Tag Archives: Guest Swiller

A conversation with Jess Kubis: Learn by tasting

Learn by tasting

New Vintage fun with Jess Kubis (left) Photo courtesy of T.J. Turner

When you think of someone who partakes in wine tastings on the regular, who comes to mind? Perhaps you drum up an image of someone with a great deal of wine knowledge, able to detect hints of pear, oak, leather, or the area of the world where the wine is from with a simple sniff, swirl, and sip of the liquid. Someone who has a special fridge full of expensive wines, who always knows which wine to pair with any dish. Well, I am here to prove you wrong. I can’t really do any of those things, but I love going to wine tastings.

I had my first experience ordering wine in a fancier restaurant in my early 20s; three friends and I had formed a book club that also heavily featured wine consumption, (with the main criteria for wine purchases being ‘inexpensive’) and had decided to venture out and discuss our book selection at Lucia’s Wine Bar in Uptown Minneapolis. After we chose one of the less expensive white wines on the menu, the waiter brought the bottle to the table and inquired who would be sampling to see if it met our standards. My friends immediately volunteered me, even though my only standards for wine at the time were ‘alcoholic’ and ‘not Merlot.’

The waiter poured a small amount into my glass, and then patiently waited for me to taste it. I, in turn, picked up the glass, gave it a meager swirl (I had seen that on TV somewhere,) and then slammed the wine sample in one gulp. “Yep, that’s great,” I said, as the waiter stood there looking kind of stunned. I had no idea one was supposed to sniff and swish and savor the sip to truly take it all in before finally swallowing and making a decision. What for? At that point in my life, I had rarely met a white wine I wouldn’t drink, even if it wasn’t spectacular. I mean, I was regularly buying Two-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s. What did I know?

Throughout my 20s, I rarely ventured far from the type of wines I enjoyed: Riesling. Gewürztraminer. Moscato. Prosecco. The rare Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or Sauvignon Blanc. I tended to avoid reds as a whole, as they were served at room temperature (wine should be cold), often left me with a headache, and always made me think of blood. (I read a lot of vampire novels as a young adult). Also, the first red wine I had tasted outside of church wine was Merlot, which I found abhorrent, and it tainted my entire view of the genre. I avoided rosé as well, because my mother favored White Zinfandel and I didn’t think it was very good. In truth, the color made me think of wine coolers or Boone’s Farm and I’d had enough of those between ages 18-21 to last me a lifetime. However, these last few years, I’ve opened up my mind and my mouth to all sorts of different wines, including rosés and reds. I attribute this to two things: a number of visits to nearby wineries and participation in New Vintage, a monthly wine tasting experience for those in their 20s and 30s, hosted by Minnesota Monthly and Solo Vino.

I’m a huge fan of visiting vineyards. I mean, what’s not to like? You pay a flat, reasonable fee and you get to try a lot of different kinds of wine. I haven’t made it to Napa Valley yet, but I always try to visit Midwestern vineyards whenever I’m on road trips with friends. I’ve been to Northern Vineyards in Stillwater a few times, as it’s not very far from my home. After completing the tasting, you can buy a glass or a bottle (which they’ll open for you) and take it up to their lovely deck overlooking the St. Croix river; you can even bring in snacks to enjoy with your wine. My favorite of theirs is Oktoberfest, as it’s very reminiscent of Riesling. One road trip let me to two wineries; Spurgeon Vineyards in Highland, Wisconsin and Galena Cellars in Galena, Illinois. While most of this trip is a blur (wine consumption was high), I purchased two red wines from Spurgeon to save for the holidays: Wisconsin Cranberry for Thanksgiving, and Winter Spice for the Christmas season. Turns out I’m a sucker for holiday wines, especially featuring cranberries. My favorite vineyard experience to date, though, has been at the Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery in Stockholm, Wisconsin. I’ve been there the last two springs in a row and it’s a delight, and not just because it combines two of my favorite beverages in one place. The owners, Herdie Baisden and Carol Wiersma, are fantastic and welcoming, their employees are delightful (shout-out to Bob), and their wares are stellar. It’s not all wine and cider, either. They’ve got mustards, jams, butters, and other delicious items to purchase that have found their way home with me. Both times I’ve visited, we have far exceeded the amount of wines and ciders usually offered at tastings; they’re very generous! (How very Wisconsin of them!) And while I am a big fan of their Honeycrisp Hard Cider, I’m also very fond of the wines they offer, not just from their winery, but from other parts of the state. It is here that I found Cedar Creek Winery’s Settlement Gold (white), as well as Von Stiehl’s Cherry Blossom Blush (rosé). Both are perfect for summer (remember summer?), as they are fresh, sweet, and make me immediately think of drinking on patios once opened.

In 2013, I started attending New Vintage with a group of friends. I cannot recommend it enough, and that’s not just because of the generous pours. Every month brings a new lineup of wines and a new venue to visit, all for $20. Chuck Kanski from Solo Vino chooses and talks about the wines, offering up tips and tricks to get the full enjoyment out of the beverage. I’d like to say that my wine aptitude has increased significantly from these lessons, but if it has, it can only be measured microscopically. I’m still not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be deciphering during a tasting. My expertise seems to be limited to those wines I never want to drink again: Merlots, French wines that taste of sadness, that one Rosé that tasted like motor oil. However, New Vintage is largely responsible for increasing my love of rosés and discovering that there are actually reds out there that I enjoy: Kirchmayr Zweigelt, a pleasant sipping red from Austria that is neither too heavy or too dry, and the sweeter Quattro Mani Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is Italian. This wine club also is credited for me learning that great wines don’t have to be expensive, as there’s rarely a wine that Chuck offers that sells for over $30. Savvy, huh?

A new season of New Vintage just kicked off, and while I may never learn exactly what a swirl, a sniff, and a single sip is supposed to tell me, I do look forward to discovering new, affordable wines to add to my repertoire. If you’re a practical wine lover like me, I encourage you wholeheartedly to join me and introduce yourself. I’ll be the one at the table slamming my wine and saying, “Yep, that’s great.”

Wines I Recommend:


Mionetto Il Moscato

Primaterra Prosecco

Baron de Seillac Brut Blan de Blanc NV


Josef Drathen Riesling

Chateau Ste. Michelle Harvest Select Sweet Riesling

Northern Vineyards Oktoberfest

Cedar Creek Winery Settlement Gold

Domaine Arton Blanc


Von Stiehl’s Cherry Blossom Blush

Meyer-Nakel Rosé

Castillo Perelada Cava Brut Rosado (Sparkling Rosé!)


Kirchmayr Zweigelt

Quattro Mani Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

A Conversation with Anna: her new year’s resolution to drink wine

A New Year’s Resolution: Drink More Wine

The Chardonnay Line Up

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep. My resolutions of bygone years (EXERCISE!, DRESS NICELY!, SHOWER MORE!) are clearly evidence of an inflated sense of personal potential. So last January, I made a promise I thought I could stick to: drink wine. And I committed to learning more about it.

Twelve months ago, the extent of my wine knowledge was that it comes in two colors — red and white — and that Chardonnay was nasty. As I deal with most things in life, I began my buzzy journey by reading books. I chose the authors carefully, as I was warned the subject can overwhelm and discourage.

I kicked things off with “Drink This: Wine Made Simple” by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, in addition to the gorgeous, intelligent, approachable and wildly entertaining Savvy Lush. (Here’s where I earn my keep as guest blogger. See how I did that? In this case though, it’s all true. She can also turn water into wine coolers, slay dragons and float four feet off the ground.)

“Dara,” as I like to call her, wrote a book that’s perfect for a wine novice like me. (Here’s where I pretend I actually know Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. I don’t. I have looked in her windows though, and can you believe it? Neon beer signs plaster her living room wall and there are peanuts on the floor. (This is also a lie. I don’t know where she lives.))

I skipped ahead to her chapter on the green-skinned, evil grape; the green goblin of the wine family: Chardonnay. It’s the one I thought I hated, so why not make sure? I asked for help at the wine store and made the clerk explain all the words I didn’t understand. I can’t underline the importance of asking questions enough. You learn more if you have no shame, so be shameless. This approach will also help you drink more.

With a great deal of assistance, I purchased the following wines and set them on my counter for examination (see photographic proof): a 2010 LaCrema Chardonnay, a 2011 Toad Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay, a 2011 Four Vines Naked Unoaked Chardonnay and a 2010 William Fevre Chablis Champs-Royaux. Here are my extensive wine notes:

LaCrema Chardonnay: Vomit, sans chunks.

Four Vines Naked Unoaked Chardonnay: Not bad.

Toad Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay: Darn good.

William Fevre Chablis Champs-Royaux: This is Chardonnay? It’s amazing! I officially apologize to all the Chardonnay grapes I’ve bad-mouthed in the past. You’re delicious, and your parents should be proud of you.

The rest of 2013 proceeded much as you read above. I pestered an army of liquor store employees, swilled some splendid wine and pieced apart what I think tastes like sick and what tastes like singing. Here’s to 2014!

A conversation with A.J. Rathbun

Wine Cocktails by A.J. Rathbun

Wine Cocktails by A.J. Rathbun

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a friend of a friend via the interwebs, Mr. A.J. Rathbun. He is a swell dude chock-full of cocktail knowledge, with videos and books to prove it! I was so impressed with his mixology skillz that I decided to make him the very first “Guest Swiller”. [Click his name above for a bio.]

Being a wino, I just love his book, Wine Cocktails. Since the Summer season is upon us, there is no better time to start experimenting with your wine. I hope you enjoy this lil’ Q & A session. Happy Drinking!

1. What are some trends you’ve been seeing in the use of wine in cocktails in the United States?

I think there’s been an influx of creativity in the usage of wine in cocktails and other drinks, which has been leading to both more interesting drink menus, and ones that include more wine cocktails.

Until the last, oh, ten years in most spots the only drinks with wine on most menus would be Sangria and traditional Champagne and sparkling wine drinks such as the Mimosa and Bellini. But now, drinks that use wine and its relatives in shaken cocktails both as the base and as a secondary ingredients are popping up everywhere. Also, more home bartenders are serving up wine cocktails and an increased range of Champagne drinks.

2. What types of wine are being used more frequently? White, red, sparkling, sweet and dessert wines, aromatic and other fortified wines, etc.

Sparkling and aromatic wines (I’m putting the vermouth family in here, as well as things like Lillet and Dubonnet) are used more often, as they’re more traditional and in more classic drinks, and also a little safer for both pro and home bartenders. But, on a percentage basis, the increase is across the wine family and perhaps even larger in those wines traditional drank solo: white, reds, desserts. Those wine family members haven’t been used a regularly, and now are being used more, even ones seen rarely in the past, such as port and sherry. I think when weighing out red and white, white may have a larger % increase, just because it wasn’t used hardly at all in mixed drinks and bartenders are now realizing how versatile it can be.

3. How are different types of wine used in cocktails? Why do mixologists use a specific wine rather than a liqueur or other spirit or another wine?

As mentioned briefly, I think wines are being used both as a base spirit, so the main ingredient in a drink, and then mixed with fruits juices (always great with wine), other mixers such as ginger ale, as well as liqueurs and more. Also, wines are being used more as a secondary ingredient, mixed with gin, vodka, rum, and other bases. Champagne and sparkling wine also fit into the above, sometimes being the main player in a drink, but more and more being used to add that touch of sparkle and flair to a drink. As far as why a mixologist or bartender would use a specific wine, I would hope that in most cases it would be for taste reasons (as opposed to because they’ve been given a bottle, or think the name is catchy, etc) and for mixability and seasonality reasons. For example, when creating a summertime drink, white wines tend to go well both because they have a lighter, but flavorful taste, that won’t weigh you down but will still bring flavor to the shaker. So, as an example, take the C & C, from Wine Cocktails. I knew I wanted to create a drink that worked well with late summer favorites fresh raspberries and fresh mint, and wanted it to be a drink that was ideal for summer afternoon soirées. I picked a white French Chablis to play around with, because I thought would be light enough to play with the fresh fruit and herb, while not getting overwhelmed. After experimenting, I also added a touch of simple and syrup and Chambord (doubling up on the raspberry taste), and voila! Summertime deliciousness. I think that most good drink creators go through much the same process when using wine in cocktails.

4. What are some traditional ways wine is used versus new ways to incorporate it?

I think in the past (and I touched on this a bit) it was usually solely used as a base spirit, and usually in built drinks (so, no shaken but either made in a pitcher or over ice)—unless you jump back to the first cocktail renaissance, when wine was used in a wider variety of drinks (I’m thinking late 1800s, early 1900s here). Today, wines and wine cousins are being used in shaken drinks, as accompaniments as well as main ingredients, and to add a touch of flavor in smaller amounts. Also, more of those older drinks alluded to are being re-discovered, which then influences new drinks.

5. What are some classic wine cocktails that are popular?

There are a number of sparkling and Champagne cocktails that almost all cocktail lovers know, such as the Mimosa, the Bellini, and the Kir and Kir Royale, and then a few wine drinks such as the Sangria. If you move away from the States though, there are more wine-based drinks in regular rotation. For example, in Italy, the Spritz (which is a combination of Aperol and sparkling wine Prosecco) is known even in small hill town cafes and bars. Really, throughout Europe wine has been mixed with fruits juices, liqueurs, and more forever. This has been another influence on the American wine cocktail resurgence, as more cocktail creators are traveling, and are being influenced by international drink menus.

Rosé Squirt from Wine Cocktails

Rosé Squirt

Serves 2

Hey, are you having a flashback to summers when those big grouchy kids were bringing you down, taking your hat, calling you squirt? Don’t let those memories tarnish your sunshiny afternoons and evenings. Remember two things and you’ll be able to relax in suitable summer fashion. First, those kids were just jealous (and would be even more so if they knew about the beautiful hot-weather bashes you have now), and second, you have the last laugh because you now know that the Squirt is a tall, refreshing, bubbly drink that goes with a backyard barbecue or luscious lawn party, or with sitting with that perfect person as the sun goes down in July.


Ice cubes

2 ounces maraschino liqueur

6 ounces dry rosé

Chilled club soda

2 maraschino cherries for garnish


1. Fill 2 highball glasses three-quarters full with ice cubes. Add 1 ounce maraschino liqueur and 3 ounces rosé to each glass. Stir briefly.

2. Fill each glass almost to the top with the chilled club soda. Stir again, a bit more than briefly. Drop a cherry on top and serve.


Cactus Berry from Wine Cocktails

Cactus Berry

Serves 2

Don’t be afraid: The Cactus Berry (a cousin of the margarita that’s taken a trip into a winery) doesn’t involve any small piercing thorns that might turn a south-of-the-border soirée into a quick trip to the local first-aid station for cheek stitching. This mix does have a bit of a bite, though, so you’ll want to ensure your safety by doing any sort of hat dancing, attempts at tangoing, or cactus scaling earlier in the evening.


Ice cubes

3 ounces Merlot

3 ounces white tequila

1 1⁄2 ounces Cointreau

1 ounce fresh lime juice

2 lime slices for garnish


1. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway full with ice cubes. Add the Merlot, white tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice. Shake exceedingly well (as if you were shaking cactus thorns from your hands).

2. Strain the mix into 2 cocktail glasses. Garnish with the lime slices and serve.