Drinking straight from the brown bag again

By Celia Strong

Please tell me you do remember that tasting a group of wines with them all in brown bags can be a good thing.  Yes, you do remember?  Good!  So, today I want to tell you about a brown bag tasting with my monthly group on Hilton Head.  We like to do brown bag tastings because most of us either go to or do tastings every week. With that much practice, when we get together, no matter what the set of wines is, we each know at least one of them.  The whole point to the brown bags is that we can’t see which wine is which and make ourselves like one better or not at all just because we’ve tasted it before.
When you want to plan a brown bag tasting, it’s usually to see which wine in a specific set of wines you like best.  That means there is usually some base-line or category that you’ve come up with.  Ours today is cabernets, all $20 retail.  You can try, depending on the category, to make it more defined — like ours could be all California, all the same vintage, stuff like that.  For our own enjoyment, when I put our brown bags tastings together, I like to include one wine that’s not quite in the guidelines so that we get, hopefully, at least one surprise. That way, we are all  able with very little resistance to spread our drinking wings and like something unexpected.
Now, the brown bags are lined up and the tasting has started. One glass per person and the bags are just numbered so they can keep track of which one they’re on. After we’ve all tasted all of them, we’ll rip off the bags and taste a bit more of our favorites.
Here are descriptions of the five cabernets we tasted:
Our first cabernet was Edge from Napa Valley. The first small sip of this wine for most of us was a bit tannic, not too though.  A second sip showed much more flavor (cherry fruit) and structure and we thought it might be a good food wine because of the layers coming out of it. This wine comes from a winery that is located right between Groth and Chimney Rock wineries in the Stag’s Leap District of Napa.  To find a cab for $20 from this geographic source is pretty awesome.  Interestingly, this wine was Food and Wing Magazine’s number one cabernet for 2010.  For $20?  Really?  Yep, we liked it too.
Cabernet number two was Felino from Argentina. And, yes, this was my one “not quite there” wine. All the others were from California so I thought this one would stand out, somehow, but I was wrong!  And absolutely the sleeper of this tasting and one of the points in the brown bags.    Price-wise this one is a bit higher priced, $22.99, and from outside our geographic source, but it fit in because its winemaker is a big name winemaker in Napa — Paul Hobbs. Years ago, Hobbs worked with an Argentina winemaker and fell in love not only with Argentina but with one of his nieces as well.  They married, Hobbs made wines in both countries, they divorced, and he still makes wine in both countries.  Nice wines, nice life. This wine was smooth, had a great bouquet, black cherry flavor, jammy notes, and on and on.  Maybe not everyone’s personal favorite but a very definite, “I’d buy that wine.”
The third brown bag was Ramsay North Coast California Cabernet. The North Coast area is cooler than Napa, and while most of the wines from there are not as well known, this wine will make you search out more. Most people in our tasting group thought this wine was a bit lighter bodied (cooler climate style) but very good.  The second and third tastes of this one were much better liked than the first sip, which is a good lesson for all of us.  One sip does not a whole bottle make.  Nor does one sip tell you everything about a wine. And thank goodness for that revelation.  We can all sip more!  One final note about this cab — it comes from Kent Rasmussen, another great name in Napa who makes other wines from other sources at better-for-us prices.
Wine number four was The Sum from 75. Seventy-Five is a winery founded by part of the Beckstoffer family who grow large amounts of great cabernet grapes that end up in many of the really big name Napa cabs. Seventy-Five is a small set of wines, and grapes, that they save for themselves.  The name for their company comes from the year they founded it, 1975, which if you read the back label on this wine is also the year Tiger Woods appeared and the year Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.  This wine is 75% cab (there’s that special number again) so they can call it cab legally, but it is blended with Syrah and Petit Sirah.  Smooth and mellow, I got the feeling all of us liked this one.
Finally, cabernet number five.  This one was Twenty Bench from Napa.  And, just like several of the others we tasted, this one is made by a bigger, better known, more expensive Napa winery — Regusci.  Regusci is also from the Stag’s Leap District and even this “second label” wine from them is phenomenal. Actually, now that I’ve used the term “second label,” I realize that many of these wines today were, if not strictly speaking “second labels,” they were close to it. So, there’s another lesson for us: whatever you call them, “second label,” stepchildren, side labels, this is a great way to find good wines at good prices!  Just so you know, some of us liked this one best because it was a combination of fruity, structure and a bit earthy.  Really it was a slightly different style than the others and, sometimes, one that is a bit different in a line of five gets more positive comments because it stands out more
And, now we’re mostly done.  Everyone had blind tasted each of the five wines and made their notes on them.  Next step, we rip off the bags and write down the names with the appropriate notes. Then, we all go back and retaste — our favorites, the ones we thought we knew and didn’t recognize by taste only, ones we weren’t sure of, etc, etc, etc.  And, you can be sure, all five bottles got emptied.  This tasting we did not take a vote for “best,”  but I do have rankings from some of the tasters and my own too. After you read this, we can talk.   Then you can do your own sipping, notes, ranking, whatever.

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