Monday, June 28, 2010

"Gather 'round the generic stuff"

In today's "Super-Sized" age of the dollar menus, buy-one-get-ones, and over sized portions, restaurants like Appelbee's, Olive Garden, and T.G.I.Fridays rule the roost. Being from sub-suburban Minnesota (not a typo) I'm no stranger to chain restaurants. The town I grew up in wants a $20 steak for $7 and restaurants like Ruby Tuesdays and Red Robin can offer it to them. In the mid 90's, with the rise of the "neighborhood" franchise restaurant, our town absorbed the trend like a sponge. Before I knew it the family owned and operated ma' and pop shop restaurants were replaced by chains offering loud music, drink specials, pre-packaged foods and flare. Unfortunately, Minnesota is NOT an exception to the rule.

I enjoy traveling, and when I do I love to try out the local fare. Whether it's the vinegar based North Carolina BBQ ribs or Old Bay seasoned Crab Cakes from Baltimore, I live for the adventure of trying the local cuisine. Last summer a good friend and I traveled to New York city to watch the Yankee's play the Minnesota Twins. I was excited try the regional cuisine, enjoy the fast paced culture, and explore the many grand attractions of the Big Apple.

On the plane my traveling partner and I decided we wouldn't eat or drink at the same place twice. We wanted to taste New York, nothing we could get back in MN. We had no problem getting a table at quaint little cafes, restaurants & bars. But every time we walked by a Red Lobster or McDonald's the line was snaked out the door. This wouldn't be so disturbing if the people of NYC just liked Red Lobster and McDonald's, but the lines weren't formed by locals, they were formed by tourists! Maybe you are asking yourself, "how do you know they were tourists?" If you have ever been to New York city you know a tourist when you see one, we stick out like a sore thumb: always looking up and bumping into people, taking pictures of street merchants, jumping on and off of the double-decker red tour bus.

When I saw what was going on I was shocked. I assume people travel to New York to see what all the fuss is about (or maybe just see Wicked), but rather than exploring the many local restaurants and cafes that that makes the city so great visitors found themselves dining in chains that they could have eaten in at home. I can identify with them to some degree, if you're going to spend money, you could argue that you would want to spend it on something you know you like. But at that rate you could have saved the money on the plane ticket and traveled to your nearest suburban city to enjoy the "local fare". I realize that food is not the focal point of everyones vacation, but it is a major part of the experience and after all, when in Rome...

This fast food/chain restaurant America that has taken over the US isn't only suffocating local cuisine, it also effects the wine industry. When we dine at chain restaurants we are at the mercy of the corporate wine list. A list that is built by the company's CEO, negotiated based on price and availability. You may have seen the list I'm talking about, without looking I can recite it: Cavit or Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail or Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, Barefoot or Blackstone Merlot, and the cherry on top, Sutter Home or Beringer White Zinfandel. Before I go any further I think I better clarify, I have nothing against some of these wines. While it's true I do prefer smaller, more artisan examples that showcase the region from which which the wine hails, I also think that there is a time and place for SOME of the large, commercial wineries that litter the chain restaurant wine list.

One of the most popular wines in the United States is the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. It's also the most ordered wine in restaurants across the country. If you took it out of chain restaurants and only offered it in retail locations and independently owned restaurants you could cut their production in half. But with monsters like Applebee's, Chile's, Buffalo Wild Wings (etc, etc, etc) accounting for a large percentage of the domestic restaurant wine sales what do we expect? We have reduced our pleasure senses to where we don't even care about the producer or region, words like "Chardonnay" or "Pinot Noir" seems to suffice a wine order. Would you ever go to a grocery store and say "Banana" or "Pizza"? If we did, brands like Dole and DiGiorno would have wasted millions trying to get you hooked on their products.

So what can you do? Well, I supposed I could go all 'crusader' on you and preach to only support local restaurants and diners and to steer clear of the chains and fast food joints, but that's not realistic, and even local restaurants can fall short when it comes to wine list construction. My greatest suggestion is for you to ask questions. Ask your server for recommendations, ask them to tell you about the wine. Or tell them what you like, what producer, grape, region or style. Something like "I like Chardonnay but I prefer clean, crisp, refreshing Chards to the big, buttery and rich style." This will help send a message that people care about what they are drinking.

Is the restaurant going to change their wine list the next day? No. But it will assist in persuading restaurants to update their wine lists. After all, their primary focus is catering to the consumer. I mean, if we can get Walmart to carry an organic food line and milk made from cow's that aren't treated with artificial growth hormones we can do anything. Trends are set by the consumer, adaptation is a key component to business success.

Any good corporate executive knows when to change directions in order to stay ahead or get on top. There are over 200,000 full-service restaurants in the United States and over 250,000 limited-service fast food restaurants. Together their total annual sales exceed $550 billion. Remember, we are the consumer, they are the supplier, we don't have to patronize their establishment, we can spend our money elsewhere. As you can see, there is plenty of competition. Perhaps we will take our business to a different place, a place where our voice is heard and they serve good wine:)

Thanks as always for reading and make sure to check out the Cru Wine TV split on German Rieslings at

Monday, June 21, 2010

Malbec - Argentina's Bread & Butter

I was very lucky last week to be able to sit down and taste with Julian Gomez, the export manager for the Enrique Foster line. It was a great tasting and we had a chance to try some really cool juice. After the tasting I got to thinking about Malbec and Argentina, 15 years ago production and quality were not the same in Argentina as it is today, but I think that can be said for a number of wine producing countries - both new and old world.

Like many countries Argentina put a lot of emphasis on bulk wine production and little on quality. It has been wonderful to watch this region come in to its own and really focus on trying to produce world class wines. Beyond Malbec plenty of grapes thrive, one of the most fun to see become popular has been Bonarda, traditionally an Italian red varietal. The country has also shown they can make some delicious white wines using varietals like Torrontes, but at the end of the day, it's Malbec that pays the bills.

The tasting I had with Julian from Enrique Foster really opened my eyes to the versatility of the grape. For a while there I thought elevation was more important than the grape in Argentina. What with a number of producers putting the elevation of their vineyards on the label almost as large as the grape variety. Don't get me wrong, elevation is a key component to the success of Argentinian wines. Too much heat can over ripe fruit, but hot days and cool nights can help the grape maintain balance and that is exactly what the Andes do for Argentina. They allow producers to plant hearty grapes that need sun to ripen but cool to maintain balanced acidity and sugar levels.Once I got over my fear of heights (get it, elevation - heights) I found that the Malbec grape can show great depth and complexity.

With Julian we started off the tasting with the 2009 IQUE Malbec, entry level - usually retails for around $15 depending on your market. This wine expressed the grapes purity. It was fermented and aged 100% in stainless steel. The wine underwent malolactic fermentation but beyond that there was very little adulterating. It expressed wonderful ripe fruit flavors and was fruit forward and juicy but not one dimensional or lacking depth. It was just fun to see the grape naked.

We tasted up the line to the Reserva, the Limited Edition and ended with the Firmando. Oh my word, this may have been the finest Malbec I have ever tasted. Aged and fermented in oak this wine was big, bold, rich, well-balanced, complex, and earthy while still maintaining delicious dark fruit. I'm not a "ratings whore" but this wine was a well deserved 96 by Senior Parker of the Wine Advocate. Parker usually likes wines that are a little too big for me and lack depth but this wine had wonderful balance and complexity.

After the tasting I got a chance to ask Julian a few questions about their vineyards, both location and management. I heard the same things from him that I hear from other Argentinian producers, it's ideal for growing grapes. The Mendoza region where these grapes where grown has the perfect climate, soil and location. The diurnal variation (or range) is ideal for growing hearty varietals - hot days, cool nights. Mendoza (where much of the quality production is taking place) has the perfect amount of rainfall and in dry years they make up in with the water from the snow melting off the mountains. Very few vineyards need to irrigate, so water is virtually free - a major bonus when considered it's one of the largest costs at a winery. The region (again Mendoza) has the perfect soil type - alluvial. Great for growing grapes.

I would argue the biggest advantage that Argentinian winemakers over others like from California is the cost of land. An acre in Napa Valley can cost up to $300,000 or more, whereas an acre in Mendoza will cost no more than $25,000, and that's for the best sites. Cost of a vineyard can be an important factor when talking about yields. Yield is the amount of grapes that are harvested (picked) from the vine. The more grapes that grow on a vine the less quality each is likely to be. When you pay $300,000 an acre you have to make the most of your land, getting the biggest crop possible while still trying to maintain quality. In Mendoza if you run out of land you can just buy some more. It's inexpensive and there is plenty of it. Low yields are a key component in the Firmado (2-4 clusters per vine versus 10-12 for the IQUE) as well as other quality wines from Argentina.

I had a chance last year to hear Doug Frost speak. He is both a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine (there are only like 3 in the world - so needless to say, he's really smart). He shared with us a story about a trip he took down to Argentina to advise winemakers. He said he had every intention of having to scold the group, telling them to have more hygienic wineries, lower yields, less irrigation, etc. When he arrived he was speechless. Everything he thought he was going to have to tell them they were already doing. They had already discovered good quality trumped quantity.

I think Argentina has a bright future and I'm looking forward to watching them grow and become a player in the high quality international wine market. As always, thanks so much for reading I hope you enjoyed. Make sure to sign up for your 7 day FREE trial at to learn more.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

Monday, June 14, 2010


Last Thursday we did a Unique Varietal tasting at Cru Wine Online. We sampled wine made from fun grapes like Albarino, Verdejo, Chenin Blanc, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Pinotage. I will admit to you I'm not the biggest fan of Pinotage, I think it tastes icky. And I am sure by this point in the blog you are either thinking "What is Pinotage?", "I'm not either" or "You haven't tried a good one." For those of you that aren't fans, I get it. For those of you that don't know the grape, it's South Africa's bread and butter red varietal (grape).

Pinotage is a beefy red grape that was created in a laboratory in South Africa. A Stellenbosch University professor named A. I. Perold crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault. He then went about his business and forgot about it. After he retired it was discovered and it wasn't until 35 years after he 'created' the grape it became popular and people began planting it all over the country. It was hardy, it could stand up to the heat and weather of South Africa and it was distinguishable. The name comes from the Pinot Noir and Cinsault cross. Cinsault was commonly called Hermitage because it was grown in the Hermitage region of France in the Rhone. (Pinot-tage, get it).

The grape is often described as being medium to full bodied, spicy and displaying aromas of tar, band-aid and/or burnt rubber. It tastes very similar to how it smells. Many commercial examples exist and the grape for some reason continues to be produced. It's a flagship varietal in South Africa and South African's are incredibly protective of it.

I spoke with a South African woman at a wine shop two weeks ago that was trying to turn me on to Pinotage. She said "Pinotage get's a bad rap in this country." I didn't have the heart to tell her it's because it makes terrible wine. She went on to tell me about how wonderfully it paired with ribs or meat off the grill. I thought to myself, yeah, when the food overpowers the flavor of the wine and all you are left with is the dish lingering in your mouth.

For those of you at the beginning of this post that thought I haven't tried many you are right. I have maybe had 20, certainly not enough to express the many producers who grow and vinify it. Many of the brands I have tasted stateside are major players in the South African wine market with a couple of small, artisan producers thrown in there. Most of the other varietals that the producers made that I tasted I like, but when Pinotage comes out, I cringe. I didn't always have a blind hatred for the grape, I wanted to try one that I liked, I wanted to prove my colleagues wrong, but I always come up with the same result.

The closest example I have found to palatable Pinotage is the Robertson Winery. It's super juicy and fruit forward and many of the earth tones (rubber band, tar, etc) are overpowered. So you could say that the only Pinotage I like tastes very little like Pinotage. It would be like drinking Mark West Pinot Noir because you like Pinot Noir, oh no he didn't! (Mark West Pinot Noir is likely 25% Syrah or something masking the low quality Pinot Noir grapes harvested to make this big seller. I'm not saying Mark West Pinot Noir isn't fine, it just isn't Pinot Noir, the grape is too light and the 25% "something else" masks the Pinot characteristics).

So to sum it all up, I am not a fan of Pinotage, but I would like to be. I like South African wines, I think there are some really cool wines being produced there, especially in Stellenbosch. I don't want to hear your Pinotage suggestions that I should try. I don't want to hear them not because I'm stubborn, but because I don't want to spend another penny tasting it. And I don't want to ruin another night brushing my teeth over and over again to get the taste out of my mouth. If you're confident of your suggestion send it out to me and I will taste it. If I like it, I will buy it from you.

For the Pinotage lovers of the world I say, I am sorry. But I have some great news! There will be plenty left over for you because I won't drink my share. Until next time thanks for reading and if you haven't heard Cru Wine Online has launched their full service website. Visit our website for a 7 day FREE trial to check out all the resources and fun we have.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cru Wine Online is LIVE!

Cru Wine Online makes wine accessible by bringing tastings and fun-forward multimedia education home via the Internet

St. Cloud, Minn., June 9/PRNewswire/ -- How do you revolutionize the timeless tradition of wine tasting? Pair a charismatic cork dork with a media-savvy computer geek.

That’s what St. Cloud, Minn.-based Cru Wine Online has done to create a multimedia experience that takes Web-based wine education to a new level with high-end production and a fun-forward approach. The site, started taking memberships June 9 and lets enthusiasts learn about wine through live tastings, video segments, audio specials and more.

“This is literally revolutionizing the wine industry because we’re making wine accessible by bringing it home,” says Nick Barth, the certified sommelier who hosts the tastings and audio and video segments.

For $7.99 a month, members can access a collection of features that are heavy on information with a generous splash of humor.

“We see entertainment as the focal point and wine as the medium,” Barth says. “We want people to have a good time, and if they learn something along the way, great.”

The main event is the weekly Cru LIVE Tasting hosted via the Web by Barth and designed for hands-on learners of all levels.

Another key attraction is Cru Wine TV, with two sizes of video: weekly two-minute Splits; and monthly Magnums, half-hour shows that explore grapes, regions, and food and wine pairings ($3.99 for members, $9.99 for nonmembers).

Members also can tune into Cru Wine Radio’s weekly episode focused on a particular region.

Other features include a wine blog, newsletter, “Nick’s Value Pick of the Week,” MyCru online cellar, Cru Wine Shop and Cru wIneQ trivia game.

Cru Wine Online is a division of Cru Wine Specialists, Inc., a company Nick Barth, the “cork dork,” formed in March 2009 with his brother, Andy Barth, a sales and marketing specialist. The “computer geek,” J.C. Turner, joined them this winter. Inspired by an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that featured a live tasting via Skype, Turner came up with the idea of online tastings and provided the IT and media expertise to make them happen.

In less than six months, Turner and the Barths have taken their idea to the global market and made their slogan, “Making Wine Accessible,” a reality.

Sign up for a 7 day FREE trial today!

Contact Information:

Nick Barth, Cru Wine Online wine director

(320) 309-6914, or e-mail,

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Deliciously Dry Riesling

Dry Riesling from the Clare Valley in South Australia, Australia (not a typo) is some of the most delicious and underrated wine out there. I forget how much I love dry Riesling in the summer time. I mean, I love sweet Riesling too, but dry Riesling from the Clare Valley in Australia is just so amazing. Lately I have been drinking quite a few. I like them because their acidity makes them teeter on a Sauvignon Blanc when done dry and their weight can hold up to a lot of fresh summer foods. Plus they are usually inexpensive and flavorful.

Yesterday I went to the store to pick up a bottle of Clare Valley dry Riesling for a video shoot we were doing that afternoon. The first place I went was kind of a crap shoot. I knew they didn't have the best selection but I thought "hey, it's Leasingham Bin 7, it's a big producer, they might have it." Plus it was really close to my house so I didn't have to travel far. Much to my disappointed they didn't have it. I was a little surprised, like I said, Leasingham is owned by a large wine group, Fosters - Australian for beer, they are then owned by the larger Constellation Brand wine group, a powerhouse here in the US. So while I was kind of expecting not to find it, I was a little surprised when they didn't have ANY dry Riesling's from the Clare Valley.

Well, I couldn't waist time because I had a meeting scheduled at 10am so I jumped across town to ole' faithful looking to pick up a bottle there. This retailer is the middle bear, not too big, not too small, just right. They have some cool obscure stuff but also the standards. I walked in knowing exactly where to go and was floored when I couldn't find Leasingham Bin 7 Riesling, then I took a step back and realized, they didn't have A dry Riesling. "Not one?" I asked the clerk. She informed me that they don't get a call for it, she said people only want sweet with Riesling. Ba-humbug I thought, nobody asks for dry Riesling? What is this world coming to?

So back in the car I got and literally across town I hustled to see if 'The Monster' had it. 'The Monster' has one of the largest wine selections in the Upper Midwest with some 18,000 SKU's. They have a good selection but are pretty well known for their higher price point. I quickly ran in and grabbed a bottle and as I was running out of the aisle I thought "do they just have one?" I ran back and took a hard look, they had ONE dry Riesling on their shelf, the Leasingham. What is this world coming to that our big stores are only carrying ONE dry Riesling from the Clare Valley. It was at that point I knew what my Tuesday morning blog was going to be about, dry Riesling.

As I mentioned before I love dry Riesling. I think it pairs well with white meats, seafood, summer salads and salty cheeses. It's also a great quaffer or daily drink on the deck. I like the Leasingham because it's accessible (at least I thought). While it is owned by a larger conglomerate that doesn't bother me too much. I do my best to support family owned artisan wine producers but sometimes I have to go with what's available. Leasingham's Bin 7 is pretty stereotypical of dry Riesling from the Clare Valley. It's clean, fresh, nice citrus aromas with a generous splash of Kerosene and a nice dry medium to light body with great acidity. But there are more than just Leasingham.

I also like Reilly's Barking Mad dry Riesling from Watervale. About $15 a bottle it's the same price as Leasingham. You get the same citrus aromas and flavors with the addition of pear. The palate is that great medium weight with a wonderful acidity. It's a great pairing for seafood. Beyond Reilly and Leasingham I like the Knappstein dry Riesling from the Clare Valley. Not very much is imported, usually under 2000 cases, but it's delicious. Full of wonderful lime and green apple flavors this beauty has a lovely diesel smell that rounds out the nose. The palate is that wonderfully dry yet deliciously fruity green apple flavor with nice acidity. It usually retails for about the same $15 and is a real treat.

The last one I will talk about is the Pike's Clare Valley dry Riesling. A real sleeper, this low production winery is a gem when you get your hands on it. Retailing for about $20 the winery only producers 2000 cases a year, not much at all. Full of pair and star fruits with plenty of lime an citrus to follow, this beautiful dry Riesling is well put together. If you find one grab a bottle, grill up some shrimp and put a little spice on them, then make a fresh summer salad and some green veggies as a side (Asparagus). Then just open the bottle and pour a glass, oh my word you will find it's an amazingly versatile summer food wine.

The Clare Valley is South Australia was the first region in Australia to mandate that all of the bottles coming out of the region were closed with a screw top or Stelvin closure as it's sometimes called. This could be a contributing factor in the reason it has yet to really take off in our market. There is a definite stigma about screw top wines, one that should be eliminated. Screw tops are the wave of the future and are a great resource for wine producers. While I am not going to get in to it fully I have plenty of work available both at and on this blog for you to read about screw tops and their place in the market.

In addition to the screw tops the name Riesling on the bottle might be a bit of a deterrent for consumers. In todays "No Sweet, Big & Bold" marketplace there is not much room for the lighter Riesling grape. Sure plenty of people drink sweet, but once they 'graduate' from sweet it takes them years to come back around and see the value of residual sugar. So with the stigma of screw tops, sweet wines and lack of educational information out there dry Riesling from the Clare Valley in Australia the wine unfortunately lacks shelf space. Hopefully this blog gave you insight in to the wonderful world of dry Riesling. There are plenty of other examples that I missed, but the point is that if you find a bottle pick it up and try it, I think you will like what you find.

Until next time thank you for reading. Please check out our website at for more fun wine tidbits. We are launching the full subscription page in less than a week!

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online