they didn't speak English and delivered the food with hour-long gaps in-between courses.

I enjoyed herring several ways (creamy sauce, herbed and in a tomato sauce) followed by a salad, and along the way tasted other peoples' dishes - creamy mushrooms, gamey deer sausage and a bite of duck.

Of course, we had 2 kinds of Sobieski vodka - the "regular" and the fancier one. They were served ice cold in small liqueur glasses, and that is how we drank it throughout the meal - straight up. To finish our lunch, we had 'goldvasa' or sweet liqueur with bits of edible gold leaf floating in it, said to enrich the body with minerals.

Upon finishing lunch (about 3 hours later), we realized that dinner was only a few hours away. To digest, we took a walking tour of the city.

Our guide told us that the first mentions of Gdansk as a city show up around 997, making it more than 1000 years old. Its history is one of tumultuous power plays and destruction. For example, the Polish King sent the Bishop of Prague to convert the Prussian pagans to Christianity, only to have the Bishop’s dead body returned to the King with a note of warning to stay away. Poland’s borders have expanded and retracted over the centuries, as well. For example, at one point in the 18th Century, Poland - which had been one of the largest countries in Europe - was conquered and divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.

One of the main sites is a statue of King Sobieski atop a great horse who, upon defeating the Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683 was declared the "Savior of Vienna and Western Civilization" by the Pope at the time.

From there, we walked down the broad, cobblestone street which stretches from the main archway entrance to the once walled city to the Vistula River, which runs through Gdansk. We passed many tents selling amber necklaces, crocheted slippers and bags and other typical market items on our way to a replica of a pirate ship.

Once aboard, we sailed along past the famous port and turned around where the river mouth opens up into the Baltic Sea.

Just at that point there is also a WW2 statue, as Gdansk is known for being the site where the Nazis aggression, in 1933, preceded the war. In the first stand off, 210 Polish soldiers held back 4000 Germans. However, the Nazis returned with ferocity and took the city over on Easter 1945, destroying 95% of it. Once the war was over and the Germans retreated, a crippled Poland was in no position to hold back the Russians, who marched right into the country and cloaked it in Communism for the next few decades.

Still, the people of Poland persevered in their attempts at creating a balance in power between government and citizens, as exemplified by the Protest of the Shipyard workers in 1970, and again in 1980. That union leader later became president of Poland.

In 2004, an independent Poland joined European Union. Its economy is still significantly less powerful than that of its wealthier Western European counter parts but privately held companies (such as the Sobieski distillery) are allowed to exist and thrive.

It became a bit chilly on the top deck, so we did what any good Pole would do... we headed down into the wooden belly of the boat where we sipped typical Polish beer from glasses decorated with Polka dancers!

Back on land, we had about an hour until we met up in the bar of the hotel. One of the guys on this trip found a 'typcial' Polish snack and brought it to the hotel for us to try as an aperitif. The pickled beans are called "bob" or "boob" - hard to tell with the accent. They tasted ok - but not something I'll miss too much when I go back home...

Ironically enough, Belvedere vodka happened to be doing a promotion in the bar of our hotel. Sobieski is owned by Belvedere S.A., a large French spirits company. However, the brand of Belvedere vodka has since been sold to another company. So, we politely refused their specialty cocktails out of loyalty to our hosts and I had grapefruit Sobieski with a bit of lime and orange juice.

Several dirty martinis (we taught the bartender how to make them because he'd never heard of one), a few pierogis (Polish dumplings - yum!) and a spinach souffle later, I was finally in bed at about 11:30 pm (after being awake for nearly 30 hours since leaving L.A.) and slept with visions of sausage-stuffed pierogis dancing in my head...

En Route to Poland!

At 6:20 am Saturday morning, I looked out over an ocean of clouds above Los Angeles on en route to Poland! Sobieski vodka was kind enough to invite me to experience the pleasures of Polish vodka, cocktail bars and gastronomy – and I can’t tell you how excited I am about this opportunity.

Yes – I am a total wanderlust and have roamed the globe as much as possible since I can remember – and it never gets old! Having European parents, I visited Europe three times before age one, and visited French grandparents every summer thereafter – so I guess that kind of set the pace for my insatiable hunger to acquaint myself with people, cultures, food and drink of countries beyond the U.S. In my opinion, in order to be truly inspired, one has to journey outside one’s own quotidian surroundings. Therefore, I am super jazzed for this trip to a new destination.

When I hear “Warsaw,” the first images flickering through my mind are cold weather, WW2 tragedies and a country once ruled with a communist fist. I am curious to see the modern-day city, and I hear that some of the hippest bars and ‘socially upward’ people are grooving and sipping around that city. I imagine it to be something like Sarajevo, which I visited with Jason a couple of years ago. A city ripe with opportunity and hope for the future, despite a somber knowledge that the people my age had lived through hardship Americans in my generation have never known.

I cannot wait to tour the historic distillery where Sobieski vodka is made, and I have no idea what to expect in Gdansk. We are also visiting a castle at some point, which sets my heart a-flutter with romantic flights of aristocratic fancy.

I’ll do my best to blog along the way so you can have a taste of what I discover over the next few days…

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gargiulo Vineyard Greets Los Angeles

There is no better way to get to know a newer wine than alongside some delicious food. I love letting the nectar roll around on my tongue – before taking a bite of anything – and then trying it again after a taste of the food. It never ceases to amaze me to experience the impact of food on wine, and wine on food.

I was recently invited to “meet” the wines from Gargiulo Vineyards at Jar, in Los Angeles. Jar is one of those rare L.A. eateries which made a big impact upon opening (at least 8 years ago…) and remains at the “top of the food chain” in our gastronomical landscape. I haven’t been there in ages – but looked forward to seeing if it was still as good as I remembered.

Our evening started with some get-to-know you chit-chat with stylish April Gargiulo, our hostess for the evening. She had formerly worked in big city marketing type jobs, which showed - in a good way. Sometimes winemakers are like other artists … incredibly talented but uncomfortable in social situations. April, who runs the company with her father Jeff, is the perfect person to speak knowledgeably about the wines, while charming the crowd.

Gargiulo Vineyard was founded in California’s Napa Valley in 1992, and presented its first vintages to the world in 2003. It is a small producer (which makes it all the more special, in my mind) and grows a fair amount of Cabernet and Merlot. However, one of the most interesting things about the winery is their environmentally-friendly tasting room (written up in Food & Wine's eco issue). It is constructed from recycled/reused materials, such as reclaimed wood flooring from St Helena high school’s basketball gymnasium and a de-commission bridge in Napa. Recycled barrels and ropes serve as chandeliers and the walls of the tasting room are made from signature red rocks collected around the property.

While mingling with the other writers invited to the tasting dinner, I found refreshment in the 2007 Rosato di Sangiovese, which had a slightly fruity aroma but was dry enough to be a pleasant sipper. As soon as we sat down at the long family-like dining table in a back corner of the restaurant, the server delivered several platters of Crab Deviled Eggs. I happen to have a thing for deviled eggs, and am known to make them for most picnics or as my contribution to a potluck party. The addition of crab is something I had never considered – but will absolutely try to replicate… especially served alongside this kind of wine!

I picked the Crisp Squash Blossoms stuffed with shitake and lobster then drizzled with spicy ponzu dipping sauce as the next course. Luckily, my pal and fellow oeno-phile “Adam the Wine Guy” ordered the other choice, a Mozzerella Salad with burrattta, pine nuts and artichoke so I could have a bite. Both were delicioso sipped along side Gargiulo’s 2005 Aprile Super Oakville Red.

Next up was a hearty main course of either Jar’s Signature Pot Roast or a 14-ounce Rib Eye. If it were winter, I would have gone with the pot roast, so I opted for the awesome hunk-o-meat (and took home half of it for a steak salad the next day!). Best of all, they believed me when I said I wanted my meat “medium RARE” and served it pink in the middle. (Sadly, this is cause for big points for a restaurant in my book, even though it should be a given).

It was fun to sample TWO wines with the meat course. We did a side-by-side tasting of the 2005 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 575 OVX G Major 7 Cabernet Sauvignon. More people at the table seemed to like the Money Road Ranch cab better – but I like the “pow” of the OVX, depite its odd name. It felt more impressive to me, despite it supposedly needing another year or two in the bottle. (I guess I’m what you'd call "a Cabernet cradle robber!")

Finally, for dessert, I opted for the Chocolate Pudding instead of ice cream, which was really more like mousse masquerading as pudding, and I actually preferred Adam’s ice cream - but chocolate in any form is always good with the cabernet left in the wine glass. The perfect last sip to toast a new friend found in Gargiulo wine...
Why Choose Shochu?

I got a couple of sample bottles of Haamonii Shochu earlier this summer… and I am remiss in not yet posting about it. (Been traveling, been incredibly busy, sometimes things I love even take a little while to circle back to…)

But, let’s start at the beginning… What is shochu?

“Shochu” is a distilled Asian spirit. I have been acquainted with “soju” -
Typically a distilled Korean spirit - for a while now. Soju is sometimes classified as a kind of wine, allowing restaurants with only a beer / wine license replace vodka with soju in cocktails. (Similarly, some restaurants make “agave wine” margaritas, when they don’t have a license for spirits… and they taste pretty good!)

But I digress…

I had understood “shochu” to be Japanese “soju” but wasn’t entirely sure if there was a difference. Turns out that Japan has started calling some of its shochu “soju” so that it could be recognizably exported to the U.S.. Shochu and soju can be made from sweet potato, barley, grain and rice. Haamonii Shochu declares itself “a grain bas
ed ultra premium spirit” and I don’t argue with that definition.

How does it compare with vodka?

To me, plain Haamonii Shochu is similar to vodka, only a bit sweeter. I find it incredibly silky on the tongue with very little alcohol “burn.” The lemon-flavored Hammonii is a pleasant surprise. The smell and taste are of fresh lemon (though both are surely artificial). I plan to create a cocktail combining muddled lychee, mandarin juice and a splash of lime for my next 'sushi night.'

I’m a big fan of the Asian influence on our cocktails in the U.S., Europe and Australia. In my travels, I have seen more ginger, lemongrass and the like making their way onto worldwide cocktail menus, for a while now. I use all sorts of exotic ingredients in The Liquid Muse Mixology, and I look forward to incorporating Shochu into the mix!

Fresh & Easy Wines

The Neighborhood Market – Our Latest Import from the U.K.

We’re just never satisfied. Now that American consumers have pushed the neighborhood grocer to become ‘bigger’ then giant and now “Super Walmarts and Costcos,” we yearn for the cozy feel of the corner market that cares about the community. Luckily, someone outside corporate America is listening… the English!

Tesco is the largest retailer in the United Kingdom, and one of the biggest in the world. So, why is it spending more than $2 billion over the next 5 years to build Neighborhood Markets all around the U.S.? Because after studying our shopping habits, they’ve learned that’s where we want to spend our money.

It certainly seems like a win-win for everyone as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is committed to wholesome, high quality produce at reasonable prices. It also starts California and Nevada employees at $10 / hour (above minimum wage) and offers a 10% quarterly salary bonus for all employees. And, they like to recruit new hires from the neighborhood – about half of all Fresh & Easy employees live within 4 miles of the store.

But, let’s get to the point … Fresh & Easy carries some great – and reasonable – wines! The majority of their wine list is under $10, making ‘a glass with dinner’ a more common option for everyone. And, as demonstrated in my article "The Democratization of Wine" reviewing the success of low-priced, potable vintages such as Charles Shaw at Trader Joe's, the Neighborhood Market also has two brands priced at $1.99. I recently tried a sampling of 4 delightful Fresh & Easy wines, each under $10. Here are my thoughts on the wines and how to enjoy them:

Hilltown ($6.99): 2006, Sauvignon Blanc from Monterey County, California. Personally, I love the guava and pineapple notes typifying just about any Sauv Blanc, whether from up the coast in California or on the other side of the globe in New Zealand. Hilltown, which has won 4 Bronze Medals, is a summertime no-brainer.

Pink Flamingo Rose ($4.99): 2007, Shiraz from South Australia. Bright fruit notes sparkle in this dry summer sipper. Juicy without being too sweet, it works well with a peppery chicken, creamy pasta or ripe cheese plate.

Recoleta ($2.99): 2007, 60% Malbec, 40% Bonarda from Argentina. Dark berries and a long finish make this ideal with something like minted lamb or Jumbalaya. I served this one with garlic-and-herb-de-Provence-encrusted salmon (yes, I do reds with wine, sometimes) and it was marvelous. It won the silver medal at the L.A. International Wine and Spirits Competition 2008.

Reflexion Rioja Reserva ($9.99): 2003, Tempranillo from Northern Spain. It is no secret that I am a fan of not only Spanish wine but Spain itself. While living there from 1999 – 2001, I definitely learned that an inexpensive wine can be absolutely fabulous. This one has enough body, a hint of spice, vanilla and dark cherry to pair wonderfully with Manchego cheese, almonds and dried apricots; or a hunk of dark chocolate. It is also the kind of red wine you just enjoy sipping on its own, having a nice chat with someone you like a lot.