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Tasting Recap: Priorat & Environs

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Though the wine production of Priorat dates back to the 12th century, it wasn’t until the past twenty-five years that this small region southwest of Barcelona achieved its worldwide renown. Its astronomical growth in such a short period of time linked with a dedication to quality wines has allowed this region to stake its claim amongst the world’s other greatest of wine regions. This past week tasters sampled six wines, delving further into the esteemed wines of Priorat, and of the surrounding region of Montsant. These wines are produced in an incredibly hot, arid, Mediterranean climate, with some of the steepest slate-covered slopes in the world, now terraced and laced with the traditional Grenache and Carignan, and the more recent additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. As with any region, there are modernists and traditionalists and this tasting was sampled in three sets of pairs, reflecting both of these styles accordingly. We began with two value-driven wines from Montsant, two entry-level Priorats and completed the tasting with a producer quality comparison. With the ripe fruits and generally higher alcohols these wines hold, Priorat and Montsant are perfect wines to explore for the domestic palate, though those who prefer a funkier or earthier profile won’t be left out either. Whether for gifting or for yourself, these wines are always a great buy – stop by and try one out!

Cellar Can Blau 2009 “Can Blau”, Montsant ($16.50)

Cellar Baronia 2010 “Flor de Englora” Garnaxta, Montsant ($14.95)

The horseshoe-shaped region of Montsant engulfs Priorat, and though the only major difference is the absence of Priorat’s llicorella slate, these wines are where incredible values can be found as this region is still up-and-coming. Great efforts to sway from traditional mass-produced co-op wines are in motion, and these two bottles are perfect representations of a more international, modern style and something a bit more traditional. The Can Blau is a blend of Mazuelo (Carignan), Syrah, and a bit of Grenache offering richer, ripe black fruits with licorice and subtle notes of spice from some oak aging. There is an almost juicy palate here, as the Grenache is just enough to lift the palate weight and keep some balance. Though there is a fair extraction here and a flashier overall feel, there is still structure and this wine drinks well solo, or accompanied by a beef or lamb roast. The Flor de Englora brings different components to the table. 100% Grenache sees only stainless steel, bringing a freshness to an incredibly ripe and meaty dark red fruit profile. Scorched earth, ash and just enough old-world funk bring added complexities to this wine, and creates a perfect old school Grenache. A hint of grip on the palate balances well-preserved acidity and lengthens the finish of this wine. No matter your personal style, both of these wines offer fair values – well over-delivering for the price.

Finca Tobella 2009 “Negre”, Priorat ($19.95)

Cellar Vall Llach 2008 “Embruix”, Priorat ($24.95)

As we move into Priorat, we step up in quality a few notches as the efforts for production here are much more laborious. High elevations of llicorella-covered steep slopes are a beautiful sight, but make for simply back-breaking work. Terracing is necessary, and wines are all hand-harvested. For the first pair from this region we chose two entry-level Priorats. Finca Tobella is a relatively young winery founded in 2003 by an ambitious husband and wife team, whose goals were to produce a more modern-style of Priorat. Instead of traditional base of Grenache or Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the main players with the former pair fleshing out the wine. While maintaining a fairly low alcohol of 13.5% there is a beautiful ripeness to these grapes, in that modern style. Only seeing 5 months in new French oak, this wine has hints of spice, with rich, lush black currant and blackberries on the palate, supported by an earthy minerality indicative of Priorat.

The second of the pair was the Vall Llach “Embruix” (Em-broosh), which is far more traditional with a 15% alcohol, higher proportion of Grenache and Carignan offering black fruits, a bit more grip, dark earthy licorice and hints of clove from extended aging in mostly neutral French oak. Rich, lush, and warming, this wine is a perfect accompaniment to a cold winter’s night. Great for drinking now or for a few years in the cellar.

Alvaro Palacios 2008 “Les Terrasses”, Priorat ($40.95)

Alvaro Palacios 2009 “Finca Dofi”, Priorat ($73.95)

Arguably Spain’s most acclaimed winemaker, Alvaro Palacios has stunned the world with his wines and quickly rose to one of the most sought-after in his profession. And we, like the rest of world, love his wines. Tasting this pair offered insight into a quality comparison of a single producer, and also the opportunity to see what one producer can create with the tools at hand. For his Les Terrasses, Palacios combines primarily estate fruit with some sourced fruit in a traditional formula but in a modern style. Primarily Carignan, balanced with Grenache and hints of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, this wine portrays the dark fruits, spice and earthy licorice of the Vall Llach just sampled, but with a bit more elegance and finesse. Silkier on the palate with richer fruit and well-integrated oak and enough acidity to balance out and keep structure, this wine is a clear candidate for a decant, or several years collecting dust.

The partner here was the Finca Dofi, from a single vineyard that was Palacios’ first vineyard purchase in Priorat. The grapes (primarily Grenache, with the remainder a combination of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) are biodynamically farmed and offer incredible concentration, nicely framed by aging in new French oak. Lush red and purple fruits, cinnamon and cloves, hints of vanilla and a well-crafted structure are found here, with the similar ability to be consumed youthfully, certainly with aeration, and also lay in your cellar for a decade, to start. The fruit, though dominant currently, will only integrate further, one day expressing more of the unique climate and terroir that we find in Priorat. With the holidays around, these are perfect wines for gifting as the wine will please just about anybody – all the tasters agreed they’d love these as a gift, and we, of course, have to agree.

Tasting Recap: Red Wine Quality Comparison

Monday, November 12th, 2012

This past week’s tasting was a follow-up to our white wine quality comparison, offering six red wines as the base of analysis. With last week’s survey of reds, we explored two Burgundies, two Nebbiolos and two Bordeaux-style blends from California, served blind in pairs and featuring a significant price difference between the wines in each pair. Without knowing which wine was which, some tasters found they were far more interested in the wines with the lesser price, and also gained the insight as to why they would spend the extra money on the higher-priced bottle. Tasting wine is clearly a subjective matter, and though there are clear reasons for an increase in a wine’s price (new oak, time spent aging, etc) these tastings helped our tasters to reveal not only what they enjoy about wine, but offered a glimpse into the shop’s aspect of how and why we do what we do. A few wines proved to be crowd favorites, but all the wines showed well and found their way home with tasters.

Michel Picard 2009 Bourgogne rouge
Lucien Boillot 2009 Gevrey-Chambertin

This first pair of Pinot Noirs was a great reveal into how wines are designed either for youthful consumption or for years of aging before really showing well. Pinot Noir is certainly one of the best grapes ever vinified, and though it is extremely finicky to work with it is a very clear expression of not only the vineyard in which it was grown, but of the winemaker’s personal style, as well. Michel Picard produces a fair amount of wine, and their economies of scale along with their focus on high quality make them a top value producer. The grapes for this wine are sourced from Burgundy as a whole and is a refreshingly low-priced Pinot that absolutely delivers. The wine sees six months of aging in large, neutral oak, with subtle flavors of cherry and strawberry and a classic Burgundian forest floor and hint of mushroom. The balance of subtle fruits with earthy notes and a smooth, easy palate create an incredible value at just $14 a bottle. This wine was juxtaposed with the Boillot Gevrey-Chambertin, which goes for about 4 times the price of the Picard. Though both wines are from the same vintage, the Boillot is still a baby on its relative lifespan and showed fairly tight and closed in at the tastings. Also seeing oak, though for almost twice as long, the Boillot showed just how a wine can need years of cellaring to find itself. With a richer, more textured mouthfeel, a more ripe red fruit profile and even more layers of classic Burgundian funk, this wine was a new experience for most tasters. Want a Pinot to drink now? The Picard is your wine, but for that gift or bottle you want to hold for several years before consumption, the Boillot Gevrey-Chambertin is the answer.

Guidobono 2010 Nebbiolo, Langhe
Fontanafredda 2007 Barolo

Nebbiolo is unique in its naturally high acidity and high tannic content, both of which contribute to a wine’s longevity. Barolo and Barbaresco are certainly the best expressions of this grape, and though it hasn’t quite taken root outside of its Piedmont home, Nebbiolo is one of the world’s most precious grapes. The Guidobono is an extremely appropriate intro to this grape, as it features a greater presence of cherry fruit with a bit of chocolate (think unsweetened), a hint of classic tarry notes and has seen just 8 months of barrel maturation in large, oak casks to soften those natural tannins. The acidity is still quite high, creating a juicier offering that is incredibly accessible. The Fontanafredda Barolo, on the other hand, is required to see two years in cask, in this case a year each in French barrique and traditional large Slavonian oak, and an additional three years of bottle aging. We certainly find a similar chocolate-covered cherry profile, in this case a bit more cocoa powder-like, with a heightened sense of tar and dried roses. The palate offers a give-and-take of flushes of acidity and semi-firm grip, showing how well this wine is structured. It was showing beautifully at both tastings, but as this is the current release for Barolo, will easily cellar for another decade. A winner for the night.

Lyeth 2010 “Fleur de Lyeth” blend, California
Orin Swift 2009 “Papillon”, Napa Valley

Often producers will create low-priced blends with the remaining fruit they have after bottling their single vineyard or reserve selections, and the value here is found in the high quality grapes and expertise used for these affordable bottles. The Fleur de Lyeth blend combines Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, in true Bordeaux fashion, into a smooth, slightly mineral, yet, fruit-dominated wine that drinks incredibly easy. The wine sees 12 months in a combination of both French and American oak, softening the Cabernet’s tannins and offering subtle notes of spice and vanilla to enhance a creamy palate. For the price, a clear winner of the tasting. The contrasting wine was Orin Swift’s “Papillon”, a blend of primarily Cabernet with the remainder fleshed out with the Bordeaux family varietals Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and a touch of Petite Verdot. Sixteen months in French oak blurs the edges of the Cabernet’s thick skins, supporting rich dark berry fruits, hints of cigar and just enough acidity to keep this wine in great balance. For those who enjoy this more extracted, robust style of winemaking, we have a few different wines in the shop with your name on them. Unfortunately, this wine has an extremely small allocation as very little is made, and tasters scooped up every last bottle. There are similar options in the shop, of course, so stop in and we’ll help find another bottle that fits the bill.

All About Shorewood – an FAQ on our Second Location

Monday, April 12th, 2010

As most of you know, we’ve been working on opening a second location in Shorewood; we’ve signed a lease and we got our financing finalized last week, so it’s going to happen! Here’s a few answers to the questions we’ve been getting:

Q: Are you crazy?
Possibly. We were just starting to get out of debt and have somewhat normal hours – who wants that?!?

Q: Why a second location?
See the answer to the previous question. But seriously, we think there’s room in the overall market for another Thief Wine – since we opened in July of 2008 we’ve had an amazing response, but we think there’s still room to grow. Having a second location will enable us to have greater economies of scale and synergies between the two should lead to even greater value for all of our customers. The Cornerstone Building opportunity in particular was too compelling to pass up.

Q: You’ll still have your Milwaukee Public Market location, right?
Correct – we love being in the Public Market and the relationships we’ve developed there; we definitely won’t be neglecting that at all and will continue to work at making our MPM shop & bar the best it can be for you.

Q: Why Shorewood?
It’s got a great potential customer base – many of our customers are from Shorewood / Whitefish Bay and are extremely excited we’re expanding there. It’s close enough to our MPM location that we can easily coordinate between the two, but far enough away that the two won’t significantly compete with each other.

Q: What and where is the Cornerstone Building?
We think Shorewood in general is a great opportunity, but this location in particular is what sold us. The Cornerstone Building is a new construction at the corner of Kensington and Oakland (where the gas station used to be) in the north end of Shorewood. It’s a mixed-use building that will have North Star Bistro (who’s moving across the street into it), Alterra Coffee, Boutique B’Lou, and us on the ground floor, and three floors of higher-end (granite counters, hardwood floors, etc.) apartments above. There will be off-street parking and a great courtyard offset from the street where we’ll have a good amount of outdoor seating.

Q: Um, you do know there’s competition, right?
Sure – there’s always going to be competition no matter where you go. We think this is a great location, we’re confident about our ability to provide an unbeatable wine experience – selection, service, price, environment – and based on our current customers’ enthusiastic response we believe there’s a market for what we offer. We know you’ve got numerous options for purchasing wine, and like with our MPM location, we don’t take your support for granted and going to do everything we can to earn that support.

Q: What’s the timing?
We should be able to take possession of the space by July 1, build it out in two months, and we’re targeting a September opening.

Q: What will be the differences between the two locations?
The Shorewood location will be the same concept as our MPM spot, split roughly half and half between retail and wine bar, but definitely won’t be a carbon copy. It’ll be our own distinct space, so we’ll be able to create the environment – décor, lighting, music, mood – and the bar will have more of an intimate, sophisticated feel (as opposed to the market’s open, bustling environment, which is very cool in a completely different way). It’ll be open later at night, so hopefully will be the ideal way to spend an evening out. (Especially in summer – did we mention we’ll have an awesome courtyard?) There will be a good amount of overlap in the retail selection and possibly wine lists, but with some differences at each location.

Q: Will you offer food?
Yes! Via North Star Bistro, who we’ll coordinate with to develop an appetizer / small plates menu for the wine bar. It should be a win for everyone – customers get delicious freshly prepared food, we don’t have the added overhead of a kitchen, and North Star will get more volume and awareness. We’re excited to work with North Star in general – there are a lot of possibilities for synergies, including wine dinners, food / wine pairing classes, use of their private room for seminars, and more.

Q: Who will be where?
Initially, of course, we’ll both be running around like crazy getting the new location up to speed. Once we’re settled in, the plan is for Aimee to be at Shorewood 4 days a week and at MPM 2 days a week, with Phil at the MPM 4 days a week and at Shorewood 2-3 days a week. We’ll post our schedule on our site so if you want to talk specifically with either one of us you’ll know when & where we’ll be. Our wonderful staff will grow, and will probably be mainly at one location or the other but will have the flexibility to be at either.

Q: What about my customer rewards?
A: No worries! Our computer systems at each location will be synched to a central server, so your customer rewards will accumulate and be tracked regardless of which location you made your purchase at. Same with your customer history – if you buy something at our MPM location, we’ll be able to look it up in Shorewood.

Q: Last one – hey Phil, aren’t you supposed to be studying for your Master of Wine exam in June?
A: I was hoping you wouldn’t bring that up.

Sensational Tandem Winery Sale!

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Tandem logoFor this week’s sale we’ve got possibly our best deal ever, both in terms of quality of the wines and the price we’re able to offer them at.

Regular customers know what fans we are of Tandem Winery – we’ve had their Chardonnay on the wine list, we carry their wines on the shelves, and we had owner/winemaker Greg LaFollette, who we became friends with during our time in Sonoma and is one of our favorite people both personally and professionally, in to the shop for an exclusive tasting of his single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays this past summer.

Well, we just learned the Tandem label is being retired – the winery was bought about a year ago (though Greg is still in charge of the winemaking) and the new owners decided to capitalize on Greg’s renowned reputation and change the name to LaFollette Wines. What does that mean for you right now? Existing Tandem wines are dirt-cheap!

We snapped up what we could and at these prices they’ll be sure to go fast, so reserve your bottles / cases accordingly. Even better, case discounts apply, 10% off any 12 bottles or more, mix and match!

Tandem 2006 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley – Rich, full-blown California Chardonnay that somehow keeps its acidity and balance. This was a huge hit by the glass. Update:  SOLD OUT

Tandem 2007 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay, Mendocino – This wine has never been available in Wisconsin before – Greg brought a bottle to the tasting just for fun, and it blew everyone away. Spicy and floral, feminine yet powerful. Update – 2 cases still left; visit store for price.

Tandem 2007 Silver Pines Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Mountain – Dark black cherry and loamy forest floor suggest a Burgundy on steroids – New World fruit with Old World typicity; simply delicious.  Update:  SOLD OUT

Tandem 2007 Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Mountain – Intensely structured, this wine rewards decanting or cellaring for a few years, but it’s delicious now. A more masculine, feral Pinot Noir with great concentration of fruit balanced by supple tannins and acidity. Clearly a wine of pedigree. Update:  SOLD OUT

Reserve yours today! 414.277.7707 or

Champagne Tasting Recap

Monday, January 4th, 2010

A little bit late since the Champagne-buying season just ended, but one of my goals is to convince people that sparkling wine is great any time (it’s an ideal food wine, it makes everyone happy, the sound of a bottle opening makes any occasion festive – why wouldn’t you want to have it all the time?!?!) so it’s apropos in that respect. The tasting on Dec. 15 went wonderfully – we had a full house, and like I said, Champagne makes everyone happy.

We started off with Veuve Clicquot since that’s many peoples’ reference point – I thought it would be useful to compare that against what I consider to be more interesting Champagnes. Nothing wrong with the Veuve, though – it’s brighter than many Champagnes, with noticeable acidity and a lemony flavor that balances with the dosage (definitely on the high side for Brut, with perceptible sweetness).

Next was Marc Hebrart’s Cuvee de Reserve 1er cru, chosen to be a counterpoint to the Veuve – large producer vs a tiny producer. When you’re buying Champagne, look closely at the small print on the front of the label; you’ll see either RM or NM followed by numbers. NM (Negociant Manipulant) is what you’ll see most of the time; it’s a producer that buys most of the grapes. RM (Recoltant Manipulant) is grower Champagne; those producers can buy only 5% of grapes for their total production. RM is worth seeking out; these are smaller, artisanally made Champagnes with true character. Are they better than NM? Not necessarily, for a variety of reasons, but they’ve got soul. The Hebrart is RM, and at about the same price as the Veuve, I think it’s a far better value – from Premier Cru vineyards, with great purity and concentration. Primarily Pinot Noir, so has a nice richness and weight to it, with a beautiful finish. Much dryer than the Veuve.

Third was Jacques Chaput – also primarily Pinot Noir, and chosen to contrast against the Blanc de Blancs that came next. This Champagne was aged for a shorter period of time on its lees than the others here (normal is 3 years, this was 2) so it showed a lot of freshness and more fruit-forwardness than the others. The Pinot Noir component came through strongly, with a lovely cherry/strawberry finish. A refreshing Champagne, and this was a surprise favorite of many people.

Fourth and fifth up were Ruinart, which has long been one of my favorite Champagne houses with amazing quality for the price (I’d drink it over Dom any day, which costs twice as much). We did the Blanc de Blancs first – normally I’d serve BdB before Pinot Noir-based Champagnes, but the Ruinart has such concentration that it easily held up to the Hebrart & Chaput- rich, with baked apple, brioche, and a wonderful acid / fruit / yeast balance. My favorite Champagne of the night. A close second (and Aimee’s favorite) was the Rose – a little less yeasty, but with the added dimension of red-fruit flavors. Long, complex, and delicious.