Wine of the Week: 2014 Sinister Hand • Yakima Valley, WA

2014 Sinister Hand • Yakima Valley, WA

Every wine has a story. But this wine and this story is what legends are made of. It is the kind of story that would make Edgar Allen Poe smirk at the shivers riding down the back of your spine.  The blood-dripping severed hand on the label belongs to an Irish patriot by the name of Owen Roe O’Neill. Legend has it that hundreds of years ago, there were two rivaling Irish families: the aforementioned O’Neill’s and the David O’Reilly’s. The families—both coveting the same piece of prime real estate—were divided into two teams. The first family to row across the lake and touch the prized property with his lucky Irish hand would become the Lord of the Land. After a time, O’Neill’s boat fell behind, whereby a crewmember drew his sword, cut off his hand and threw it ashore—thus staking the O’Neill clan’s claim to the land. But getting back to the wine. This is a red blend of the holy trinity grapes – GSM – 41% Grenache, 27% Syrah, 18% Mourvedre, and just to create some spice, 12% Cinsault. It’s an excellent Rhone blend of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape genre. Look for lush and bold red fruit from dark cherries to strawberries and plum. But hang on, it becomes more complex. Tannins are elegant and smooth, balancing acidity-to-alcohol. Easily paired with beef, lamb, spicy food, and I think, cheddar or chocolate.  This is the first release Sinister Hand to carry a Yakima Valley designation.

I found 2014 Sinister Hand at The Wine Bin in Ellicott City, MD.  $33.

Happy Hallowine!!

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Guest Post: Sipping Sustainably

Abby Quillen of Eugene, OR, is the author of the novel The Garden of Dead Dreams and the editor of two anthologies. Her articles and essays have appeared in YES! Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor and on Common Dreams, Nation of Change, Reader Supported News, The Daily Good, Truthout, and Shareable.  

Green Breweries and Wineries

Americans consume 9.4 billion gallons of alcoholic beverages a year: 87 percent beer, 8 percent wine, and the rest spirits. The environmental impact of producing, packaging, and selling all those beverages could make an environmentalist reach for a drink. Breweries and wineries consume large quantities of water, raw materials, and other natural resources.

But there’s good news: Green beer is no longer something people drink just on Saint Patrick’s Day. With the rise of the craft beer movement and growing consumer interest in local and sustainable food, more breweries and wineries are working to reduce the beverage industry’s environmental footprint. As a result, it’s easier to stock the home bar with sustainable, organic brews.

Moving Toward Sustainability

Sustainability is a buzzword these days, but what does it really mean? Ideally, it indicates a company uses resources in non-depleting ways while fostering the health of the company, workers, planet, and future generations. No beer and wine companies are entirely sustainable—at the moment they all use more resources than they return—but many mitigate environmental damage in several key ways.


  • Slash water use

Beverage companies are particularly reliant on water, one of our most critical natural resources. Conscientious businesses work to be its responsible stewards. According to a 2008 report, viticulturists on California’s North Coast use an average of 75 gallons of water to grow the grapes for just one gallon of wine, and in the state’s drier Central Valley, they use 430 gallons of water per gallon. Turning the grapes into wine uses six more gallons of water. To reduce that footprint, many wineries have installed low-flow nozzles and filtration systems, and reuse gray water from the production process. A minority employ dry farming, which means growing grapes without irrigation, a practice that can save millions of gallons of water a year.

A gallon of beer requires five to 10 gallons of water to produce. Craft brewers are leading a movement to reduce that ratio (Oregon’s Full Sail Brewery boasts a 2.5 to 1 ratio) and even the world’s largest brewers, including Anheuser Busch, MillerCoors, and Heineken, are cutting water usage.

  • Power down

From heating water vats and refrigerating beverages to lighting tasting rooms, the mass production of beverages is energy intensive. Eco-minded companies make their systems more efficient, install solar panels and solar hot water heaters, and utilize technologies such as fuel cells, geothermal heating, and carbon dioxide reclamation.

  • Manage waste streams

The majority of waste in the brewing process is spent grain. Breweries have a long history of passing spent grain on to farmers to feed cattle, chickens, pigs, and other livestock. Some are coming up with other innovative ways to use leftover grains, including making bread and composting. One brewery developed a biomass steam boiler that allows them to power brewery operations with spent grain. Conscientious vintners recycle pomace—spent grape seeds, pulp, and skins—in the winemaking process, compost it, or sell it to manufacturers of grape fruit oil, cream of tartar, or spirits. Many beer and wine companies have installed on-site wastewater treatment plants and/or reuse cardboard, pallets, and other packaging waste.

  • Farm sustainably

Beer and wine are agricultural products, so to make a sustainable beverage, the ingredients must be grown in ways that contribute to the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and workers. Unfortunately so far organic beer and wine have constituted a small share of the beverage industry. Brewers cite the expense and shortage of organic hops and barley. And wine consumers have equated organic with low quality. But that seems to be changing. According to a recent study, the organic beer and wine market is expected to grow at a rate of 24.5 percent from 2013 to 2019.

  • Source local ingredients

Wineries have a long history of growing grapes on site. Now a farm-to-pint movement is making waves in the craft beer industry. From Oregon to New York, local economies are springing up around craft beer with a new crop of farmers at the base. By localizing supply chains, beverage companies cut down on the transport of raw ingredients—a large portion of most companies’ carbon footprint. They can also more easily reuse resources that would leave the facility—including water and packaging—in the production process. For instance, they can use gray water to irrigate fields.

  • Reduce packaging

It doesn’t get much greener than a reusable jug, so it’s promising The Wall Street Journal called the warm months of 2013 “the summer of the growler.” Sure enough, grocery, drug, and discount stores in many cities now sport growler stations stocked with local craft beer. Wine growlers are cropping up in some states as well. Many breweries and wineries sell beverages in bottles, cans, or boxes for wider distribution. The most sustainable of them use lightweight containers with high-recycled-materials content.

In 2011, University of California Davis opened a state-of-the-art center to research and share the best sustainability practices for breweries and wineries in the above areas. It will eventually house the country’s first self-sustaining winery, which will feature a rainwater collection system and will have a cutting-edge filtration and recirculation system as well as a system to sequester carbon dioxide. According to the university, it will be the most “environmentally sophisticated complex of its kind in the world.” But what does stepping toward sustainability look like for companies already involved in the day-to-day business of beverage making?

Rogue Beer Innovators

“Beer begins in the dirt,” Oregon’s Rogue Ales states on its website. That’s why in 2008, when the brewery turned 21, its owners invested in hop yards in the fertile Willamette Valley and a barley farm in the rain shadow of Mount Hood. In addition, they grow rye, wheat, corn, pumpkins, hazelnuts, jalapenos, fruit, roses, and botanicals for their beverages, and raise honeybees, free-range chickens, turkeys, and pot-bellied pigs. They grow about 25 percent of the hops they use, and at least two of their ales contain all company-grown ingredients. They age their beverages in barrels they make from trees harvested from the Oregon Coast, and their bottles are made and screenprinted in state.

Rogue’s ambitious efforts to localize its supply chain stand out, but in the craft beer world, it’s not rogue to commit to sustainability. Breweries compete with each other to see who can be more eco-friendly, with larger companies such as California’s Sierra Nevada leading the movement. Sierra Nevada’s recycling and food composting programs help the company recycle 99.8 percent of waste, which earned the Platinum Zero Waste Certification from the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council. They built a brewery in North Carolina to minimize trucking as they expand distribution to the East Coast and continually work to maximize efficiency in their brewery operations. Several breweries, notably Eel River and Wolaver’s, use only certified-organic ingredients.

Leaping Toward Sustainable Wine

In the heart of California’s Napa Valley, Frog’s Leap Winery is a model of sustainable winemaking. In 2005, they installed 1,020 solar panels on a quarter acre of their vineyard, making the operation 100 percent solar powered and reducing their lifetime carbon emissions by an estimated 1,600 tons (equivalent to driving 4 million miles). Their building is LEED certified and outfitted with a geothermic warming and cooling system. They use composting and cover crops to grow their certified-organic grapes—not to mention zero water. Dry farming was common in Napa Valley until the 1970s when drip irrigation was introduced. Now 70 percent of vineyards rely on irrigation. But Frog’s Leap’s owner John Williams insists dry farming makes the plants healthier and the wine tastier. It also saves 10 million gallons of water every year.

California’s Fetzer Vineyards also stands out for its eco-friendly practices. They recycle 96 percent of their waste, get all of their power from renewable resources, and have reduced their carbon emissions by 25 percent since 2005. Frog’s Leap and Fetzer are just two on a long list of domestic wineries committed to improving practices. California’s Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance says 1,800 wineries representing 70 percent of the state’s wine-grape acreage have participated in voluntary self-assessments, and the Alliance has certified 77 wineries and 212 vineyards to be “in a cycle of continuous improvement.”

How to Sip Sustainably

Climate change may pose the most serious threat to the alcoholic beverage industry, according to a number of recent reports. Napa Valley’s grape output is predicted to decline two thirds by 2050 because of temperature increases. Similar losses are projected in France and other prime winemaking regions, according to a 2013 forecast. University of Queensland researchers warn climate change is already affecting barley production abroad and could significantly affect the taste and price of beer worldwide.

The greatest climate impact from the wine supply chain comes from transportation and is primarily accumulated during the final product shipment to the customer. So when it comes to sipping sustainably, local is the way to go.

Beer drinkers will likely have no problem finding local suds. Craft breweries have exploded in the last two decades: The number of breweries jumped from 92 in 1980 to 2,822 in 2012. Many larger towns boast one or more. Wine drinkers may not be as fortunate, since 90 percent of domestic wines are made in California. But researcher Tyler Colman offers a handy way to pick a wine with a lower carbon footprint. He discovered a green line that runs down the middle of Ohio. “For points to the West of that line, it is more carbon efficient to consume wine trucked from California,” he writes. “To the East of that line, it’s more efficient to consume the same sized bottle of wine from Bordeaux, which has benefited from the efficiencies of container shipping, followed by a shorter truck trip.”

How do you choose the most sustainable local beverage? Beware of greenwashing. Companies know even vague sustainability claims can boost sales. Critically peruse a website or take a tour to see what a company is actually doing. Independent eco-labels and eco-certification can help wine drinkers discover conscientious companies and may soon become more common in the craft beer world.

It’s always a good idea to choose the least packaging when possible. For beer, kegs or growlers are best, and cans may beat bottles. For wine, boxes are better than bottles, and magnums beat smaller bottles. Don’t forget to recycle those containers. And CEOs say consumer preference drives the trend toward more eco-friendly products, so let beer and wine companies know you’re thirsty for sustainable beverages.

How to Decipher Environmental Claims on a Wine Label


Sulfite free – The wine contains no added sulfites, which are used to kill off unwanted wild yeast and bacteria. It may contain naturally occurring sulfites.

100% Organic – The USDA has certified that the viticulturist used no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides and did not add sulfites or chemical clarifiers.

Organic – The USDA has certified that the beverage contains 95 percent organic ingredients (with the rest unknown).

Made with organic ingredients – The USDA has certified that the ingredients were grown with no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides; however the winemaker may have added sulfites and chemical clarifiers.

BiodynamicDemeter, a private company, certified that the grapes were grown using organic methods and the vineyard meets other requirements aimed at making it a diversified, self-sustaining ecosystem. For instance, biodynamic farmers must use wildlife-friendly pest-control management and make their own fertilizer with resources generated on-site. They also use some more esoteric practices, like planning crops based on lunar cycles. Biodynamic wines are fermented with wild yeast, and may contain sulfites, but not synthetic clarifiers.

Made with Biodynamic grapes – The grapes were grown as above, but the winemaking production process was not certified.

Natural – The making of the wine supposedly required minimal human intervention. The term is unregulated.


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Wine of the Week: 2010 Schramsberg Blanc De Blancs • Napa Valley, USA

2010 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs

True or False: When celebrating, one must always celebrate with a flashy French champagne. Before you answer that question — and I do love French champagne — try sipping a California sparkling wine. Try it once, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Enjoy a glass of 2010 Schramsberg Blanc De Blancs. Schramsberg is one of the Big Three in California “champagne” production (Roederer and Scharffenberger are the others). Schramsberg’s all-white grape bubbly is 100% Chardonnay made in the méthode champenoise as produced in the Champagne region of France (secondary fermentation in the bottle). Pale, light, dry, crisp. Look for notes of citrus and toasty brioche. Recently, we had a great moment of celebration involving my niece. As a surprise, she brought home this sparkling California wine with tiny, tiny, tiny bubbles. You know what they say. Le plus infime des bulles plus le verre.* Still thinking about whether you should buy a California bubbly? Think again. Since 2013, California has sold approximately 9 million cases of sparkling wine (wine source: Vivino). Hey, someone is enjoying this stuff. $39/bottle.

*The tinier the bubbles, the better the glass.

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Wine Of The Week: 2011 Château Lalande | Saint Julien | Bordeaux, France

2011 Château Lalande | Saint Julien | Bordeaux, France

A few weeks ago, I joined some friends at a delightful, full-on French artisanal cheese and wine bistro called La Fromageriejust about a stone’s throw from Old Town Alexandria on King Street. This is a go-to shop for the locals and a supplier for some DC restaurants. Chef/Owner Sebastien Tavel presents his products well. After an evening of mouth-watering charcuterie and cheese with wine pairings by Laurie, we decided to explore the rest of the shop. Wines of the world were shelved along one wall. It was there I spotted Château Lalande • Saint Julien, a red Bordeaux blend.* Of course, I stopped in my tracks. Of course, I bought the bottle. Of course, I savored it for a while, looking at it now and then. But in my heart of hearts (a little sniff, here, please), I knew that a Bordeaux, especially this particular Bordeaux that was currently languishing in my cellar-slash-pantry is meant to succumb to the adoring sips of us wine lovers. We popped the cork and poured. Showing silken tannins, noting deep, dark red fruits like black current and black cherry, it was nicely balanced. The 2011 Château Lalande should cellar well for a decade plus. $42/bottle.

Check out La Fromagerie:

*50% Cabernet Sauvignon 40% Merlot 10% Cabernet Franc

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Wine of the Week: 2010 Domaine de la Solitude, Côtes du Rhône

2010 Domaine de la Solitude, Côtes du Rhône

2010 Domaine de la Solitude, Côtes du Rhône

I’ve seen a lot of airports, and rarely have I found an oasis — my little escape from all of the other speedwalking travelers — to relax and have a decent glass of wine. There are the usual burger joints, the pubs, the diners, the fast foodie spots and chewy seafood bars on the concourse. Doesn’t matter where you go, that’s pretty much it. Until a few years ago. Was I pleasantly surprised when I stumbled on to Concourse A at BWI airport in Baltimore! I spied a little wine shop called Vino Volo. Skeptical though I was, I was drawn in. Oasis! Check out their website for locations. Recently, I tried a 2010 Côtes du Rhône with the traditional SGM* blend of that region. On the nose: Black cherries, jam and violets. Holding its elegant cherriness throughout the glass, the deep red blend presented an added treat of a little espresso here, a little chocolate and tobacco there. Oasis. $25/bottle.

*Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre

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Wine of the Week: 2009 Boroli Barbera d’Alba Quattro Fratelli • Piedmont, Italy

2009 Boroli Barbera d’Alba Quattro Fratelli

2009 Boroli Barbera d’Alba Quattro Fratelli – Piedmont, Italy

Recently, one of my dear friends presented me a quart of his grandfather’s recipe spaghetti sauce. I couldn’t wait to get it home as I’ve heard so much about “the sauce.” We paired it with the above-named Barbera. What a perfect match for this legendary spaghetti sauce — which by the way, we layered lovingly over locally- produced angel hair pasta. Oh, the aroma! E ‘stata pensata per essere divorato! Did I mention he simmers it for five or six hours? Or the fact that he adds mild Italian sausage and chicken breast? How tender is the meat after this process? Nevermind, you would only be jealous. The fruity, acidic style of the Barbera with its low tannins gently enhanced the rich acidic tomato of the sauce. It’s true there were many secrets to his family recipe that my friend did not share with me, but that’s okay, as long as we are on his short list of future sauce recipients. In return, I will present him with a bottle of the above-named Barbera. Lastly, to conclude with the words of Nicholas D. Livingston for Artisan Vineyards on this lovely Piedmont d’Alba: “Quattro Fratelli speaks in terms of ripe raspberries and black cherries, woodsy top notes and nervy acids that make one water at the mouth and yearn for dinner.” That, wine lovers, is precisely what happened. $20.

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Pursuing Pinot with Catherine O’Brien

Catherine O'Brien of Pursuing Pinot

Click on photo to enlarge.


When most of us were watching those coming of age movies – you know the ones – depending on your generation – Animal House, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, Breakfast Club, and one of my favorites, Clueless – a not-clueless-at-all 16-year old girl from Cincinnati, OH, started her own catering business.

“I think I was a born entrepreneur. I was peddling pies, cookies, and brownies around the neighborhood when I was about 11 years old,” says the adult Catherine O’Brien. “My parents took us to Greece for three weeks when I was 13, and that’s when I had my awakening to other cultures and international foods. I was smitten.”

So smitten that as soon as she made it back home, O’Brien searched the library for Middle Eastern cookbooks. With her parents’ blessing, she began to experiment in her Mom’s kitchen. Two years later, Catherine’s parents took her to Portugal and Spain, where she sampled her first Fino at a bodega. Again, O’Brien came home inspired, and with Dad’s help, a little word of mouth, she launched her career.

“The more I got involved with catering food, the more I learned about food and wine,” says O’Brien. “In 1979, I opened a small restaurant in Cincinnati that also housed catering.  That’s when my wine knowledge and interest really began to develop because I was selecting wines for the restaurant.”

Fast forward to the ‘80s, Catherine decided to open a wine bar with a friend, which she would cater. In doing so, she closed her own restaurant, but after a while, the wine bar – be it location or timing – wasn’t working out. She decided to pursue other interests, including traveling, food, her growing love of wine, and most important, raising her daughter, Hilary.

“Growing up, it was just the two of us – she was a single mom, entrepreneur and a business woman,” says daughter Hilary. “She was my mom and dad, my chauffeur, supporter, cheerleader, personal chef, and teacher. She taught me how to cook and how to be a good person.”

By 2011, Catherine had taken her interest in wine to another level. With the help of her daughter, Hilary, friend Sarah, and son-in-law, Ross Hollebon, O’Brien launched her own wine website and called it Pursuing Pinot. But she didn’t stop there.

O’Brien traveled to vineyards all over, including France and Italy, and wrote about them. But she didn’t stop there. For her, the pursuit of pinot is serious.

Catherine went to Willamette Valley, and for six days, she harvested grapes at Tanager Vineyard and operated the punch down machine at Ken Wright Cellars. At this writing, O’Brien is attending another Wine Blogger’s Conference, this one in Santa Ynez Valley in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country. As they say in the NFL, she doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk.

Now a resident of Charleston, S.C., O’Brien’s wine interests are as keen as ever because of Charleston’s great wine scene. Here’s a fun story she shared on her website that occurred at the 2014 Charleston Food and Wine Festival:

My favorite experience during the event was being reprimanded by Señora Elisabetta Fagiouli, of San Gimignano (a town I visited in Tuscany). I declined her white wine and she firmly informed me that, “Yes, I would try her Bianco Toscano,” and it was delightful.  For reasons unknown to me – because I know that you never rinse your glass with water while tasting – I took a bottle of water and rinsed my glass. Senora Fagiouli snatched it away, chastising me, and rinsed it with red wine before pouring me some of her Rosso Toscano. What fun!

So, my fellow wine lovers, what makes wine so exciting in so many ways? It’s all of the wonderful people you meet – like Catherine O’Brien (and Señora Fagiouli) – who want to share with you their heartfelt experiences, great wines, and wonderful stories.

And as Hilary says, “I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without my Mom. She is the most important person in the world to me, and I’m proud to be her daughter.”

Bet she’s proud to be your Mom.

You can follow all of Catherine’s wine adventures on her website,

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Wine of the Week: 2012 Louis Latour Mercurey, Cote Chalonnaise, France

2012 Louis Latour Mercurey, Cote Chalonnaise, France

Vive la France!  Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!  Bastille Day refers to the storming of the Bastille in 1789 (Au revoir, Louis ze 16th), which marks the beginning of the French Revolution, commemorated annually on July 14. Think America’s 4th of July. Our grape on this auspicious occasion is Pinot Noir. The hierarchy of location is as follows: France, Burgundy/Côte de Beaune (major wine region) Côte Chalonnaise (district), Mercurey (communial AOC).  In the scope of all things vin de France, this is a rare-if-ever (!) Louis Vuitton deal at $26, but the added value of a luscious ruby red, cherry-strawberry Pinot Noir with an ooh lá lá at the fini is so parfait exquis. What can I say? I’m a Burgundy girl.

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Wine of the Week: 2013 Miraval Rosé, Famille Perrin, Côtes de Provence

2013 Miraval Rosé

Wine of the Week: 2013 Miraval Rosé

Provence, FR –

When Pitt-Jolie and Marc Perrin designed this angelic (no pun intended) Rosé, it had to be with Angelina Jolie in mind. It’s strikingly beautiful. Delicately pink in color, wearing its scantily-clad label on a champagne-style bottle, it’s simply exquisite. A red carpet choice to die for, wine darlings. This luscious dry Rosé received 90/100 points from Wine Spectator following its 2012 release, which sold out almost immediately. Miraval was my introduction to a refined, elegant Rosé. It’s medium bodied, with red berry and citrus on the nose. Dig deeper and you’ll find melon and spice and local terroir notes. Miraval is certified organic with French Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. A fourth grape, the white Rolle – also known as Vermentino – is part of the blend. From $23 to $29.

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Wine of the Week: Lucky Star Pinot Noir

Lucky Star Pinot Noir. Sonoma, California.

Wine of the Week: Lucky Star Pinot Noir

Sonoma County, CA –

Everyone has a favorite nearby hangout or two, and Sofia Volo is no different. The Grill at Harryman House is a rather unique venue in historic Reisterstown, Maryland. Wine lovers are welcomed here with wine flights and great wine go-withs like cheese plates and numerous wine-friendly appetizers. Originally built in 1791, the restaurant features among other things, a chestnut and oak log cabin, fireplaces, and a comprehensive wine list, which is where I discovered Lucky Star Pinot Noir. Star’s silky finish starts with ripe cherry, red raspberry and cranberry on the nose, but what gives this Pinot added heft is a touch of jammy Zinfandel. Some aging in American and French Oak barrels layers the complexity of toastiness, vanilla and cedar. You can find Lucky Star Pinot Noir at a purse friendly $12.

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