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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Entries from October 1, 2008 - October 31, 2008

Tuesday
Oct282008

Some Truth About "Truths"

I am honestly not looking to make waves or to pick a fight with Matt Kramer from Wine Spectator, but I simply cannot read his articles without talking to myself out loud or my blood pressure going up. Some of us here just love reading what the "experts" in this business have to say about the wine world and then discussing their opinions amongst ourselves (don't even get Jeff Garneau started about James Laube). It's not that I disagree with Mr. Kramer, but I simply feel that, at times, he is misleading in way that isn't necessary. Because so many people read his column and believe that he must know what he is talking about, I find it necessary to present a counterpoint. Maybe it's just the difference between a wine magazine writer and a retail store employee, or maybe it's that he's trying to generalize and I just have a penchant for detail. In any case it makes for a good blog article. In the most recent edition of WS, Mr. Kramer lists what he believes are the timeless truths about the wine world, and I will state straight off that I agree with much of what he writes, but feel that certain exceptions do exist. I will list them here for reference purposes: 1) Price has nothing to do with quality 2) Most wines will age longer—and better—than we expect. 3) Today's most interesting wines get short shrift. 4) Wines today are either "preinstalled" or "alternative" It is always the cool and hip thing to be the wine expert who, when pressed, reveals that he or she actually drinks mostly $10 bottles to the shock of those who naturally assumed he drank only the most expensive and prestigious wines. This example applies to me, but that's because I can't afford expensive wine and won't admit to myself that it is, in many cases, what I would actually rather be drinking. It's easier to say, "Oh yeah, well it's overpriced anyway," when I'm watching my budget. However, Kramer is correct when he hints that because of supply and demand many wines are highly priced because they are scarce and sought after, not necessarily because they are the best. He writes with conviction that, "There's absolutely no correlation anymore —if there ever was—between price and quality. None whatsoever." I'm not so sure about that, regardless of how badly I want to believe him. Let's use furniture as an example. Ikea may have a flashy and modern coffee table that is beautiful, very chic and costs around $200, while a local store may have a hand-carved, hand-crafted, solid oak coffee table that is old and outdated, but runs $2,000. The difference between them is not the quality of taste they express, but rather the quality of the work it took to create them. The Ikea table was cut in to wooden pieces by an assembly line machine, mass produced and boxed up for easy delivery. The other is probably a one-of-a-kind type of table that some carpenter slaved over for weeks, if not months, and the price reflects his hard work and his time. The same goes for some expensive shoes. The same goes for some expensive wines. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a staff tasting with Doug Davidson, where he has tasted a wine and said, "Wow, that's really good. How much is that?" Then I reply with a number that's significantly higher than what we can afford and he says, "Yeah, I saw that coming." Now, with Mr. Kramer's second point I heartily agree. I bought a 1977 Kenwood Zinfandel out of our "has-been" box the other day for about $5 and that wine still had something going. I do, however, take umbrage with his statement, "the old intuitive linkage between price and ageability has also been severed." It's not that I think the statement is without merit, but in the retail world there are definitely price points that reflect and indicate what a wine is expected to be. In Bordeaux, for example, there are always bargain bottles around the $15 mark that are meant to be drunk around the time they are released. It's not that they couldn't develop with some cellar time it's just not what the winemaker had in mind when he made them. They are simply everyday bottles that aren't meant to be put away. Then there are the Bordeaux big shots that are absolutely not meant to be opened within 10 years of their appearance on the market. They are generally priced much higher for the usual variety of reasons (reputation, location, quality of fruit, etc.) and are always differentiated from their more readily drinkable, less age worthy, counterparts. I understand that Mr. Kramer is trying to point out the fact that a wine's high price is not necessarily indicative of its endurance, and on that point, he's absolutely correct. But to claim that there is no longer a relationship between the two is stretching it a bit. Sure it's true that the 1977 Kenwood Zin still had some legs, but no one here wanted to actually drink it. The third and fourth truths as told by Matt Kramer are related and, in fact, I believe that number four is the reason that number three is the case. Mr. Kramer's usage of the phrase "either 'preinstalled' or 'alternative'" is explained as an analogy to computers, on which some software comes with the computer when you get it, and some does not. He likens this example to the wine retail world, in that the same selection of wines are usually "preinstalled" in all stores and that all other non-establishment wines must be sought out and hunted down. This point is 100% correct. Concerning the lack of attention for some of the world's more interesting wines, he writes, "although a number of my wine writing colleagues—and wine retailers, too—have labored mightily to spotlight lesser-known wines and wine growers, the fact remains that too many deserving wines and whole regions have not had their moment in prime time," but he follows that statement with, "the issue here is not about assigning blame." Immediately after that, however, he blames distribution for only allowing certain wines and wine producers into the fold. I believe that businessmen, who want to earn a profit, will sell what the public wants. If a distributor wants to be profitable, it will distribute what sells readily. In California, what sells is domestic cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. So by the law of supply and demand, which Kramer earlier applied to his theory about wine pricing, there wouldn't be much room for the grüner veltliner or indigenous Spanish varietals in the profit margin. I do, however, feel the same way that Mr. Kramer does about these overlooked wines. Every day I watch customers walk through our store without any concern for my beloved underappreciated bottles from far off regions of the world, but I don't hold it against anyone or necessarily think that they would want to buy one if I offered one to them. There needs to be a generated interest to diversify before it will ever happen. I woke up one day and decided that I needed to try some interesting, under-the-radar wines, just like I wanted to read some different, under-the-radar books, just like I wanted to watch some far-out, bizarre, not-in-the-video-store movies. That's me. But as a business person, I would find it difficult to sell my own unique interests to others, and as a consumer, unless I really wanted to search and discover something new, I would probably stick by what I knew I liked. Interest isn't necessarily generated by exposure, although it can be, as any follower of trends understands. Interest can be created by people like Mr. Kramer, a restaurant sommelier, or a retail employee like myself, but only to people who have chosen to listen. Mr. Kramer summarizes his point by writing, "More than ever before, wine buyers now fall into two camps: those who are passive and choose from what's put in front of them (by far the larger group) and those who actively seek." I'll say this in summary, we have a lot of great wines here from all over the world; some known quantities, some not. While Mr. Kramer is correct that a wine cannot sell if it is not available for purchase, simply offering it on our sales floor does not create a consumer interest. You can put Austria in the prime time spotlight all you want, but even 92 points from Wine Spectator isn't going to convince a California cabernet drinker to buy blaufränkish if he doesn't want something different. —David Driscoll

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Wednesday
Oct222008

K&L Seeks Redemption

Redemption

Editor's Note: We here at K&L pride ourselves on having the inside track on great new wines coming to market, particularly small production wines like this new project: Redemption. Interested in learning more about their tasty new addition to our inventory, the 2007 Redemption Monterey County Pinot Noir, we put together some questions from proprietor Chris Cutler. Here is what he had to say. K&L: How did you decide on the name Redemption for your new label? How does the concept of redemption inform the winemaking decisions you make? Chris Cutler: Redemption is a term that I hold near and dear. To me, it signifies new beginnings, persistence, hard work, focus and victory. It's a positive thing--a chance to prove your worth. I don't view Redemption as a type of punishment, or in the negative light, like "revenge" or "vengeance." What I have learned is that Redemption means something personal to everyone I speak with. To some, it has a very spiritual, biblical connotation. To others, it is the liberating feeling of getting even. To others, it is simply the nickel you get back when you return an aluminum can. That's ok with me. In fact, it is exactly how I think people should feel about wine. It is a personal thing. Colors, smells, and tastes of wine conjure up completely different images and descriptions based on an individual's own personal experiences. There is no right or wrong answer--only subjective interpretations. The artists I work with are given full creative authority to express how they view Redemption. It has been really fun seeing what they come up with and I look forward to future releases so I can continue to include new artists in the creative process. In the actual winemaking process, "Redemption" has to do with discipline, commitment to the best quality product and to constantly try and make a better wine. Each year at harvest new batches of grapes are picked, which will have similar characteristics as their predecessors due to consistent soil and climate (terroir) conditions. However, each new vintage "redeems" itself with personal character traits that belong entirely to that particular place and time. It's a beautiful cycle that keeps us coming back year after year to explore the nuances of each wine we drink. K&L: Your website and the materials you sent talk about the confluence of art and culture and wine; how do these things come together for you? How do you choose the artists you'd like to represent the wines. CC: This is discussed briefly above. I think the bottom line is that art, culture and wine are all forms of artistic expression. Small changes to a painting, sculpture, song, movie, or barrel of wine will tremendously affect the outcome of each. They all represent a time and place and take on different meanings to the observer. I select the artists involved in the Redemption project based on their design sensibility as well as their ability to work with different mediums. For instance, Gary Taxali, who designed the first label for the '07 Monterey Pinot, did so by first silk-screening onto a dusty book he found in an antique store in Rome. He is a master at taking distressed materials (paper, canvas, book covers, etc) and bringing them to life with different textures and whimsical images. He then brought in icons, the "simple formula" for victory and his own personality to create a design that people can gather around and discuss over an intimate evening. My next artist, Thomas Campbell, is a self-taught photographer, filmmaker, music producer, sculptor, painter, surfer and doodler. I was thrilled to receive his support for the project and eager to see what he would come up with for his label. The finished result is a sewn-together collage of Chinese currency, symbolic stamps and clips from his own paintings, which achieve a balance indicative of our wines at Redemption. K&L: Describe the winemaking philosophy at Redemption. Do you use native yeasts? What is the barrel program like? Do you fine and filter? CC: Our goal is to strike a balance between "Old World," food-friendly wines with finesse but in a "New World" style, meaning deeper color and slightly bigger mouthfeel. In order to retain acidity, we pick at the crack of dawn, we then hand-sort, leaving some full berry clusters, then use 25% new oak (75% "neutral") so as to show off the varietal characteristics of our wines. There is a slight amount of filtering at the beginning of our production process, but so far we have not found the need to fine before bottling. K&L: What did you do before you got into the wine business? CC: I spent two years after college living and working around the world. I taught English in Korea, I opened a hostel in Malaysia, I surfed in Peru and sailed home from Costa Rica. I think I spent a lot of time avoiding the inevitable, which was the next five years of working in technology systems and sales for start-ups and established firms here in Northern California. Seeking Redemption, I entered the MBA program at Stanford GSB in 2002. I studied various business models, industries and professional options. It seemed to me that most people at business school were tired of investment banking or management consulting and looking to switch to private equity or venture capital. I wanted nothing to do with any of these things. I was drawn to the wine business and wanted to find a way to own a winery without the usual $10M needed to buy land, grow grapes and compete for shelf space. I left business school the summer between my first and second year and started a boutique private label business called Canvas Wines. As a "negociant," I would gather requirements from clients, deal with compliance issues, then bottle and deliver a finished product, thus making it possible for hotels, restaurants and corporate gift buyers to create their own brand of wine without all the hassles of winery ownership. The business went well and I ultimately sold rights to the brand which enabled me to focus efforts on my passions, which are art and Pinot Noir... Redemption. K&L: How did your experience living abroad influence the style of wine you seek to make? CC: I guess the one thing I strive to achieve with my wines is balance. I want the wine to be food-friendly, which means nice acidity, not too much alcohol or over-bearing fruit. This is consistent with the Old World mentality and wines I have tasted throughout France, Italy and Spain. That said, I would be lying if I didn't also want the wine to stand out, show-off a little bit, in a Robert Parker, New World sort-of way. This is most likely due to the exposure I have had to wines from Chile, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and right here in Northern California. K&L: Do you plan to branch out to other varietals? CC: Presently, we are focusing on Pinot Noir from the best appellations in California. I do not see usbranching out any time soon. K&L: What are your production goals? How many different wines and how many cases of each? CC: We only bottled 392 cases in 2008. We will do 1,000 cases in 2009--half from Mission Ranch Vineyard in Arroyo Seco (Monterey), and the other half from one other vineyard source in Northern California (cannot disclose yet). Our goal is to have 3,000 cases by 2010 from 3-5 vineyards. We will continue to best represent the earth and elements of the appellation we are bottling, continue to support innovative artists and continue to have as much fun as possible in the meantime.

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Tuesday
Oct142008

Recession Guide: Diversify Your Wine Portfolio To Drink Well During Hard Times

It seems perfectly logical in today's troubled economic times to try and cut back on expenses. With the market going haywire and retirement funds being lost and later regained, customers visiting our Redwood City store more frequently come in looking for California cabernets and chardonnays around the safer $10 mark. Fortunately there are dozens of great domestic options in our store (and at our SF and Hollywood locations) at that price. The 2005 Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.99), for example, is a delicious everyday wine that was even deemed a "Top Value" by his majesty Robert Parker. While I genuinely enjoy the Avalon it is, however, not a replacement for something truly remarkable like the 2004 Mount Eden Saratoga Cuvee ($24.99), a Santa Cruz mountain cabernet that I absolutely adore, but cannot afford to drink on a daily basis. When I want a really nice cabernet, but instead have to settle for an everyday bottle, it can be a little disappointing. I know exactly what I want, but I am forced by my empty wallet to sacrifice depth for drinkable. My advice to anyone in this situation is to adjust your expectations and look to the foreign market. Instead of searching for cheaper options of your favorite grape, why not try a different varietal? There are literally dozens of wines made from unfamiliar grapes grown in other parts of the world that are generally not very expensive and it isn't because they aren't good; they're just not as heavily in demand. Consider the concept of supply and demand: if everyone is drinking California cabernet, then the price of the bottle is not necessarily going to reflect the quality of the wine. Many of the indigenous grapes of Italy, on the other hand, are rarely expensive and generally far exceed my expectations. Spanish tempranillo from the Rioja region can be just as rich and rewarding as a great glass of cabernet, and many times even more so. For the savvy drinker who commands knowledge of the world market, there is never a reason to sacrifice quality, even in times of great economic despair. All it takes is a little bravery and an open mind to find an expressive and outstanding bottle of wine at the right price. In order to provide a bit of guidance, I have prepared the following list of lesser-known varietals along with a description and some examples that you can easily find in our store. Muscadet: Produced in France's Loire Valley, this wine made from the melon de Bourgogne grape is an easy alternative to chardonnay and can be round and creamy with peach or pear flavors, or steely and mineral with herbal notes. A great wine just for sipping or as the ultimate pairing to shellfish dishes, Muscadet can also age incredibly and take on amazing complexity. Even better is the fact that it usually costs only $10 to $15 for the good stuff. We currently carry some fine examples from Jo Landron's La Louvetrie and La Pépière. Tempranillo: For the red wine aficionado who prefers a touch of oak, a robust smokiness and soft red fruit, Spain's Rioja region annually offers the best bang for the buck. Tempranillo from this area can be very expensive, but generally there are superb bottles for less than $20. The wines can age for more than 30 years, or be opened immediately for young drinking, depending on how you like it. We currently have the 2007 Señorio de P. Peciña Joven ($14.99), the 2001 Bodegas LAN ($15.99), and the 2005 Ramon Bilbao ($11.990, which should all impress the heck out of you. Barbera: Before sangiovese took over as the most widely-planted grape in Italy, barbera was king. As I learned it, barbera is the fun and fruity table wine that Italians drink while they wait for their Barolo and Barbaresco (very tannic wines made from the nebbiolo grape) to age in the cellar. Sometimes it can be full of bright red raspberries and cherries, other times darker and fleshier with blackberry fruit. The wine is generally low in tannins, which makes for an easy glass to go with that bowl of spaghetti that you opted for instead of dinner at Chez Panisse. Try our directly imported bottle from Corsini (14.99) and make sure you pair it with food. Malbec: Not so much the secret these days, Malbec has really taken off as one of the most accessible (and affordable) varietals on the market. Although it is grown in many parts of France where it is known as côt, today's real bargains tend to be coming from South America, primarily Argentina. These wines are super smooth, silky and full of ripe fruit, which caters to just about anyone. Find me a person who doesn't like any of the following: 2007 Altos Las Hormigas ($10.99), 2007 Elsa Malbec ($7.99), or the 2005 Belasco de Baquedano "Llama ($11.99)." Grüner Veltliner: I'm not even a bit embarrassed about the fact that I had never tasted an Austrian grüner veltliner before starting here at K&L; I'm merely relieved that I didn't go longer without having done so. At this point, I probably drink more GrüVe than any other white varietal because it is 1) dry, crisp and clean 2) capable of amazing complexity with herbaceous qualities and white pepper notes and 3) a wine that pairs well with almost anything, but can be enjoyed on its own. Der Pollerhof ($11.99), a long-time customer favorite, comes in a liter-sized bottle and lingers with tasty tart grapefruit flavors on the finish. Grenache: The best part about grenache is that it is relatively inexpensive no matter where it comes from. France's Rhône River Valley makes grenache-based blends that are consistently some of the world's best values, while Spain's garnacha wines are plump and juicy, almost exploding with ripe red fruit. Italy's cannonau wines are full of violet aromas and plummy fruit that are rustic enough for a leg of lamb or for the cellar. Do yourself a favor a try one from all three locales. Rhône: 2006 Lirac Domaine Mayran ($12.99); Spain: 2006 Las Rocas de San Alejandro ($9.99) and from Italy: 2005 Sella & Mosca Cannonau Riserva $11.99). While I have listed a few varietals whose superior expression can be enjoyed for a relatively low cost there are numerous others that could be added to this list. Maybe your neighbor hasn't heard of any of these wines, but that's the reason you can still find them in stores without the hefty price tag. An economic downturn does not require sacrifice, as much as it requires ingenuity. Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, diversification. —David Driscoll

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