This is a sampling of what our contributors have been drinking…
Evan Dawson: Cold Heaven Cellars 2009 Viogniers
This weekend we opened a pair of viogniers from a California winemaker uniquely devoted to the grape. I had a chance to talk to Morgan Clendenen at length about her work, and I can tell you that her wines match her rhetoric. She knows what she likes, and she knows how to deliver it.
Clendenen feels that viognier can be spellbinding, but it can also easily become fat and hot. She loves a carefully made wine from Condrieu, the grape's ancestral home in the Northern Rhone, but she doesn't give a region-wide pass. She wants acidity in her viognier, and she watches closely during harvest to make sure the grapes' acidity levels don't crash.
The results are beautiful. I've had a decent range of viognier from California and now Virginia, and I almost always prefer the stainless steel versions over the oaked versions. That's probably because the winemakers employing new oak also tend to seek super-ripeness and — there it is again — low acidity. The Cold Heaven line of wines from Santa Barbara County demonstrates that wood can be gentle and integrated, and a wine with richness and depth can also be crisp and cutting.
These are good, unique wines, and while they're not made in large quantities, they're findable. And they're worth finding.
Bryan Calandrelli: Le Riche 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
In my mind a best-case scenario for any liquor store visit includes finding a dusty forgotten bottle from an obscure producer labeled with a vintage that most assume is well past its peak.
This bottle of 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon from Le Riche fits this description perfectly.
A quick check of its cellar tracker page sealed the deal that the sale price of $22 the store was asking was well worth the investment. Without an extensive cellar that needs organizing I get the most use out of this site by searching markdown and clearance wines.
After some dried cork wrangling the wine opened up with elegant aromas of currant and dried cherries with some more mature notes of leather and tobacco. I couldn't imagine this wine being any better on the palate thanks to its soft tannins and delicate balance of still vibrant acidity.
I don't think I'll ever stop getting excited about wines like this.
Lenn Thompson: Sheamaldi Farms 2010 Ida Red/Golden Delicious Cider
I'm lucky to have several friends who are not only beer/wine/cider/spirits geeks, but also brew or make their own at home.
My colleague Mark Grimaldi and his wife Olivia have been making cider from apples — by crushing them, not via purchased juice — for a few years now for their own consumption under the "Sheamaldi Farms" label (Olivia's maiden name is Shea). Mark shared a couple bottles with me a while back and I stumbled upon them in my wine cellar recently.
I'm not a big cider guy, but I can recognize well-made cider when I taste it — particularly after a failed attempt at making it myself a couple years ago.
Drier than I expected, this blend of 70% Ida Red and 30% Golden Delicious apples, all grown in the Finger Lakes, isn't complex or funky like some ciders I've had, but it also doesn't have the bitter tannins I've experienced as well. It didn't last long in my glass. It was easy drinking and refreshing — which is just what I'm looking for when I turn to cider.
David Flaherty: Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
I've been hunting you down for a while. At times, I've beat the brush with muscle-tearing ferocity to ferret you out. I've exhausted myself to the point of frustration and ceased to believe you actually existed. Snipe hunting, you ask? No. Bourbon hunting.
Black Maple Hill is a legend in the whiskey world. Stories of its production by an eccentric distiller in the backwoods of Kentucky are ubiquitous. Small batch, handmade, heavenly, the usual stuff. But as the spirits buyer for our restaurant group, I couldn't get my hands on the stuff for years. Out of stock, switched distributors, slipped into the ether, ya da ya da ya da. It went on and on. At one point, I would have traded a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card just to get me a bottle. The more I couldn't find it, the more I wanted it.
On a fluke last week, a fleeting whim, a strange email was sent to me (but actually labelled, "Dear Frank"), I got some. Four bottles arrived at our establishment, and I quickly bought one and ferreted it home in my bag. I felt like I was carrying the Holy Grail with drooling, sword-carrying maniacs hot on my tail. I nearly pinched myself when I was peeling back its wax-dipped layer. The anticipation was great.
Notes of vanilla, baking spice, butterscotch and oak rose from my glass. For a 95 proof spirit, it drinks ridiculously smooth but NEEDS that ice cube to provide just the proper dilution. My favorite things about is the mouthfeel. Rolling it over the tongue is akin to sitting down to a plate of syrup-drenched waffles where the syrup and the butter have mixed together. Its a viscous, oily, hypnotic elixir.
Was it worth the hype? Man, I'd love to say it was…but things rarely live up to our expectations after years of hyperbole. In fact, my favorite Bourbon of 2011 was from Breuckelen Distilling. But if you're a whiskey fan and see you see the BMH on the shelf, snag it! Trust me, it won't be there long.