Root beer vodka: most fun drink this summer. Really.

Decades ago, after spending a year abroad I got on a flight back to the US and asked for the most American drink I could imagine: root beer.   I was shocked when the flight attendant told me they didn’t carry it. I love root beer.  My father loved root beer. Whenever I see artisanal root beer, I try it – and generally savor my way through it.

But I was skeptical when a bottle of Three Olives Root Beer Flavored Vodka recently came my way.  “Is this a good idea?” I asked myself.  When my friend Kathy came over to watch a chick-flick, we decided to try it.  She is, admittedly, not a drinker but she knows food.  When we cracked open the capsule, a lovely, very authentic root beer-y aroma came wafting out.  Cautiously, we poured a few drops into a glass. Hey – it’s not even sweet, we marveled.  It tasted like root beer in the most appealing – and surprising – manner.  We poured out a little more of the stuff, slipped in a few ice cubes, and the evening was off to a great start!

rant against single vineyards

There’s a reason some winemakers are considered great: they know how to blend vinified grapes into great wines.  Blend is the key word here.  And nothing argues more against the current fad for single vineyard wines than some of the single vineyard wines themselves.

Recently, I tasted three single-vineyard wines from a well known Argentina winery, and it was Goldilocks time.  The first one structured but lacking in fruit.  The second fruity but lacking finesse.  The third delicate and sustained but without depth.  After we’d finished, I poured them all together in one glass: Ah, that was more like it.  Even this primitive in-glass “blending” began to exhibit this winery’s great potential.

A few weeks ago I tasted another single vineyard grouping, this one of dessert wines – a category I know well.  Disappointment set in: each vineyard carried its own set of apricot or peach, honey or grapefruit zest aromas and flavors, along with a variety of structural components.  It was an interesting deconstructional analysis for me as a wine writer.  But blended together, the wine would have shown its greatness to everyone.

So what’s with all the praise heaped on single vineyard wines lately? It’s about marketing. Wineries and their promoters periodically need new ways to sell wine, and “Single Vineyard” happens to be the current flavor.  Not that there aren’t some great single vineyard wines.  (Burgundy comes to mind.)  But all too often, single vineyard wines turn out to be the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Should wine writers warn the public about this?  On one hand, we don’t want to heap artificial praise on wines that don’t deserve it.  On the other hand, is it better to have this faddish hook that gets more people to try more wines?  What do you think?
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Bordeaux: Evaluating the 2007 vintage

What: en primeur tastings of the 2007 vintage wines

When: April 2008

Where: all over Bordeaux, France

Who: worldwide wine journalists (and top trade tasters)

Why: once you manage to get through Air France’s disdain for US travelers, the people in Bordeaux are exceptionally polite and welcoming.

And you get to catch up with fellow journalists from all over the world, have access winemakers and owners of every chateau in Bordeaux – and evaluate the new vintage wines for yourself.

From the outside, here’s what it looks like:

Dozens of journalists from all over the world moving around the regions of Bordeaux France in an intricate dance of winetastings, luncheons, dinners and overnights at glorious chateaux during the first week of April.

All choreographed by the UGC (Union des Grands Crus of Bordeaux – the association of the top wine-producing chateaux in this prestigious area).

Here’s what it is:

Taste, spit, evaluate and make notes on dozens of wines first thing in the morning.

Red-stained teeth.

Lunch with wonderful foods and great wines. Try not to eat or drink much, because in the afternoon, you have to get to the other (non UGC) tastings that everyone has set up to take advantage of journalists’ presence in Bordeaux: everything from additional producers in this region to biodynamic producers from all over. Every afternoon. Receptions in the evenings, if you can break away (I never have).

More red teeth.

Long, lovely dinners with chateau owners: try not to drink much at all — of the incredible vintage wines they have laid out.

Try to get to bed at a reasonable time, in order to get up in the morning and do it all over again.

Highlights: the people

Quietly devastating, intent Stephen Brook — try to sit near him at meals if at all possible because his wit is as formidable as his knowledge

Endlessly curious Steven Spurrier — perfect companion for dashing about the countryside for additional tastings

Engaging Guy Woodward, always in the right places.

Still recovering from tasting in the presence of greats such as Jancis Robinson, Serena Sutcliffe, David Peppercorn, James Lawther…

LISTEN to my interviews on itunes’ Wine&Dine Radio: Becky Sue Epstein, International Wine and Spirits, Food and Travel Writer, attending the annual En Primeur Bordeaux tasting, from Sauternes on Sauternes, Show 718a and back home in Boston, with her summary thoughts on the 2007 Bordeaux vintage wines. Show 720c

Ornellaia at Zegna

I don’t know why the people at Ermenegildo Zegna on Newbury Street in Boston were willing to let us wander around their shop with red wine, but I’m very glad they did. There I tasted the spectacular Ornellaia 1988, an incredibly full, lively and young Super-Tuscan. The guys from the winery recall that this was the first year they produced wine from their newly-planted vineyards in Bolgheri. They are both mystified and grateful, giving Nature full credit for this wonderful wine.

Next up? A special anniversary bottle design for the 2005 Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore – a big wine that may rival the ’88; when it’s released in June, plan to buy enough to last for the next 20 years.

Tasting in a Box of Vodkas

Ever found yourself in a frozen room full of high end vodkas?  With sculptor/potter Peter Shire and a few friends?  And one of you – not sure which – is wearing a leopard skin pillbox hat?  Well, it happened to me a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills.  Oh, yeah, I think I was the one wearing the Russian-style white fur coat with matching tall hat.  The (faux) furs — provided by the restaurant — are necessary when you enter the refrigerated VodBox for a tasting of luxury vodkas from around the world, some so rare even I had never heard of them.

I don’t usually have much of a tolerance for the cold, but my appetite for vodka seemed to go way up when I was in that fun room.  Sipping and tasting.  It was one of those “what’s not to like?” moments.

By the way, anyone can sign up for the VodBox experience, dreamed up by long-time L.A. restaurateur Larry Nicola for Nic’s on Canon Drive.

Sonoma chateau

There’s a piece of France near Healdsburg in Sonoma, California. From the setting among the hills to the gracious luncheon, Jordan Winery feels more like Bordeaux than anything you might expect in America’s West. I’d recommend trying to get Chef Todd Knoll to prepare a fine meal for you, if you ever have the chance — with excellent service, and the accompaniment of John Jordan (son of founder Tom Jordan) who now runs the winery. And if that’s not possible, try to get a few minutes with winemaker Rob Davis: a quietly confident man who has spent the past few decades crafting Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – that’s all they make.

Tours for the public include past vintages in their tastings. Or you can just sign up for the Library Tasting – if you can find it behind the secret door.

The Sandra Jordan Collection and her Decanting book are also worth noting, if you’re looking for tasteful gifts.