Here it is, the end of October, and what are people thinking about? Grape Harvest? The end of daylight savings? No...Halloween. And what goes along with Halloween? Spirits. Not those ghostly type, but the drinks made with spirits for the Halloween party. So what exactly are spirits, and what differentiates them from wine, beer, or liqueurs?

The word "spirit" comes from the Latin "spiritus", or breath. While this is usually associated with the soul, or ghostly images, it can also refer to a type of alcohol. In this context,  "spirit" comes from Middle Eastern alchemists, who were working with medicinal elixirs. (Most alchemist of the time were trying to turn lead into gold.) The vapors given off during an distillation process were known as a spirit of the original liquor. And where did the word "liquor" come from? It is from the Latin verb "liquere" which means "to be fluid" or liquid.

Spirits are drinks that have had the alcohol concentrated by the process of distillation. The final product, after the distillation process, will create a product with about 37% to 43% alcohol (with a minimum of about 20%). Remember that beer is around 3% to 8% and wine is in the range of 7% to 16%. Anything that can be fermented, can be made into a spirit. All that is required is sugar, or starch that can be converted into sugar. So raw materials such as fruit, vegetables and grains, are fair game.

Alembic Still
The process of distillation is actually very simple. In general terms, the fermented liquid is cooked in a pot. As the liquid is heated, it vaporizes and rises from the pot into a condensation coil, where the vapor is cooled, and returns to liquid form. Ethanol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, so this process creates a new liquid that has a higher concentration of alcohol than the original. This new liquid is separated into "heads and tails" (the first and last cuts of the vaporization process) and removed. They are removed, because these first and last contain possible toxic components. Only the "heart", or middle is used. Again, this is a very simple explanation, as there are many types of distillation techniques that are used, and they all produce different results in the final product.

Spirits made from wine (made from grapes) is known as Brandy (see my article on Cognac). Spirits like Vodka can be made from a number of different materials: potatoes, grain, or even sugar cane, while others, like Tequila can only be made from the Agave plant (see my article on tequila). The most common spirits are: Brandy, Gin, Rum, Whiskey, Vodka, and Tequila.

Liqueurs (or cordials) are spirits that have added flavor or sweeteners. These additions were originally included for medicinal purposes (usually digestive aids, or herbal cures), where the alcohol helped to accelerate the absorption. Most liqueurs are based on secret recipes, with a mix of herbs, bark, roots, seeds, fruit, etc. Some of the best known liqueurs are: Bailey's Irish Cream, Grand Marnier, Kahlua, Sambuca, Frangelico, and Schnapps.

Vampire Wines
Here are some links for fun Halloween party drinks:



For those of you who still insist on wine at your Halloween party, why not try some Orange Wine? Basically, just white wines with some longer skin contact. Or, you could buy any number of wines with spooky themes: Vampire Vineyards, Hocus Pocus Syrah, Skeleton Wine, Witch Creek Winery, or even Big Red Monster Wine.

Whatever you decide to do with your Halloween party, have fun, and enjoy!


Last week, our wine club held a Spanish tasting. In addition to the wines of Rias Baixas, Ribera del Duero, Rioja, La Mancha and Priorat, we began and ended the night with the wines of Jerez. Not familiar with those? I bet you've heard of Sherry.

PX Sherry over ice cream
There was a common reaction when I started the evening with a bottle of Manzanilla Sherry..."I don't care for Sherry, it's too sweet". It was my mission to re-introduce the tasters to the world of Sherry.  The tasting consisted of a small pour of Manzanilla, paired with their choice of: Cabrales Cheese, Marcona Almonds, Manzanilla Olives, and/or Serrano Ham. I ended the evening with a pour of PX Sherry, served over a scoop of vanilla ice cream (yes, this one was sweet). I gave a brief talk about Sherry, but thought this might be a good vehicle to expand on it a little more.

Albariza Soil
Sherry is a protected/registered name for the fortified wines produced in the Cadiz region of Southern Spain. The growing area is a triangle bordered by Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda, and El Porto de Santa Maria. This is a hot, dry region, nestled right up against the Mediterranean Sea. This area is known for it's chalky white soil, known as "Albariza". By law, 40% of the bottled Sherry must come from grapes grown in this soil. The unique feature of this soil is it's high content of chalk (which can absorb the limited rainfall, and retain it during the summer months), and the ability to reflect the sun back up to the grapevines, for improved photosynthesis.

All three grapes grown on the region for Sherry are white grapes. They are Palomino, Pedro Ximenez (PX) and Moscatel. Palomino is the main grape used in all dry Sherry. PX and (to a lesser extent) Moscatel, are used to make sweet Sherry, or used to sweeten dry Sherry. By itself, the Palomino grape produces a rather neutral and bland wine, but this is the perfect type of grape for the process of making Sherry, as the processes used will determine the final product.

As mentioned, Sherry is a fortified wine, meaning that a distilled wine (brandy) is added to the still wine at some point in the process. In the case of Sherry, the juice is fermented to dryness, and the brandy is then added (unlike Port, where the brandy is added before fermentation is completed, to preserve the residual sugars). Here is a little trivia for you...traditionally, the grapes for Sherry, were foot trodden (not done much any more), after adding a small amount of gypsum (to adjust for the low acidity). This was known as "plastering". So if you ever get "plastered" you now know where that saying came from. Back to the vinification process...Before the brandy is added to the still wine, the winemaker will sample the wine, and make a determination of its' future. A mixture of brandy and wine (known as "mitad y mitad") is added to the now fermented wine, and the total alcohol level is brought up to 15% (to allow the growth of "flor") or to 17.5% (to prohibit the growth of "flor"). Flor is a naturally occurring film of yeast that grows on the surface of the wine. This film serves to protect the wine from oxygen exposure. The flor contributes to the nutty, yeasty flavors of the final product.

Solera System
Sherry is a "fractionally blended" wine. What this means is that the bottle of Sherry you purchase, can be a blend of many vintages of wine. Picture a bunch of wine barrels (typically American Oak is used for Sherry), stacked on top of each other. The top barrels contain the newest vintage of wine, the row below it is a year older, and so on, all the way to the bottom row of barrels, which contain the oldest wine. As wine is drawn off the bottom barrel, a little from the barrel above is added in, and the then the barrel above that one is added in, all the way back up to the top barrel. This system is known as a "solera" system. By using this process, there is a consistent style produced by the winemaker, year in and year out. Every bottle can, and will, contain some portion of wine going back to the beginning of the solera.

There are numerous styles of Sherry produced:
  • Fino is the lightest, and most delicate of the traditional varieties of sherry. The wine is aged in barrels under a cap of flor.This should be drunk young, and pairs best with almonds, fried food, green olives, seafood and tapas (think shrimp and calamari).
  • Manzanilla is an especially light variety of fino Sherry made around the port of SanlĂșcar de Barrameda.It has a salty character to it. Best paired with: almonds, Spanish hams, fried foods, green olives, oysters, Seafood and tapas
  • Manzanilla Pasada is a Manzanilla that has undergone extended aging or has been partially oxidised, giving a richer, nuttier flavour.
  • Amontillado is a variety of Sherry that is first aged under flor but which is later exposed to oxygen, producing a sherry that is darker than a fino but lighter than an oloroso. Naturally dry, they are sometimes sold light to medium sweet.Best paired with almonds, Manchego Cheese, nuts, richer tapas dishes, and beef stock based soups.
  • Oloroso is a variety of Sherry, aged in the presence of oxygen, for a longer time than a fino or amontillado, producing a darker and richer wine. These are the highest alcohol Sherries, around 18 to 20%. They are naturally dry, but can also be sold in sweetened versions.Best paired with blue cheese, and hard cheeses (something with a bit of salt to it), as well as nuts, and beef dishes (with the drier styles).
  • Palo Cortado is a variety of Sherry that is initially aged like an amontillado, typically for three or four years, but which subsequently develops a character closer to an oloroso. This either happens by accident when the flor dies, or commonly the flor is killed by fortification or filtration.This is a relatively rare style of Sherry
  • Jerez Dulce (Sweet Sherries) are made either by fermenting dried PX or Moscatel grapes, producing an intensely sweet dark brown wine, or by blending sweeter wines with a drier variety.  I like PX sherry with dark chocolate desserts, or over vanilla ice cream.
  • Cream Sherry is a common type of sweet sherry made by blending different wines, such as oloroso sweetened with PX. 
Bodega Sandeman - Jerez
Have you ever noticed that both Sherry and Port, have English names on the label? If you go back in history, you find that the English dominated the shipping lanes, and imported wines from all over the world. Cadiz was the site of a famous incident involving Sir Francis Drake. After he had sacked the port, and returned to England with a ship full of Sherry, England's thirst for the wine grew. many English families moved to Spain and took over the wine cellars in the region. Think: Sandeman and Harvey's. Cream Sherry used to be one of the most popular beverages in the United States, particularly in the South and East.

So, are you ready to venture into the world of Sherry? Next time your order that big plate of seafood paella, consider a glass of Sherry, and let the magic begin.

Lake Arrowhead Brewfest

"Hey, you're the wine guy. Why are you drinking beer?"...yes, I heard that a lot this last weekend. I attended the 2nd Annual Lake Arrowhead Brewfest. I repeated (more than a few times) that I'm not just the "wine guy", but as a Sommelier, my course of study included wine, beer, spirits, sake, and a little bit about coffee and tea (as well as some cigar study on my own). While my passion is with wine, I do have a background in beer. About 15 years ago, I started making my own home brew, and still have all the equipment, should I decide to start up again. If you missed my blog on beer, click here.

The 2nd Annual Lake Arrowhead Brewfest was sponsored by the Lake Arrowhead Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the local Mountain Brew Club. This year, the brewfest was located in Tavern Bay, right on the shore of Lake Arrowhead. The cost for entry was $30/person ($25 if you bought your tickets in advance). The entry fee included a commemorative beer glass, a list of brews on tap, and a ballot to vote for the best beers of the day.

The weather was perfect and all the easy-up tents welcomed me, as I entered the "beer garden". Each of the tents offered something different. There were five professional breweries in attendance: Stone Brewing Co.; Hangar 24 Craft Brewery; Inland Empire Brewing Company; On the Tracks Brewery; and Mountain Brew (from Big Bear, CA). At the northeast corner of the beer area, was a large tent with six taps. This was run by the our local brew club. Every hour, the six taps were changed out, and six new local brews were presented for tasting. The Brewfest opened at 1:00pm and lasted until 5:00pm, so there were 23 local beers (and one German Apple Cider) available for tasting. Next to this tent was a table with a large ice bucket, filled with bottled beer. These were an assortment of home brews that were not in kegs, but still available for tasting. There were at least five different beers here. The last tent was a demonstration booth. Here, Jim Grant (one of the local brew club members) showed all the different steps to making your own beer. Attendees were able to taste the beer at all stages of production, and even cap their own bottle of beer.

Outside the beer garden, there was a tent offering Brewfest T-shirts, and a DJ playing music for the crowd. A little further out, there were two local caterers serving up food that was meant to go with beer. First was Texifornia Tamales. Jeff offered an assortment of different tamales. Next to them was Randall Holloman, and his Lake Arrowhead Catering crew, serving up bratwurst and knackwurst (with or without sauerkraut).

So I know the question that is stirring in your mind...how much beer could you try for the entrance fee? In general, the answer is...as much as you want. I'm guessing there had to be about 40 beers to try, and I put a decent dent in that number. The main thing holding me back was how full I get when drinking beer (even small amounts), and the two sheriff deputies that were sitting just outside the parking lot, watching everyone (and that's a good thing, as there were people that I'd hate to see drive away from this event). I started taking notes on my tasting, but eventually just tasted, and stopped the note taking. I can verify, from my notes, that I did try 14 different beers in the 2 1/2 hours I spent there, but I know I tried more than that.

Just like wine, everyone likes something different. I can tell you that "hoppy" beers are not my style. I just find them too bitter. A lot of the beers presented, had a lot of hosp, and were very bitter. I tend to be more of a stout drinker, and like that nutty, mocha, smooth flavor. But, I will try anything, and I did. While the professional breweries served up pretty safe examples of their product, the Mountain Brew Club was more daring (in taste and name). I sampled such beers as: Watermelon Wheat; Smoked Porter, Blueberry Wheat; German Black Ale; Pumpkin Stout; "Hot Flash" IPA; "Nice Pumpkins" Brown Ale; and "Happy Sailor" (a light ale infused with Sailor Jerry Rum).

Of the beers I tasted, my favorite of the day was "Drunk Monk Belgian" ale, made by Steve Keefe. I also enjoyed "The Curtains Match Red Ale" by Nolan Calkins, and the "Oktoberfest" by professional brewery, Big Bear Mountain Brewing Co. The oddest beer had to be the watermelon wheat...it was refreshing, but watermelon and beer just seemed strange to me. The two pumpkin beers were also interesting. One had very little pumpkin flavor, while the other tasted like liquid pumpkin pie.

Congratulations to the two winners of the Peoples Choice awards. For the professional brewers, Stone Brewery won, and for best homebrew, the award went to Steve Keefe for his Happy Sailor ale.

So, mark you calendar for next year, and plan on coming up to Lake Arrowhead for some beer tasting on the shores of the lake...and I'll see you there!

A weekend in Paso Robles - Part II

Wine barrels at Epoch
When I left off last week (if you missed last weeks blog click here), the group portion of our weekend in Paso Robles had come to an end, with a group dinner at Il Cortile. With a large group, we were really limited in the size and number of wineries we could get to. Sunday and Monday were my time, to get to my "wish list" of wineries. The challenge was, that I had a list of 33 wineries on that list. I spent Saturday evening mapping out when wineries opened, and which were open on Sunday and Monday, and what order to get to them, so we could maximize the number we got to.

Mural at Fratelli Perata
On Sunday morning, we went for a brisk hour long walk (and it had to be brisk as the fog and cold had moved in). Again, breakfast was at Margie's Diner. As the sun began to come out, we loaded the car with freezer bags, to make sure the days' wine purchases were not affected by the anticipated heat of the day. The first stop was Fratelli Perata, a small, family owned winery, that specializes in Italian varieties. After driving a short distance down the dirt road,  Carol Perata met us at the wine tasting room, located just behind the family residence. We heard stories about the wine mural, while enjoying Rose, and four red wines. I picked up two bottles of the '08 Charbono.

The next stop was one of the "premiere" wineries in Paso Robles: L'Aventure. Again, down a dirt road, we arrived to the manicured vineyards, that surrounded the large barn style building. Mixed in the landscape was the unusual sight of palm trees. I had heard about this Bordeaux winemaker (Stephan Asseo), who was making Rhone and Bordeaux style wines. We met with the young tasting room staff (one of which recognized again on Monday while he was tasting at the same winery as us). We tried one rose and 4 red blends. I did enjoy all their wines, but my budget was tightening up, and the retail prices on these wines were up there. I did purchase two bottles of their Rose (Syrah/Cab Sauv blend).
York Mountain AVA
Epoch Tasting Room
Proulx Tasting Room
We jumped back onto Hwy 46, and headed west to our next stop, Epoch Estate Wines. The tasting room is located on the site of the first commercial winery in the area. Epoch is actually outside of the Paso Robles AVA. It is located in the York Mountain AVA. No grapes are being grown at the property (yet), but many of the wines are made from the grapes grown at the old Paderewski Vineyard. We once again, tried one rose, and three reds. I picked up two bottles of the '08 Tempranillo. After a few photos at this historic property, we headed back to Paso Robles, and turned on to Vineyard Drive. We had heard about a winery growing head-trained Zinfandel, so added Proulx Winery (pronounced "Pru") to our stop. Here we met the winemakers father-in-law, and later the winemaker (Kevin Riley). Here, our $5 tasting fee went a long way. We tried 2 whites, 6 reds, and 1 dessert wine. I picked up the '08 Zinfandel, and now that I look back, I should have bought some of the late harvest Zin/Grenache.

Bob Wine at Whalebone
Bottle Labler at Tolo Cellars
We moved a little further down the road, and stopped at Thacher Winery. The tasting room was offering free apples, and walnuts, which worked out well, since this area of Paso Robles, has no food stops. We tried a Viognier, and six reds (mainly Syrah and Zinfandel). I purchased their '07 Triumvirate Zinfandel. Next door to Thacher is Whalebone Vineyard. At the recommendation of my local wine merchant, we stopped here, and I'm glad we did. Very friendly tasting room staff, they offered olive oil and mustard tastings too. My wife (who is a veterinary technician) enjoyed spending time with the tasting room cats. All red wines here. We tried six wines, which included three 100% estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and a few blends. We heard the story of "Bob Wine" with its' duct tape label. We ended up purchasing the '06 Bob Wine. At every winery, I ask for recommendations of what wineries to try, and at the last minute, we added one winery to our list, Tolo Cellars. This little winery/tasting room is actually the home of the winemaker, Josh Gibson. When we arrived, Josh was serving wine from his kitchen. Unfortunately, his production is so limited, he only had two wines left to taste. Josh is gaining fans, and I can see why. I picked up some of his remaining inventory of '06 Syrah.

Outdoor patio at Halter Ranch
By this time it was getting late in the day, and I wanted to get to Halter Ranch Vineyard. Just six months ago, when Justin was purchased by Fiji Water, the winemaker at Justin left and went to Halter Ranch. While none of the wines that are currently in release are from the new winemaker, I wanted to try them now, and see how they might differ in a few years. We tried 3 whites, 1 rose, 3 reds, and two dessert wines. I picked up their red ranch blend, and both of their dessert wines.

Dinner on Sunday night was at one of the newer restaurants in Paso Robles. Almost every winery we went to gave us dinner recommendations, and Robert's was the name that consistently came up. The menu was all American cuisine, and the wine list was made up of local wines. The prices were very reasonable, and the full cut ribeye was done perfectly.

Lone Madrone Tasting Room
Normally on Monday morning, we head out of town, and on the way stop for breakfast at Hoover's Beef Palace, but after the previous night's dinner, we were still full. The front desk at the hotel recommended Cider Creek Bakery. What a find...they have great fresh made pastries, and coffee. We even picked up some pastries to take home. The next stop was Fat Cat Farm. Our wives like garden ornaments, and this place had quite the collection. While our wives wandered through the nursery, we walked next door to Kenneth Volk and Lone Madrone (both housed in the same tasting building). The $10 tasting fee at Kenneth Volk included up to 19 wines. They had some interesting varieties to try, including Negrette, Touriga, Cabernet Pfeffer, and Cabernet Franc. I purchased the Cab Franc, and Cab Peffer. Lone Madrone offered a taste of 8 wines, plus their apple cider. I was given a bottle of the '09 La Mezcla (Grenache Blanc/Albarino), by a friend, so I bought the '07 "The Will" (a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel).

Vivant Fine Cheese
Before heading out of Paso Robles, we had one more stop. It's hard to find a good cheese shop, and I had recently "liked" Vivant Cheese on Facebook. This small cheese shop has a larger selection of cheese that you would think. With the help of owner, Danika Reed, we discovered some great cheeses, and purchased quite a few. Good thing we brought the plug in cooler. If you haven't tried Monte Enebro...you are missing something. Our friends joined their cheese club, so we are looking forward to exploring new cheese a few times a year.

As we headed home, we stopped at Ancient Peaks Winery, in Santa Margarita. We had stopped here before, and have enjoyed their Syrahs and Zinfandels. This time was no exception, as we picked up a magnum of the '09 Zinfandel, and the '08 Oyster Ridge, as well as a bottle of Cabernet Franc.

Our last stop was at one of my favorite wineries. Dragonette Cellars. Los Olivos was on the way back, so we stopped in, and talked with Mitchi and John Dragonette, while trying their latest releases. Our traveling partners are wine club members, and they picked up their shipment. I'm not a member of any wine clubs, but if I do join one, Dragonette would be the first on the list.

By this time, it was late in the afternoon, and we knew the traffic on a Monday afternoon would be building in Santa Barbara, so we stayed and had a late lunch/early dinner at Los Olivos Cafe. We reflected on the four days in wine country. We had successfully made it to 19 wineries. I estimate that we tried over 120 wines. I came home with 35 new bottles of wine, which were promptly labelled, recorded, and stocked in the wine cellar. I look forward to tasting these in the near future.

We recorded most of the trip on a small handheld flip video camera. The trip is available for viewing at: