Thursday, February 27, 2014

Temecula Wine Tasting in Limo Bus Style

Temecula is Southern California’s wine region.  But Temecula doesn’t necessarily have a reputation for producing the best wine.  Since Temecula is an easy hour drive north of San Diego, I am always looking for those special Temecula wineries that defy the bad reputation and surprise with their excellent wine.  I found one of those surprises in Danza del Sol Winery. 

I previously joined a San Diego limo brewery tour with Aall In Limo & Party Bus, so I was thrilled when Aall In Limo & Party Bus asked me to be their guest again, this time to test out the newest addition to their fleet, the limo bus.  We drove in style and comfort to Temecula in the spacious and plush limo bus.  Our day of wine tasting appropriately started with a bottle of sparkling wine from one of the Temecula wineries in the limo while we drove to our first stop, Danza del Sol Winery.

Aall In Limo Limo Bus Temecula Wine Tour
The roomy interior of our Aall In Limo & Party Bus limo bus ride.
Danza del Sol is the fifth oldest winery in Temecula.  Previously Filsinger Vineyards and Winery founded in 1978, the winery was later purchased in 2010 by the current owner, Robert Olson.  The oldest vines on the property are Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1972.  This is also where the first Gewürztraminer grapes were planted in Southern California.  The winery’s other signature grapes are Orange Muscat and Syrah.  Danza del Sol is a 35 acre estate vineyard, meaning all the wine is grown, crushed, fermented, bottled, and aged on the premises.  Because Danza del Sol is an estate vineyard and produces a relatively small number of cases, their wine can only be obtained at the winery or through the wine club.

Danza del Sol Winery kindly hosted a tour of their winery in addition to our wine tastings so we could learn more about the origins of the wine.  We started our tour outside with a view of the vines.  The vines were not very picturesque in February as bud break occurs in March when everything starts to turn green again.  It was a foggy morning, which illustrated why Temecula is a good grape growing region.  Laura Burnham, the tasting room manager, explained it is actually this mist and fog that makes Temecula such a thriving wine growing region.  Temecula is only about 20 miles inland from the ocean.  The fog comes in from the west, hits the mountains in the east, and cascades down into the valley.  The heat in the valley causes the grapes to create more sugars, which later turn into alcohol, which is why Temecula wines are stronger than wines from other regions.

We entered the tank farm where fermentation occurs and wine is stored.  Danza del Sol’s wines are fermented in stainless steel, which helps enhance the aromatic profiles.  Laura gave us a taste of their 2013 Tempranillo, which had completed the fermentation process but had not yet been aged.  Tasting a new wine prior to aging was a fun new experience for me.  The 2013 Tempranillo was bright purple with a very fruity, grapey taste and a prominent tannin finish, yet it was surprisingly drinkable.

Danza del Sol 2013 Tempranillo Temecula California
Tasting Danza del Sol's 2013 Tempranillo before aging straight from the tank.

We then tasted the aged 2011 Tempranillo so we could taste the difference the aging process makes.  The 2011 Tempranillo was a darker garnet with a nice fruity aroma and a more mellow taste with less tannin.  Laura explained tannin allows wine to age well and mellows with aging.

Danza del Sol 2011 Tempranillo Temecula California
Tasting Danza del Sol's 2011 Tempranillo in the tank farm.

After completing our tour of the winery we entered the tasting room to sample more of the wines, starting with four of Danza del Sol’s white wines.  The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc is fresh, light, and crisp with a somewhat grassy aroma.  The 2011 Viognier has a strong green apple aroma and a crisp flavor.  The 2011 Roussanne is an award winner with a very buttery feel.  The 2011 Sinfonia, another award winner, is a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Danza del Sol’s signature Orange Muscat with a citrus taste and a sweet but fresh finish. 

Danza del Sol Winery Temecula California We also sampled four of Danza del Sol’s red wines.  The 2010 Grenache is a light-bodied red which tastes best slightly chilled and actually has an unusual aroma of root beer, though we couldn’t put our finger on what it was until reading the notes.  The 2010 Mourvèdre is a great wine for Thanksgiving with cranberry aromas and a spicy clove and nutmeg finish.  The 2011 Barbera is a more rustic red with a deep fruit flavor.  The 2011 Trilogy is a Meritage blend with a silky finish.

We ended our tastings with Danza del Sol’s sweeter wines.  The 2012 Tres Rosé is another award winning blend of Cinsaut, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese.  The Rosé is sweet with a pronounced strawberry flavor.  The 2012 Gewürztraminer is an award winner which is sweet but not too sweet.  The 2012 Sabrosa, a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc made from the old estate vines, is a sweet after-dinner wine, but is not syrupy.  The Espumosa is Danza del Sol’s semi-sweet sparkling wine with a crisp melon flavor.

I am hard-pressed to visit a winery and not bring any bottles home with me, so I purchased some of our favorites, the Sinfonia, Mourvèdre, Barbera, and Sabrosa.  I even brought a bottle of the Sinfonia to a gathering that evening, and it was a hit with all.  Danza del Sol’s wine is both exceptional in flavor and very affordable, with most bottles ranging from $20 to $30 without a wine club discount.

If you are planning a wine tasting trip to Temecula, be sure to include a visit to Danza del Sol Winery.  In addition to wine tasting, you can join a guided tour of the winery.  If planning a wine tasting trip with family and friends, book Aall In Limo & Party Bus’ limo bus, which comfortably seats up to 20 passengers.  The commute will fly by, and of course there is the added benefit of having a designated driver while you sip champagne and reminisce about all the great Temecula wines you discovered.

How many bloggers can you fit into one limo bus?  We actually had plenty of room for more.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Proper Night Out in London with Camden Town Brewery and the Bars of Shoreditch

Having friends in the locations you travel to usually leads to experiences that you wouldn’t get to enjoy if you were traveling on your own. And if those friends share your mindset on enjoying good beer, the experience is enhanced even more. That’s why our new mantra is: Go find friends all over the globe who love craft beer, and your life will be a little bit more complete.

Beer and friends-the perfect combo
During my recent trip to London I was lucky enough to have that experience. My friends Niels and Jenny are Dutch/American/Nebraskan expats whom, until our reunion in London, I had not seen in years. They live in London but travel frequently, so I considered it good fortune that I was to be in there when they would be home instead of off gallivanting themselves. What came of a night in London’s North and East Ends was good clean fun (shenanigans) with introductions to lovely new people and the city’s exploding craft beer scene.

Camden Town Brewery

After spending some time at the Borough Market and central London, Niels and I headed out to Camden. This area was his neck of the woods which meant he knew all the best local spots to hit. After winding through the lanes of Camden Market, walking down a few residential streets, and one last back alley we ended up at Camden Town Brewery. More specifically we ended up on the outdoor patio of the brewery bar (tasting room for Americans). It was a simple yet perfect outdoor space with a large grouping of picnic tables, propane heaters, and a food truck. Inside was the bar, some stand up tables, and a view of the brewery.
Never take good beer for granted, love it back!
We decided the outdoor space was perfect for us on this fantastic December evening. After looking over the taps I settled on a Camden USA Hells. My thought process was that, as an American craft beer drinker, I could get a good feel for the brewery by tasting what I know. With an abundance of good craft lagers in America, I had a pretty good base to rate my experience with this beer. What my taste buds received was a citrus, hop, lager explosion. The USA Hells had a mix of tastes from both the U.S. and Bavaria. It was crisp, unfiltered, hoppy, and refreshing. To say I was happy and excited for beer number two is an understatement. What made that point of the evening even better is the fact that Niels’wife Jenny and their friend Austin arrived then to accompany us wandering gentleman.

With beer number two I stayed on the lighter side of my normal selections and chose the Camden Gentleman Wit. What I found interesting about this offering was that the lemons used in this classic Belgian White Ale were roasted lemons along with bergamot. This was another absolute winner. It was cloudy with a nice citrus hint and a bit of spice to finish off. The roasted lemon was a real treat. Instead of just a lemon squeeze you could catch a hint of caramel from the roasted lemons that really set it apart from the normal monotony of the majority of wheat beers.

After enjoying our two beers it was time to move on from Camden Town Brewery. I was sad to leave but excited at the same time. The sad part is that I wanted to try the full line. I had eyed up an IPA and an Ink Stout that looked and sounded very enjoyable. Instead of dwelling on this I thought about the positives of the experience. And those positives were endless. From the Victorian arches that the brewery is set in, to the food truck out back, and of course the great craft beer, I knew that I would be back in the future and would recommend this brewery to people heading to London looking for a full flavor craft beer with a great atmosphere.

The Bars of Shoreditch and Brew Dog Craft Beer

The next portion of the evening was about to begin and it meant getting to try more brews and meet some new people. After taking the London Overground to the Shoreditch High Street stop, we made our way a couple of blocks to The Owl and Pussycat. This classic Shoreditch pub was alive with energy on the early December evening. Here we met up with the rest of the group who would accompany us for the evening and our group quickly dove into some pints. Not surprisingly, the pints kept flowing in the loud and festive atmosphere. The pub itself was very open (even when packed) and inviting. Did I know what I was drinking? Well, I knew it came from the Marston collection, but as I was the guest receiving free British hospitality the best thing to do was drink what was given to me and just have fun. And fun we had. Shouting conversation, singing, and comparing shaved chests were all on tap for The Owl and Pussycat, a place I recommend as a definite must if you find yourself in Shoreditch.

That's the look of beer love!!
From there we moved down Redchurch St to The RedChurch Bar. This bar had a more relaxed atmosphere featuring a long bar perfect for the narrow area. As with everywhere else on that evening, the RedChurch was very festive—although I was promised glitter (yep, the sparkly stuff) and didn’t realize until after I left that neither Jenny nor myself had been glittered. The RedChurch is famous for their cocktails mixed by “mixologists” who have been working on their creations for over a decade. We chose to abide by the mantra of “beer before liquor never sicker” though, and we stuck to craft beer. Before long an old familiar craft beer friend was handed to me, a Sierra Nevada. It was a fine choice at that point in the evening and the RedChurch was also another fine bar that I would recommend stopping in while in East London. The drink menu is extensive and can be a nice changeup in your London beer escapades.

Great staff at BrewDog and love for the Punk IPA motto!
To finish my craft beer adventure in London we headed to Brew Dog. Though Brew Dog is not a London brewery, it is a British craft brewery with a conveniently located bar right across Redchurch St for us to sample their offerings. It was the end of the night and sometimes that part of the evening can become relaxed, but not at Brew Dog. This bar, and their beer, is hardcore and memorable. I chose the Libertine Black Ale from their lineup and I was instantly a fan. It was a mix between a hardcore hoppy IPA and a malty stout. Not too heavy on either flavor, it was a perfect combination of the two. It was also reaching a higher ABV then anything we had been drinking up to that point, so it was the perfect way to start wrapping up the night. So perfect, in fact, that I threw sampling out the window and went in again for another Libertine. With the creativity and flavor of that beer and the happy faces around the bar (who unfortunately had to listen to this guy wax on about beer) I say hitting one of Brew Dogs three locations in the London area should be on your list. Like my Camden Town experience, I knew that I would be heading back to London again to sample more of Brew Dogs offerings. But I also knew from those few beers that their lineup was stellar and creative.

When we reached the bottom of our Brew Dog beers it was time to bid farewell to this group of characters who treated me so well. With an early flight back to the States looming, I knew I would have to cab it back to Greenwich to be decent only a few hours later. My experience in London showed me that people all around the world are done settling for what they have been told to drink. Local brewers worldwide deserve our gratitude for bringing their craft to the masses. I look forward to many more London craft beer experiences in the future.
I made it, though I was quite groggy

I’d like to say a special “thank you” to Niels Hamelink, Jenny Clark, Austin Hayes, and the countless others who welcomed me into their group and showed me a great night out in London. Cheers!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wisconsin’s Local Flavors at Middleton’s Death’s Door Spirits

Death's Door Spirits Middleton Wisconsin

Wisconsin spirits?  Isn’t Wisconsin the land of beer?  It’s true; craft brews abound throughout the state.  But Wisconsin also has craft distilleries.  Death’s Door Spirits in Middleton is the largest craft distillery in Wisconsin, and we got the chance to tour the distillery and taste their signature vodka, gin, and white whisky.

Death’s Door Spirits owes its name to Death’s Door Passage, the passage between the thumb of the Wisconsin mainland and Washington Island that connects Green Bay and Lake Michigan.  The distillery is so named because Washington Island is where Death’s Door’s organic hard red winter wheat is grown.  Tom and Ken Koyen, with a view of revitalizing farming on Washington Island, began growing wheat.  Their wheat was first introduced to Capital Brewery, a craft brewery also in Middleton, which uses it for their Wheat Ale, and then Death’s Door Spirits, which uses the brothers’ organic wheat in all of their products.  In fact, everything that goes into Death’s Door spirits is local and organic.  Death’s Door’s focus is on restoring and promoting local sustainable agriculture.

After getting an introduction to the origins of Death’s Door, John Jeffery, Head Distiller, led our tour of the distillery.  John studied at Michigan State University, where he received his Master of Science Degree in Food Science and completed the university’s Artisan Distilled Spirits Program.  I’ll spare you all the nitty gritty details of distilling, but touring the facility with its various areas, each with a different purpose, was quite an education.

Death's Door Spirits Tour Middleton Wisconsin
Head Distiller John Jeffery leads us on our tour of Death's Door Spirits.
The tour of the facility started in the bottling room.  They were currently bottling a seasonal Kringle Cream.  Death’s Door Spirits' bottling operation is small.  They have an automated process that is switched up depending on the type of alcohol.  They also use hand fillers for items like the Kringle Cream.  We also peeked into the explosion proof room used for the proofing process. 

The science room where tests are run on the various spirits was one of the most interesting rooms to me, especially when we learned what a mix of science and personal taste goes into the creation of Death’s Door spirits.  They use the chromatographer to separate the different components of the spirits and the team also works together to sample and taste the spirits for the different components.  Each individual has their specialty, whether it be tasting the sugars or other specific parts of the flavor profile.  One person cannot be relied upon to give input on all pieces of the taste.

The tanks are in the main area of the distillery.  Whether or not you’re interested in or understand the details of distilling, the tanks themselves are a beautiful, shiny, coppery sight.  We learned all about the mash tanks, where the brewing process begins, and then the movement to the fermentation tanks and the special champagne yeast used to give Death’s Door spirits their special flavor.   

Death's Door Spirits Distilling Tanks
Death's Door Spirits' distilling tanks.
After our thorough tour of the distillery we got to the part that really matters, the taste test.  Death’s Door Spirits creates three signature spirits: gin, vodka, and whisky.   Death’s Door vodka contains organic barley from Chilton in addition to the organic wheat from Washington Island.  The vodka is double-distilled and has a really nice slightly sweet and even creamy taste and feel.  Death’s Door vodka was my favorite spirit.

Death’s Door gin starts with left over vodka in the distiller.  Botanicals are added into the vapors to add flavor.  Adding the botanicals through the vapor rather than directly into the alcohol ensures the flavor is added without the tannins and bitterness.  Death’s Door uses juniper, coriander and fennel in its gin.  Because of the use of vapor, the gin does not have that pine tree taste that some gins have.  The botanicals really stand out, starting with juniper up front, continuing with coriander and almost a citrus taste, and ending very faintly with fennel.  I enjoyed the gin and was very curious to see how it would taste in a mixed cocktail.

Death’s Door whisky is a white whisky which quickly passes through uncharred barrels.  Most whiskies obtain their smoky taste from the barrels in which they are aged.  Because Death’s Door barrels are uncharred and because the whisky spends very little time in those barrels, their whisky lacks this signature taste.  Death’s Door whisky tastes more like a good tequila than whisky. 

The next evening I got my wish and was able to taste some mixed drinks with Death’s Door Spirits’ gin.  The verdict?  Death’s Door gin is incredible in a mixed drink!  We had dinner at one of Madison, Wisconsin’s top restaurants, L’Etoile, and I had a chance to sample two drinks using Death’s Door gin.  One was mixed with a house-made vermouth, Cointreau, honey, and Meyer lemon bitters.  The second was mixed with fortified wine and rhubarb bitters.  The botanicals of the gin really paired well with the light sweetness of the cocktails, providing an additional layer of flavor that was prominent but not overpowering. 

While I highly suggest visiting Madison and Middleton and taking a tour of the distillery, you don’t have to travel to Wisconsin to try Death’s Door spirits.  Visit their website to find liquor stores, restaurants and bars near you that sell or serve their spirits.  Why drink mass produced spirits when you can have fine spirits created by people who really care about what they make and use only the finest local organic ingredients to make them?

Thank you to Visit Madison for setting up our tour and to Death’s Door Spirits for providing the tour and tastings.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Enjoying a Few Sneaky Beers in Southeast London

This past December I was lucky enough to spend some time in one of the world’s great cities during the holidays. The people I met were in serious holiday mode. The mulled wine was flowing on every street corner. Discussions about everything from holiday shopping, to who was coming home for the season, and of course who would be Christmas Number 1 (traditional choosing of the UK #1 song for Christmas) were happening in every café I stopped in. To say it was a great opportunity and one that I will remember for a lifetime is an understatement of what I got out of this abbreviated trip to London.

Winter-Not Really. Wonderland-Full of mulled wine so check!
Absorbing all of this holiday cheer would have been enough of a getaway on its own. Fortunately for me, I discovered two things that ranked highly on my list of London favorites for this trip. One was a new drinking phrase that I now use (improperly I’m sure) as often as I can. The other was discovering that London brewers are stepping outside their comfort zone of traditional ales and stouts to brew pints of craft goodness.

The Phrase That Pays

So what is this new phrase that I love but have no idea if I am using it properly? How did it enter my lexicon? Why do I feel so compelled to continue using it and get excited when I hear it other places? The phrase is “let’s grab a sneaky beer tonight”. That's it. Could this phrase have different meaning in my English vs the English of kings and queens ? Was it in fact the same as messing up the words "chips" or "biscuits" on either side of the Atlantic? Or was the meaning the same as I what I figured it to be?

Is this Meantime London Porter being sneaky?
I could not and cannot to this day find a definition of grabbing a “sneaky” one. I originally thought it meant grabbing a quick beer before calling it a night versus going on a bender that would leave me asleep on the floor of Paddington Station. Then I heard the phrase used in a much different way than I expected while watching Aussie Open coverage. It came from people who had obviously been drinking all day and they said that in order to stay cool they had been drinking “sneaky beers.” What? Was I using the phrase incorrectly? Could any number of beers in a sitting be “sneaky”? Was I spending way too much time worrying about what constitutes a “sneaky” beer in London instead of drinking the city's great craft beer? Perhaps. So, now I ask that if you know what a sneaky beer is, please leave a comment at the end of this post after you read this next bit about the craft beer revolution in London. Thanks, you may save my brain.

Meantime - The Craft Brewery of Southeast London

Every London travel show or guide book has a section on the public houses (pubs) of London that deserve a stop. They show you pictures of people standing around tall tables enjoying pints of England’s finest while assuring you that a selection of Queen’s greatest hits are playing in the background. The pub culture, like America’s tavern culture, has been dominated by big famous brands. The names Samuel Smith’s, Fullers, Bass, and Carling have graced the tap handles of pubs for years. When planning a trip to the pubs of London, these were the brands I expected to be served.

Fortunately for me the internet exists. While planning my trip I had set aside dedicated time for brew touring and pub hopping. Through my internet browsing I had come about The Meantime Brewing Company. Meantime, a local craft brewer in Greenwich southeast London, was within walking distance of where I planned to lay my head to rest every evening (hopefully).

Meantime has been brewing in Greenwich since 2000. In their 13 years of existence Meantime has accomplished many milestones and won numerous World Beer Cup Gold medals. What they should be held in high esteem for though is their aim to brew an authentic beer that allows drinkers to find out what a real beer should taste like in contrast to mass produced beer. With all of that great beer info in my mind, I had to make a quest to try this award winning brew.

One night after I had spent some time catching up and sharing a few “sneaky” ones (Kingfishers at an Indian Restaurant) in North London with my dear friend Niels (he is the one who started this "sneaky" fiasco), I arrived back in Greenwich. Since it was still before midnight and I knew that I wanted to sample an offering from Meantime and may not have the opportunity the next day, I did what felt right and bellied up to the bar. What I found was a full array of Meantime on tap and in bottles. It had been a long day, so "try a couple and hit the sack" was my plan for the rest of the night.

Too many beers, perhaps?
What ensued was what every person traveling and drinking can hope for, I met a new friend at the bar stool next to me and for double bonus points...he was Irish! Trying to keep up drink-wise with my new friend proved to be quite the challenge. What I didn't miss out on though was the real excellence that Meantime brewed. The IPA was perfectly hoppy but not overwhelmingly bitter. Their Porter was so smooth that my face must have told a story because our bartender ( who became our personal bartender as the night stretched into early morning) just kept pouring without even a nod from me. This lasted for countless hours until finally I checked my phone (drunk texted my lovely wife) and realized just how late it was.

Having past opportunities of being able to try many of the great American craft beers and some of the world's oldest brands in places like Belgium, Germany, and the Czech Republic to name a few, I can say that the chance to drink the fine brews from Meantime was just as much of a treat. When you get to London look them up, head to Greenwich for a meal at the Old Greenwich Brewery, or get lucky and meet a new friend who you can drink and sing the night away with.

I found out the next night that the more I moved around in the city plus the more time I would spend with Niels and his wonderful wife Jenny ( also dear friend of ours) that I found even more crafty creations in London...