Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Sommelier’s Shame

The word “sommelier” is so sophisticated sounding, so beautiful as it rolls off one’s tongue.  Just so…French!  However, even though I am a certified sommelier, sometimes I am forced to not be a sophisticated wine drinker.  Part of this is the area I live and part of this is the circumstances of my life.  I sometimes drink cheap wine (really cheap wine) out of cheap glasses (really cheap glasses).  It happens.  In Wyoming and the Black Hills, not every restaurant is an awesome restaurant; sometimes it is just an amazing burger joint, and not every amazing burger  joint has a wine list.  Or if said burger joint does have a list, it often consists of Cabernet, Merlot, and white Zinfandel, that's all.  I try to stay away from box wines, but I had to try the wine that came in a box that looked like a purse, and I love Bota Box wines for hikes and picnics.  But today I am not talking about that kind of sommelier’s shame, a shame that sommeliers in metropolitan areas don’t have to contend with like I do in my rural surroundings.  Today I am talking about the shame that I have made it my goal to explore and promote all things wine related in the Black Hills and Wyoming, and I have knowingly not done this.  Here’s my confession: 

            About five years ago, I stopped at Stone Faces Winery outside of Hill City, South Dakota.  (Wines made by Valiant Vineyards in eastern South Dakota; Stone Faces is the western SD tasting room with a different name.)  The non-descript sign out front and lack of branding/marketing put me off right away.  I went inside, tasted some wines, and left…never to go back until this past weekend.  Shame.  On.  Me!  I claimed to be promoting area wine businesses, and yet I had chosen to neglect one.  I was so glad I got back to following my own advice; I don’t know why I wasn’t impressed last time, but my second trip made up for this. 
The sign welcoming visitors to Stone Faces.

            Once I got past my sign issue, I bellied up to the tasting bar to try my six wines (with no tasting fee).  Because there are still so many newbie wine drinkers in our area, wineries need to have a mix of both sweet and dry wines.  I focused on the dryer reds and whites.  Stone Faces makes wines from both grapes and other fruits, sometimes mixing the two.  The wines also have names primarily dealing with South Dakota or the Black Hills, like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Mount Rushmore.  This was shown in the first wine I sipped, the Full Throttle red that was a brandy-fortified wine with 16 percent alcohol.  I was impressed that this was not too hot from alcohol, though the heat did show up more on the finish.  I then was able to do a short vertical tasting of the Sturgis Merlot 2011 and 2013.  These grapes were sourced from California, as Merlot does not grow well in the harsh Midwestern winters.  The 2011 was dryer with more baked plum notes, while the 2013 was more Pinot Noir-like in body and taste.  (Possibly because grapes were sourced from completely different vineyards, areas, etc.)  Since I was in the process of getting my summer wine palate on, I bought the lighter-bodied 2013…and drank it already!  The next dry red was the Artisan, a mix of California Cabernet and South Dakota St. Croix grapes.  This was also very pleasant, and I liked the idea of the state-sourced grapes. 
2011 and 2013 Sturgis Merlots.

            The final red was sweeter, the Rushmore Red.  This was made from California Merlot and eastern South Dakota Noirette.  I transitioned from the reds to the whites with Stone Faces’ pink wine, Pasque (named for the South Dakota state flower).  This was a blend of Frontenac and Niagara grapes, both SD grown.  This was another great summer wine, and I bought a bottle.  It was filled with floral aromas and flavors and had a clean laundry smell--a fun wine with a really beautiful color.  Rushmore White boasted a German style, made from Riesling and Edelweiss grapes—Edelweiss grapes grow well in this area.  The final white, called Sweet White, used Niagara grapes.   There were six other wines on the tasting list, but these were all other fruit wines (like rhubarb and blueberry) and a bit sweet for my palette. 

Stone Faces blueberry wine, with a picture of the tasting room on the label.

            After my stop, I don’t have to be ashamed that I am not experiencing and promoting all aspects of wine in our tiny, budding wine world of the Black Hills as I said I would.  Stone Faces taught me to not judge a book by its cover (maybe I am finally going to get over the issues I have with their poor signage).  I enjoyed the wines I tried, and my tasting associate, Cynthia, was informative, friendly, and energetic.  I could also tell I was not the only one giving more attention to these wines.  The tasting room was quite busy with patrons of all ages:  from me, to distinguished gentlemen, to 20-something couples.  (I always love it when I see young people experiencing wine!  It makes me so happy for the future of the industry.)  Now my sommelier’s shame only has to be when I am forced to drink cheap wine (I don’t mean inexpensive and good quality…I mean CHEAP) out of a red Solo cup (hey, it happens!). 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

When it’s Hard to Watch the News

          This is another one of those weeks when I turn on the television, and I inevitably walk away with tears in my eyes.  There just seems to be so much bad news lately:  Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Boston Marathon bombing, Oklahoma tornados.  It is really hard for me to focus on wine and writing about wine (a subject that makes me so incredibly happy and joyful) with so much sorrow and pain in the world.  I wish I could write words that would help the victims, help the families of victims, help those of us who want to do more…but instead I write about wine.  At first I was thinking of how trivial wine seems in times like these.  Then I realized, wine is very serious business, and it is the livelihood of thousands and thousands of people in the United States alone, not even taking into account how many people in the world rely on wine for the roofs over their families’ heads and the food for their children’s mouths.  Wine is a very important industry.

            According to the National Grape and Wine Initiative in 2007, the wine industry is responsible for over 162 billion (with a B!) dollars of economic impact in the U.S.  Research done by MFK Research LLC in a report entitled The Impact of Wine, Grapes, and Grape Products on the American Economy: Family Businesses Building Value, the wine industry provides over one million full-time American jobs.  Part-time and seasonal work could also be added to this number.  Wine making starts with the grapes, which is essentially an agricultural business, and big business at that.  In 2005, there were 23,856 grape growers—that’s a lot of grapes!  In 2000, there were a total of 2,904 wineries in the U.S.; in 2005 there were 4,929.  By 2012, estimates that number at 7,116.  All of these wineries create over 11 billion dollars in winery sales revenue (again from the 2007 article).   Over three billion dollars can be attributed to winery tourism expenditures.  These numbers are proof of the growing importance of wine in our country.  Grapes and grape juice also add to the overall industry (though they may not be as fun for us to consume…wink).  The non-fermented family members of wine add another 1.669 billion dollars to the economy.  All of these numbers add up to a lot of tax dollars:  17.1 billion in federal, state, and local taxes.

            Many of us may automatically think of the large wine producing areas, like California, Washington, and Oregon, when we think about the above numbers.  However, all 50 states now have wineries; my little, old, sparsely-populated Wyoming already has three—only one using state-grown fruit.  South Dakota, a state where agriculture is the number one industry, now has multiple vineyards and wineries.  Though grapes are still in the “other” category of agricultural products here (where corn and soybeans are royalty), growing grapes and fruit for wine on a commercial basis is a part of the ag industry that didn’t even exist twenty years ago!  This can be said for many states in the Midwest, like Minnesota, Wisconsin (both in the forefront of creating and using hybrid grapes), Nebraska, and Colorado (which now has two AVAs—Grand Valley and West Elks).  Wine has turned into a budding (pun intended) and important growth industry all over America. 
Scenes from the "budding" wine industry:
Table Mountain Vineyards--Huntley, Wyoming
Belle Joli Winery--Belle Fourche, South Dakota
Grand Valley AVA--Colorado

            During these hard times that are so much in our thoughts and minds, it may be hard to focus on the fun parts of wine—the smelling, sipping, laughing, and loving.  However, it is essential to remember the serious side of wine.  It is an important industry all over the nation, an industry that a mere two decades ago was non-existent in many states, like the area I call home.  I wish all of the families hit by the recent disasters well and will keep praying for them.  I also wish all the wine industry families well and will keep praying for an industry that continues to strengthen our economy. 

Monday, May 13, 2013


I admit freely, have admitted it freely for years, I am a wino.  (I often like to spell it wineaux…it makes me feel better.)  I enjoy a glass of wine multiple nights a week with dinner.  I love new and different wines when I find them.  I love experiencing the culture of wine, learning about wine, and teaching about wine.  But lately…lately…I have been neglecting my lover wine and spending a bit more time with beer…and as a friend pointed out, it is as if I am cheating on wine!  The first weekend in May I led a Brinery Tour through the Black Hills, enjoying both wine and beer (see blog post below).  This past weekend, a group of friends and I went to Fort Collins, known as the Napa of Beer, to attend a private beer tasting there with Lauren Hoff, founder of the blog with the same name—Napa of Beer.  Lauren, knowing I was a wineaux, focused the very unique tasting on “Beer for Wine Lovers.”  Then we tried some truly one-of-a-kind beers. 

Beer One:  Funwerks Saison—This beer was produced right in Fort Collins, though I have not visited Funwerks yet.  Saison beers were originally brewed for farm hands to drink in the French speaking areas of Belgium.  Special yeasts were used that made this beer sweet and smooth with “funky” flavors.  It had a light straw color, and at 30 IBUs (International Bitterness Units) was considered not overly bitter.  This was my friend, and fellow beer taster, Jody’s favorite beer of the six. 

Though not sipping the Saison, Jody and Michelle enjoying the tasting.

Beer Two:  NoLi Born and Raised IPA—India Pale Ales like this beer are known for their bitterness from the hops used during production, and the NoLi was no exception.  Its score of 80 on the IBU scale shows the “hoppiness” in the drink.  However, people--like my hubby--who love IPAs, love the hoppy bitterness.  This second beer was his favorite in the tasting.  The brew master who makes NoLi beers got his start in Fort Collins, then took his talents to Washington to start his own brewery.  It was made in Spokane, and all the materials used came from within 200 miles of the brewery.    

NoLi Born and Raised IPA.

Beer Three:  Midas Touch Clone—When King Midas’s tomb was discovered, beer was found buried with him.  Scientists and beer enthusiasts have broken down the ingredients in the beers found, and this mix of beer, mead, and grapes was a clone of the ancient beer.  (Many ancient beers have been scientifically mapped and then recreated in modern breweries.  Who knew?!)  The hobbiest brewmaster who brewed this beer, Matthew Burton, was on hand for our tasting.  He brews in his garage in his spare time; this particular beer he aged for four years, mostly in bottle.  I enjoyed the mix of the wine and beer world in this taster; the mead (honey wine) was evident on the palette.  This brew was my favorite.  I drank another glass later in the tasting and found I liked it even more when it had warmed up a few degrees.  (This is usually the exact opposite of how I feel about beer:  I want it colder than cold can get.)
Midas Touch King Clone.

Beer Four:  Blue Moon Impulse—The only beer we had that was not technically from a craft brewery (must be small and independently owned), Coors produced the Blue Moon Impulse.  It was a combination of wheat beer and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as part of the Vintage Ale series combining beer and wine.  This beer was lighter, sweeter, and softer than any of the others.  To me it was reminiscent of church wine with some carbonation.  However, many liked the softer style that wasn’t beer-like or wine-like.  My sister enjoyed this one; it was her favorite. 

Beer Five:  Odell Amuste—Odell Brewery’s community room played host (with Lauren and Matthew) to our private tasting, and this fifth beer represented the host brewery well.  Amuste was an imperial porter aged for two years in oak barrels with Tempranillo grape juice sourced from the western slope of Colorado.  Beautifully brown in color, the porter showed hints of coffee and chocolate.  It was a very robust beer, and my Fort Collins friend Rhonda especially enjoyed this one.
O'Dell's Amuste porter.

Beer  Six:  Solera Old Ale—A second project from one of our tasting hosts Matthew, Solera started as a group barrel with multiple brew masters adding ingredients to create a sour ale.  From 2008 to 2011, ten gallons were removed from the barrel for consumption each year, and ten more gallons of new brew were added.  Our batch was pulled in 2011, and not long after, the entire barrel was emptied for use.  What that meant was we were truly drinking an exclusive beer.  Many thought this was too bitter for them, but it was actually my second favorite beer of the tasting.  This wine lover found I actually liked the beers MOST that tasted the LEAST like beer.  Go figure. 
With Lauren and Matthew--thank you both!
Though I don’t usually drink beer, I love the whole culture behind the microbrew and craft beer industry.  People are fun, friendly, and accessible, while the brewery tasting rooms are noisy, boisterous, and vibrant…all qualities I enjoy.  Lauren taught us how to taste beer, and though there are similarities to wine tasting, there were unique aspects just for beer.  Sometimes I think the wine world can be too stuffy and pretentious; the craft beer world takes this stuffiness and laughs in its face!  I don’t see myself ending my love affair with wine anytime soon; however, I truly enjoyed our beer tasting and learning even more about beer.  I may “cheat” on wine periodically to get my fill of the alternative, and entertaining, culture of beer! 
Our group enjoying our private tasting.

Monday, May 6, 2013

What the Heck is a Brinery? Black Hills Beer and Wine

And in addition to brinery, what the heck is a portmanteau?  Are these two of those complicated wine terms the average person has no clue about and no use for?  What do these words mean?!? 

Actually, a portmanteau is a word created by combining two words together into one—ginormous, Spanglish, Brangelina.  Lately, our culture is filled with them.  So I decided to create my own:  brinery!  A brinery is a mix of brewery and winery together, and this past Saturday I led a wonderful group on a Black Hills Brinery Tour, getting the best wines, beers, and scenery the Black Hills has to offer. 
Brinery Tour group outside of Crow Peak Brewing.

Stop one:  Naked Winery/Sick and Twisted Brewery Hill City

            Naked Winery is an interesting Black Hills story.  The wines are actually produced in Oregon, primarily from Washington and Oregon grapes.  South Dakota has two Naked Winery tasting rooms; the original in Custer, South Dakota just celebrated its second anniversary in March.  I have been privileged to witness the evolution of these tasting rooms from the very beginning, and what a fast evolution it has been!  The Hill City tasting room has expanded the number of wines it sells, doubled the size of its tasting room, and started brewing its own beer under the Sick and Twisted name.  There are six Sick and Twisted beers, all with some pretty risqué names, adding to the whole naughty, naughty theme of the Naked wines.  Though I regularly admit I am not a beer connoisseur, several in our group who are avid beer drinkers gave the Sick and Twisted beers thumbs up.  (I even remembered to bring the hubby’s growlers from home and filled a growler with the Panty Dropper Porter…I told you, naughty, naughty!)   The wines, as always, were a special treat!  In the past I have I enjoyed the flagship wine of Naked, the Merlot, and the 2009 vintage was no exception.  I also have a special affinity for Oregon Pinot Noirs, and Naked has two that are very nice!  Yes, Naked Winery/Sick and Twisted Brewery is a perfect example of my new word brinery!
Tasting at Naked Winery/Sick and Twisted Brewing, Hill City.

 Stop two:  Prairie Berry Winery

            I have also written about Prairie Berry Winery before, as it was the winery that broke ground for the other tasting rooms and wineries that now call the Black Hills home.  Prairie Berry has also evolved into a premier winery, whether in the Black Hills or elsewhere.  Originally, Prairie Berry produced more (and became famous for) fruit wines from rhubarb, pumpkin, and buffalo berries.  However, as this establishment has attracted more palettes, it has also evolved.  It now produces more dry reds and some very quality dry reds at that!  I happen to enjoy Phatt Hogg Red (a blend in the Pinot Noir class), Rimrock (a Zinfandel), and Sand Creek (a Cabernet Sauvignon blend).  The fruit wines are still incredibly fun and popular, and in honor of the Cinco de Mayo weekend, one could order a Red Ass-arita, a margarita made from Red Ass Rhubarb wine.  We also ate our lunch at this stop.  Though I can rave about how far PBW has come with its wine production, I don’t have the words to talk about the food that can be experienced here!  We had gourmet Paninis and pizzas since we were just breezing through, but the lunches and special dinners here are absolutely amazing!  I am hungry just thinking about the mouth-watering treats served from the kitchen created by specialty chefs Maija and Heidi.

Tastes and lunch at Prairie Berry Winery.

Stop three:  Belle Joli

            Though the Black Hills still has a very small number of wineries and tasting rooms, I love that each one is so unique when compared to the last.  Belle Joli is different still from the last two stops.  Enologist and vintner Matthew Jackson went to CSU Fresno, and then came back to Belle Fourche, South Dakota to grow grapes.  There is the facility and vines in Belle Fourche, but now there is also a small tasting room in Deadwood, South Dakota and more vines between Belle Fourche and Sturgis, SD.  Also, expansion plans include a larger tasting facility outside of Sturgis, hopefully breaking ground this summer.  Jackson grows the majority of his grapes and outsources for some of the fruit used in his dessert wines—cherry, peach, and pear.  The new peach and pear dessert wines I tried this weekend have similar residual sugars to ice wine, and the wonderful smooth flavor showed this.  Belle Joli is still a true family affair, with Matthew’s wife, Choi, and parents taking active roles in the wine production.  I look forward to seeing the continued progress of Belle Joli and its truly South Dakota product.
Purchasing at Belle Joli in Deadwood.

Stop four:  Crow Peak Brewing

            The final stop on our Brinery Tour took us to yet another unique aspect of the growing wine and beer industry:  Crow Peak Brewing in Spearfish, South Dakota.  The brewery started on a small scale in 2007, and then moved to a gorgeous, wood-sided facility in 2009.  (The mantel made of rocks that is in the shape of a beer jug is my favorite part of the décor.)  Many seasonal beers are brewed here, but some of the selections are canned throughout the year for distribution around the multi-state area:  Pile O’ Dirt Porter and 11th Hour IPA.  Again, I’m not a beer drinker (wine only, thank you!), but I love the ambiance, culture, and environment of microbreweries.  They are just fun places to be!  Crow Peak was no exception.  Our large group split into smaller groups and received tours of the beer production areas from Josh, one of the owners.  We also sipped on many different types of beer, from a lighter cream ale to a hoppy, hoppy IPA.  I was again prepared with the growler that I filled with the hoppiest of the beers for my hubby, since those are his favorites. 
The sommelier had a Crow Peak Brewing in Spearfish.

            After four stops enjoying Black Hills brinery experiences, the bus ride home was not boring.  (What happens between Sundance and Upton, stays between Sundance and Upton.  Hahaha!)  I truly enjoyed both the wine and beer of the brineries in the Black Hills.  Just like portmanteaus evolve with our culture and society (who would have imagined a word like “sexting” even ten years ago), the wineries and breweries of the Black Hills are evolving into world-class establishments.  My hope is that as these industries boom in all regions of the country, our little corner of the Midwest will also continue to see the expansion of these industries.  Next year’s Brinery Tour can’t get here soon enough!