Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Festivus, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas from Passports and Cocktails

It's the holiday season, don't worry I won't be singing, and that means time to reflect for a bit and look forward to a new year of adventure. My travels have been lite on the back end of 2014 as we are still a day job and travel when we can family, but we spent a solid chunk of the first 10 months of the year on the road in the US. Katherine also had amazing experiences across the pond and south of the border. With trips already planned between us to New Orleans, Tampa/Orlando, Nashville and beyond, 2015 is shaping up to be another year of great drinking travel adventures.

This year has also given us a great opportunity to connect with many brewers, vintners, and distillers. I think the great thing about these encounters was that we were able to find out what made these folks tick. Since we set out to make a site about true local beverage makers you can encounter when traveling, the stories told to us had a real sincere vibe behind them. We never heard about taking over the world. What we heard were how a beverage was a reflection of a community, or how ingredients came from the farm down the street or the stream under the brewery. We set out looking to accomplish this very goal when we put put our heads together at the start of the year and received and wrote stories to match that all year long.

It's been a hell of a year, but now it's time to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. If you find yourself in the beverage aisle this season, make sure you check out the selection from the local establishments. If you have a hole in your celebration calendar and need a place to tip back some beverages, check out the local tap room schedule and celebrate with the beverage industry elves who work to put smiles on good adults faces year round. And if you want to know where to stop in for a taste of local alcohol in 2015, keep yourself tuned in here because we aim to work hard to find more breweries, wineries, and distilleries that are on and off the map. Maybe we'll even get our own TV show.

Happy Holidays and safe travels to all. We can't wait to drink with you in 2015!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Uncork Your Inner Wine Geek at Wente’s Winemakers Studio

Blending Wine in Beakers at Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Wine geekery at its best, blending wines in beakers.
Livermore has been a wine region for well over 100 years.  But what really made Livermore establish itself as a city was not its wine, but the opening of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1952, which brought an influx of scientists and engineers into the area.  Livermore’s population actually quadrupled from 4,364 in 1950 to 16,058 in 1960.  With so many left-brainers running around the city who have a love of both wine and science, it should come as no surprise that Wente Vineyards, one of Livermore's wineries and the country's oldest continuously run family-owned winery, has found a way to mix Livermore’s wine culture with the love of all things scientific and geeky with their winemakers blending experience at Wente’s Winemakers Studio.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from our winemakers blending experience.  While The Winemakers Studio website does allude to entertainment, I kind of wondered if I would flunk the class with my inability to properly ferret out the wines’ subtle aromas of green beans, plum, and cat urine.  Would my fellow students look down upon me for disliking the acidity burning the back of my tongue?  How would this whole hands-on seminar work?

Wente's Winemakers Studio Workspace Livermore California
Tell me you wouldn't be giddy about blending wine at this winemakers work space.
I walked into the small “classroom,” glass of white wine in hand, and squealed with joy.  The first thing that grabbed my attention was the individual work stations complete with both wine and laboratory glassware.  Each person would be working with their very own Erlenmeyer flask, graduated cylinder, and funnel in addition to the three wine glasses, one filled with red wine, another with water, and the third waiting empty.  Upon closer inspection I also found learning materials, a notepad, and a mechanical pencil for note taking.  My inner-nerd came rushing out for all to see.  On the back wall were seven wine barrels built into the wall, each with a shining stainless steel tap handle because Wente uses taps for wine pouring to make the wine last longer.  You’ve got to love engineers.

So many toys to play with, levers to pull, and wines to taste.
The Winemakers Studio classroom is small and the 90 to 120 minute wine blending classes usually have less than 10 students, so it is a very individualized and personal experience.  While the class is educational, it isn’t serious at all, but rather incredibly fun.  Since we were visiting Tri-Valley during the Christmas season and the Holidays in the Vineyards weekend, it was made that much more fun by the holiday decorations.  It also didn't hurt that our instructor Myrl, who previously held positions like Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Information Officer in health and technology companies before retirement, was wearing his rendition of an ugly Christmas sweater.  You just can’t feel too serious if your instructor is wearing ribbon bows all over his shirt.  (Speaking of Christmas, a gift certificate for a winemakers blending experience would make an excellent gift for your wine-loving loved one.)

Examining the Meniscus Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Examining the color, clarity and meniscus.
Our wine blending class started with a wine tasting lesson, which was great because, while I love drinking wine and know what I like and what I don’t like, a sommelier I am not.  Everybody got their own wine tasting card with hints of what to look for to help the wine tasting experience.  First we held our wine glasses over white paper to examine the color and the ring, called the meniscus, to get a hint of the concentration and maturation.  Next we smelled the wine.  Myrl suggested sniffing twice, first to clear out the other smells from your nose, and the second to really take in the aroma of the wine.  Our cheat sheet had a number of different aromas to look for, like apple, jasmine, tobacco, mushroom, and the aforementioned cat urine (there was no Sauvignon Blanc in our class, so cat urine averted).  Next we tasted.  The trick is to sip, swish, and hold the wine in your mouth for over five seconds.  How long it takes for your mouth to water indicates the level of acidity.  A dry, chalky feeling indicates the level of tannins (a higher level of tannins will allow the wine to age and keep well).  We also tasted for the level of sweetness.  The mouth feel, likened to varying fat levels of milk, indicate if the wine is light, medium, or full bodied.  Then we swirled the wine for 30 seconds to open it up and tasted again to see how the wine changed with the second sip.  The last step was to answer the question, “do I like it?”

Wine Aroma Testers Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Testers to help tasters recognize specific wine aromas.
After learning the intricacies of wine tasting, the next step was to taste the seven different wines we would be blending.  Learning sure is hard!  Myrl talked to us about each of the wines as we tasted, where the grapes were grown, what the soil was like, and what the weather conditions were.  As we tasted we wrote notes about the aromas, flavors, acidity, and tannins.  We had the choice between four Cabernet Sauvignons, all from 2012 but different areas of the Livermore Valley, a Petite Syrah, a Petit Verdot, and a Malbec.  We needed to pick out the flavors we enjoyed as well as what the wines could do to help with flavor, aroma, or shelf life. 

Measuring Wine at Wente's Winemakers Studio Livermore California
Carefully measuring wine for my proprietary Passports & Cocktails blend.
Next came the blending.  This is where all the beakers came into play.  We came up with formulas of what would make our perfect wine.  Once we had our percentages, we filled our graduated cylinders with the appropriate levels of wine, enough to create a glass.  Then we tasted, trying to think of what would make our personal wine even better.  Once we had our formulas down pat, we adjusted our formulas to fill a full bottle and started measuring again.  Once our beakers were full, we carefully poured our creations through funnels into our bottles.  Then came the opportunity to play with even more toys.  We each got to cork and foil wrap our bottles with fancy machinery, and then labeled our bottles, listing out our percentages and doodling all over the bottles to our hearts’ content. 

Corking Wine Bottle Wente's Winemaker's Studio Livermore California
Testing out the wine corking equipment.
Since you get to take home your bottle of wine, make sure you bring a bag to check if traveling by air.  Livermore’s wine country is easy to reach from the Oakland and San Jose airports.  We flew into Oakland with Southwest Airlines and I brought wine diapers to safely transport our wine bottles home.

I have to say participating in Wente’s winemakers blending experience far exceeded my expectations.  It sounded like a fun way to spend an afternoon, but I really had no idea what geeky wine nerdom lay in store.  I’m pretty sure the only time smiles left our faces was when we were intently concentrating on pouring the correct amounts of wine into our beakers.  There are many wineries to visit in Livermore’s wine country creating fabulous wine, but only one lets you play mad scientist with wine.

Thank you to Visit Tri-Valley for hosting our visit to Tri-Valley, including our Wente’s Winemakers Studio blending experience, and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cellar Door Experiences in Central Otago, New Zealand

Chard Farm’s Pinot Noir tasting.
Chard Farm’s Pinot Noir tasting.

Guest post by Petra and Shaun

Snow-capped craggy mountains, cold steel-blue lakes, and impatient rushing rivers are typical landscapes you would expect in New Zealand’s Central Otago region, home to the tourism hot spot of Queenstown.

Fortunately for wine-loving travellers, Central Otago is world renowned for its Pinot Noir, and also produces some great aromatic white wines. The hot summers and cold winters combined with minimal rainfall and free draining soils make for excellent grape growing conditions.

If you visit in summer, you’ll likely be treated to hot, dry, sunny days, with a scorched landscape all around. In winter, snow often covers the ground and the cellar doors with restaurants offer tables next to roaring fireplaces. Visiting the region in any season is a delight, and it’s great that the cellar doors (otherwise known as wine tasting rooms to US folks) are open year-round.

View over Central Otago’s mountains near Queenstown.
View over Central Otago’s mountains near Queenstown.
As New Zealanders, we have been lucky enough to visit Queenstown and the surrounding region numerous times. Every time we go there we end up taking numerous bottles on the plane back home, and so do the majority of the passengers.

So here is a list of our five favourite cellar doors within one hour’s drive of Queenstown. You’ll need a rental car to visit all these places, as public transport just doesn’t cut it. There are wine tours available with a pre-determined itinerary but we recommend going at your own pace and enjoying the journey (but just remember to allocate a sober driver).

Chard Farm (25 minutes from Queenstown)

Rules on the door at Chard Farm.
Rules on the door at Chard Farm.
Chard Farm Winery is our all-time favourite. We love all of their wines, but particularly their outstanding Pinot Noir – the Viper, Tiger, and Mata-Au varieties are all superb. Their aromatics are also divine, in particular the Gewürztraminer. The people running the cellar door are so friendly, you really feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s home. Chard Farm is located at the end of a rather hairy road along the Kawarau Gorge – it’s one car wide and has a cliff on one side and a sheer drop to the river below on the other side. More than one car has tumbled off the road, so be careful! But when you get there, it’s totally worth it.

Amisfield Winery (15 minutes from Queenstown)

The cellar door and restaurant at Amisfield is beautiful – think huge old wooden beams in a church-like building, a roaring fireplace in the winter, and of course amazing wine. The Pinot Noir is fantastic and we also love their Riesling. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, and we recommend trying the excellent Trust the Chef menu – you get five courses to share, made from local, seasonal ingredients. You can also get the meal paired with different wines if you so desire.

Mt Difficulty Wines (50 minutes from Queenstown)

A wintry view from Mt Difficulty Wines cellar door and restaurant.
A wintry view from Mt Difficulty Wines cellar door and restaurant.
Mt Difficulty is located in the Bannockburn region of Central Otago, near the town of Cromwell. The view from their restaurant and cellar door is stunning, as it looks towards mountains and over the vineyards and stone fruit orchards on the flats around Cromwell. It’s well worth stopping in here for lunch and a tasting – you won’t be disappointed. Their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris varieties are superb.

Gibbston Valley Wines (25 minutes from Queenstown)

Gibbston Valley Winery is located near Chard Farm and also alongside the Kawarau River. Their Pinot Noir is tasty, and the cheese on offer at the shop on location is delicious (and goes down very well with their wine). They also offer tours of their vineyard and wine cave, which is dug into the hill behind the winery. It’s fun seeing all their barrels with the current vintage aging away, and doing a tasting inside the cave. A word to the wise – this is a stop for tour buses, so if you’re wanting a busy winery experience this is a great place to go.

Northburn Station (50 minutes from Queenstown)

Northburn Station’s winery is part of a high country sheep station on the eastern shores of Lake Dunstan, near Cromwell. The cellar door is housed in a beautiful stone building with pretty views over a pond to the mountains beyond. Northburn’s Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are a hit, and they also offer delicious platters full of local goodies (cheese, meats, olives, terrine, and more). Delicious!

The cellar doors will ship across the world so those amazing wines don’t have to remain only a memory once you return home. With its awe-inspiring scenery and fantastic wine, as well as plenty of other activities to keep you busy, a stay in the Central Otago region is a must for any visitor to New Zealand.

Petra and Shaun of The Global Couple
Petra and Shaun are two mid-20s New Zealanders who currently reside in Vancouver, Canada, but their hearts are in Southeast Asia and they would love to live there some day. On their travels they aim to understand and embrace different cultures, histories, customs, foods, and landscapes. Their blog The Global Couple is a collection of their travel tales and photography, but also contains travel tips, road trip itineraries for New Zealand and the US, and city guides.  Follow them on Instagram and Facebook.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Football and Ale Asylum...A Perfect Pair for Fall in Madison

Fall is the perfect time to travel to the Upper Midwest. The explosion of fall colors up and down the shores of mighty rivers and rolling valleys on its own is a reason to take a road trip. Apple and pumpkin patches are in full swing for family fun and delicious eating of fall favorites. Mosquitoes exit the landscape so outdoor fun can be enjoyed without having to take a bath in eau de Deep Woods Off. My favorite part of traveling to this region of the US in the fall though has to do with something in the air. A particular chill rears its head and signals something important beyond snow is on the way. That chill in the air means that it’s time for the stretch run for football in Wisconsin. And nothing goes better with football than having it in a city that creates top notch craft beer, Madison.
A wonderful snowy fall evening
Before exploring another great brewery in this city that we can’t stop going back to, let’s dive into why (football fan or not) you need to travel to Madison for a football Saturday. First and foremost, as we’ve chronicled before, Madison is one of the more underrated cities in the US. The city is filled with outdoor activities, unique shops and restaurants, and a real progressive spirit. In the fall the colors are out (and sometimes the snow as well) and fans of the Badgers bring an extra bit of spirit to the city.
Football weekends in Madison are 3 hours of football and the rest of the time is spent celebrating (win or lose) Madison. The tailgating scene is not spent in endless parking lots, but in peoples yards or in outdoor beer gardens. The stadium itself is built on a former Union Civil War training grounds and the core of the stadium was erected in 1917. This history and neighborhood fun is great, but the real treat is inside the stadium during a game, again for football and non-football fans alike. There are traditions across the country every Saturday that are bucket listers for football fans, but what you get in Madison is beyond anything out there. From a top notch brass marching band, to in stadium sing alongs to “Buttercup”, to red clad fans “Jumping Around” this Saturday destination should not be missed. Put that together with the gem that is Madison already, and you have one of the great sports towns to travel too.

And what makes a football weekend destination even better? AWESOME LOCAL CRAFT BEER!!! And during my last trip to Madison this fall I was lucky enough to take an extended amount of time with the team at the Ale Asylum Brewery. Ale Asylum brews their beer in “sanity” on Madison’s East Side. In 2012 Ale Asylum moved from their original location (which they had only been in for a couple years) to their new location with a full bar and great food menu as well. Why did they have to move? Because the popularity of Ale Asylum’s brews soared right from the start. In a place where beer is king, Ale Asylum finds themselves regularly on lists of the best brews in Wisconsin. Along with this growth in production, Ale Asylum has been able to expand distribution into Illinois as well as Wisconsin.
Ale Asylum, brewed in sanity
We popped into the Ale Asylum tap room on a Friday night for some pints of the good stuff. The tap room/bar/restaurant is huge compared to other breweries. It’s the size of a solid brewpub, but it definitely is not a brewpub as it is attached to a wonderful brewery and bottling operation. I had never been to the brewery before, though I had had some of Ale Asylum’s brews in the past. The room was comfortable and I was ready to have those pints.
The decision making process at Ale Asylum was hard. With 13 brews on tap, I needed a few extra minutes to decide. Since the temperature was nowhere near 20 (yes it was still fall), I wanted a brew to help warm me up a little bit. I dove into the Contorter Porter while my drinking partner for the night (my dad) went to town on a Madtown Nutbrown. Mom was there too but she was under the weather. So the man who influenced me to drink a few good beers instead of binge on swill and I toasted and started. The Contorter Porter was a great choice as it was so rich and the chocolate malt was just what this cold night needed. Some Porters can be a little bitter but the Contorter Porter was smooth as silk. The Madtown Nutbrown was described by my dad as the best brown he’s had and I would put it very high on my list as well. With a blend of 7 malts, you can really get a taste of nut in this brown. Some browns lack in caramel flavor, even though it should be ever present, but this one does not. The brown is a year round beer at Ale Asylum, though on this chilly day it seemed even more appropriate.
So many great options
We moved on to an Ambergeddon and a Hopalicious, a West-coast amber ale and American Pale respectively. Hopalicious is what many see as the flagship beer at Ale Asylum. Hopalicious has become my favorite aggressively hopped beer out there. Unlike other high hop brews though, the hops in Hopalicious are all about flavor vs. bitterness. This beer is hopped 11 times with Cascade hops and you get a hit of all of their citrus goodness. Not to be outdone, our Ambergeddon was hopped to the max as well. Unlike many amber ales, there was bold flavor and even some bitterness at the end. Ambergeddon had a real malty core as well. These 2 beers are what people think of when they think craft beer. There is nothing that any macro beer creates that comes anywhere near what these brews brought to our glasses and that’s why Ale Asylum is in such a positive position in the market.

Dad seems to be enjoying himself
Unfortunately for all of us the Saturday football weekends are over. Fortunately for all of us Madison’s Ale Asylum doesn’t only brew during football season. But if you do want to spend a weekend eating bratwurst and drinking great beer, head to Madison and make sure you check out Ale Asylum while you’re there.