charm school for cheap wines

It’s finally summertime, the season that seems to beg for cold wine and warm conversation. Here on the east coast there are also fireflies, which my west-coast brain still finds dazzling and somehow magical, even after 7 years.

Whereas autumn and winter are time for nesting, summer is best when shared with friends. If you’re entertaining and also a wine lover, you can go from a happy host to a broke one before you know it. So here are a few ways to dress up budget wines so you can afford to have a social life and keep the AC running.

You’ll note that there are no red wine recipes in here, because bad red wine is unforgivably terrible, whereas mediocre white can be managed with the right proportions of other stuff. 🙂

Driest Prosecco you can find + Elderflower, Lavender, or Rose soda

Recommended: Belvoir Pressé ($3-5)

Your favorite bargain bubbles + Italian Blood Orange soda

Recommended: Trader Joe’s Blood Orange Soda ($3) Cava, US-made methode Champenoise, Prosecco all work. I’d skip the Lambrusco though. Unless you’re drinking the higher end stuff, most of it is too sweet.


Vinho Verde + 1/3 cup rum, brandy, amaretto, cointreau + sliced fruit + ginger ale

Recommended: Broadbent Vinho Verde ($9-11), Orlana Vinho Verde and Rosé ($8-10)

Vinho Verde, White, or Rosé + pomegranate arils, raspberries, blackberries

Nothing much to say here. It’s classic, easy, and what I serve nearly all summer long.

White wine + cider+ club soda+ sliced apples/pears  

Recommended: Austin Eastciders ($12) has an unbelievable range of delicious and not too sweet cider. You could also add some mead if you’re really feeling zany: Charm City Meadworks ($15-20) is…potent.  Angry Orchard works in a (budget friendly) pinch. Stella Cidre does too, if you like the green jolly rancher flavor profile.



Introducing the Premier Cru podcast!

I’m between semesters in the UC Davis program and there are several months until the crush internship starts, so to stay busy, I’ve decided to do a deep dive into all things Grand and Premier Cru, in podcast format. The first episode talks a little about howand why French wines are classified, and then gets into the details of Chateau Lafite: where it is, geology of the land, history of the area and the Rothschild family, closing with tasting notes (not by me, alas).

If you want to geek out and learn along with me it’s up on SoundCloud here.


bargain wine (style) of the week and exciting news!

This week, I’m not just recommending a particular wine, but rather an entire  wine style that has become a fast favorite. Friends, I’m here to tell you about Muscadet. Pronounced moose-cah-day, this white wine from the Loire Valley is made from Melon de Bourgogne grapes and is frequently paired with shellfish— but this is my go-to sipping wine pretty much year round. Ridiculously crisp and clean with nearly no aftertaste, it’s also known to be devilishly difficult to identify at blind tastings.

If you haven’t heard of Muscadet, you’re not alone. It gained a reputation for being a simple, one-note kind of “meh” wine a few decades ago, and didn’t take off in any meaningful way among New World consumers. The area around Nantes became sort of infamous for producing crappy bulk wines (with some exceptions, bien sûr), and the Melon grape is, to be honest, pretty neutral tasting. Continue reading “bargain wine (style) of the week and exciting news!”

quickie bargain of the week and homebrew update!

Things have been busy and a little disorganized, but I can at least hip you to another wine to try.

So this is the Domaine de la Colline 2015 Chinon, a gorgeous French wine from the Loire made from 100% Cabernet Franc grapes. It’s a steal at around $14, with deep fruit flavors like fig and cooked blackberry and a complex, rewarding herbaceous finish.

Next up is the end result of my home winemaking attempt #1. It’s surprisingly not bad, considering that it’s made from juice concentrate. It tastes like a middle of the road Chardonnay, but has a distinct banana aroma that makes me laugh when I taste it.

Next step is getting some real fruit and trying to make wine from higher quality juice. Many more steps, much higher probability of things going terribly wrong!

Back soon, friends. Santé!


homebrew wine kit: week 3 update

So it’s the last week or so of the wine kit. For the past 12 days, the young Chardonnay has been sitting in the most even-temperatured part of the house, which, as it turns out, is on top of our skate sharpener between stacks of books. The glamour of winemaking, folks.

Today was all about degassing the wine, aka chasing away any CO2 that was trying to hang around after fermentation. I would eventually like to make fizz, but not this batch.

I cranked up the light on most of these pictures- and it really is that yellow! I’m a little worried, but there are a few more clarifying steps yet.

So here’ s the secondary fermentation vessel as I found it after the 12 day slumber. We’d kept it in a box to shield it from light.


Before anything, I had to take a specific gravity reading to make sure there weren’t residual sugars. The kit said anything under 0.995 is good to go, and after the hydrometer had stopped dancing around in the test tube, my final reading was 0.990. We have a dry wine, at the very least.

Finally getting the hang of using a siphon. So here’s the primary fermentation vessel, slowly filling with the wine. I had to be careful not to vacuum up the lees on the bottom of the jug- the purpose of this step (called racking) is to remove particulates with each transfer.

A look down the mouth of the jug at the silty lees. They always remind me of the soft sand in Hawaii.

One of two additives during this process. Potassium metabisulphite gets the CO2 to express itself from the wine. Also, not to be confused with the sodium metabisulphite that comes with the kit. That there is part of the sanitizing routine, and would likely make the wine taste…not…good.

The other additive is kieselsol, aka silicon dioxide. It’s used to remove bitter compounds, and will work in concert with the chitosan I’ll be adding in the next few days.

Stir, stir, stir!

After some vigorous mixing, the lid, bung, and airlock go back in. I’m going to stir the wine a few times a day for the next two days before the final additives go in, and then it’s left to fully clear for about a week.

See you in a few days!

Two more pink wines vie for your affection. Who will get the…rosé?

Always good to start off a blog with a clunker of a pun. But hey, wouldn’t a nice crisp glass of not-red-not-white wine make it better?

A brief on rosé: it’s usually the juice of red (or purple, or black) skinned grapes that is macerated with the skins for a short period. Leave it longer, and you’d just end up with red wine, because the skins impart the color (that’s how Blanc de Noirs Champagne is made— the juice from black grapes is still white!). There’s also the palest pink wine, sometimes referred to as vin gris that is just the juice with no skin contact. It all depends on the color of the pulp of the fruit. There are other methods, but it’s not red and white wine mixed, for the most part.

The two suitors for your hard-earned $15 or less this week are 2016 vintages of Crios Rosé of Malbec and Les Hauts de Lagarde Bordeaux. Bordeaux is a region known for blends, so the grapes in this concoction are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.

I played with the tone in the picture, but only so the image more closely resembles the actual color of these babies! They are vivid and deep hued, nearly electric looking.

The Malbec is a bit more orange, a bit more transparent. The Bordeaux is basically the definition of “pink”. I picked it, in fact, because it was the deepest one on the shelf. Continue reading “Two more pink wines vie for your affection. Who will get the…rosé?”

the waiting game

In a few months, harvest, aka “crush” begins in the northern hemisphere. The exact date depends on where a vineyard is, what the weather has been like, and what kind of elements they’re trying to coax out of the grapes (acid, tannin, sugars).

As a student, it has been impressed upon me that working several crushes is essential to becoming a professional winemaker. So in January I started contacting all manner of wineries, from hyper-local 1200 case producers to some of the mega corporate outfits who somehow churn out several million cases a year. Mostly, I was looking for places that weren’t asking for a previous harvest in their description. For some of the more attractive local opportunities, I went  ahead and applied even if they did require it. Fortune favoring the bold, or so I hope.

I’ve interviewed with a few wineries, all of which have me in a holding pattern after at least moderately promising conversations with the folks in charge. My suspicion is they’re hoping someone with more experience shows up, or perhaps someone younger. I keep considering what an important choice this is for them: to winemakers, this is not just a professional gamble, but also a personal risk. Many of them are farming land that has been in the family for over 100 years- one vineyard here in Maryland has been in the proprietor’s family since before the Revolutionary War. Nearly all small and medium sized producers employ mainly relatives and in-laws and a few highly skilled vineyard workers who are, for all intents and purposes, also family. Inviting some career climbing interloper with a semester of Davis under her belt into the inner sanctum to share in this labor of love is not done lightly.

It is something I appreciate, even though it causes a little bit of heartburn in the meantime. For now, it’s lots of tasting, a few cello students, a bit of tinkering with the homebrew Chardonnay, and being seriously in the weeds in my chemistry course. And of course, waiting.

bargain wine of the week: 2015 Joseph Cattin Pinot Blanc

Of course, a wine with “Cat” in the name has to get special treatment around here! What’s that, you say? Pinot what? Indeed, Pinot Noir and perhaps even Gris are more common, but Pinot Blanc isn’t something you see every day, unless you’re looking for it.

In nature, the P. Noir grape will occasionally have an entire spur present white grapes alongside otherwise deep purple counterparts. A genetic mutation of P. Noir, P. Blanc is the result of an unstable bit of DNA that then gets selected for, producing consistently white grapes. 

This Joseph Cattin wine is from Alsace, and has much in common with the region’s favorite grape, Riesling. A bit floral and bright in the nose, with citrus and (don’t laugh at me) something like fruit compote rounding out a clean, cheerful mouthful. I’m drinking this a bit on the old side— conventional wisdom says to enjoy these wines young, so when the 2016 shows up, I’ll abscond with a bottle or three. Still, this holds up well over time, and I’d absolutely buy the 2015 again. $16.

Thirsty Cellist score: 8/10

Pros: Beautiful, restrained, fresh. Yields to food rather than challenges it. Bright and summery. 

Cons: It’s not Chardonnay or NZ Sauv Blanc, so if those are your steadies, this might not seem as robust as what you’re used to. 

Recommendation: buy, try, maybe compare 2015 and 2016. Save the lovely long bottle for a single stem flower. 

War of the Rosés: two cheap pink wines battle it out for this week’s bargain selection

I absolutely LOVE rosé. Far from being the neglected middle child between red and white, pink wine can deliver some of the best parts of both. There’s complexity, acidity, astringency, fruit, herbs, wood…and you get to drink it cool or cold, which really hits the spot when summer comes around.

Our contenders, which both weighed in around $10:

Domaine des Nouelles 2016 Rosé d’Anjou


Ruby Red Rosé with grapefruit flavor

Yes. You read that right. And as wacky as it might seem, it makes sense- we don’t think twice about juice in wine for mimosas or sangria, and apparently last summer adding grapefruit to rosé was the thing in France. This bottle has grapefruit essence in it- similar to those satanically addictive La Croix sparkling waters.

As its name might suggest, the d’Anjou was absolutely full of ripe pear flavor, with notes of strawberry and white nectarine. It finishes neatly, with only a slight lingering apple Jolly Rancher hint at the end. It smells more acidic than it tastes, and is just a kind of no-brainer “porch pounder” wine. Off-dry, well incorporated, it smells like a rosé (complex, acidic, some woody notes) but tastes much like a white.

True confession: the aroma of the Ruby Red was so offputting that I had to talk myself into the first sip. I would bring it to my nose, inhale deeply and then put the glass back down. Some deep breaths, once again inhale…and no, no, I don’t think I want to try this. Do it for the blog, Emily! an inner voice whispered. OK fine, here goes, big sniff, down the hatch she goes.

It has all of the assertiveness of a Body Shop grapefruit lotion with a sickly sweet caramel/brown sugar hit running right through it. The best way I can describe it is the difference between fresh squeezed juice then tasting the stuff made with sucralose. There’s something slippery and false about the taste, as if the sweetness is parallel to the flavor instead of incorporated into it. 

The smell is actually much worse than the taste (high praise indeed!), although this is not the wine for me, to be sure. I threw some frozen peaches into it to see if that would do anything. Alas, nothing. This tastes like an unpopular Boone’s Farm limited edition. In my humblest opinion, this is wine for college freshmen. I’d take a Miller Lite over this.

What I would use this for is a base for sangria. Add some prosecco, stone fruit, lime juice, brandy or maybe cointreau, now there’s a party.

So the clear winner here is the d’Anjou. I was looking for a rosé, and it delivers on all of the qualities that makes pink wine so delightful. I also did an experiment where I added some grapefruit juice to it, and although I still like it as-is, it was much more tart, clean, and refreshing than Ruby. This is definitely something I’ll keep tinkering with. It’s akin to the difference between a margarita made with rail tequila and mix and one made with fresh ingredients and premium spirits. The things you have to do to stabilize the components are usually to the detriment of the product.

Thirsty Cellist score: 8.5/10

Pros: super easy to drink, affordable, fruity, clean, pairs with all kinds of stuff

Cons: if you’re not into fruity wine, you won’t like this. Slight residual sugars might offend purists. 

Recommendation: buy now, drink positively screaming cold all summer