Sandra Lee's Cocktail Christmas Tree

Wow! I'm absolutely speechless. How do you even come up with an idea like this? Next year, I'm going to decorate our holiday tree with corks, wine openers, screw caps and empty wine bottles.


Pablo Fallabrino - The Rock Star of Uruguay

What I love most about being in the wine business is you get to meet some of the most fascinating and thought provoking people in the world. Meeting Pablo Fallabrino from Vinedo de Los Vientos Winery in Uruguay reminded me exactly of why I do what I do. If anyone is capable of launching Uruguay onto the fine wine scene, Pablo is the one to do it. His Alcyone is quite possibly one of the best dessert wines I have ever had in my life! It tastes exactly like Hershey's chocolate kisses!! Pablo is the son of Italian immigrants and he inherited the winery after the passing of his father in 1995. This good natured surfer, Bob Marley loving and philosophy quoting man can best be described as the Randall Graham or Didier Dagueneau of Uruguay. Pablo confessed to me he often goes through the old family wine making logs and books for wine making inspiration. He does not over think the wine making process though, he just runs with his instincts, takes chances and does what naturally comes to him. It's a total zen approach but then again, what else would you expect from a surfing Rastafarian? Pablo runs the winery with his lovely wife, Marianna who is a fabulous chef and operates the winery kitchen.

Pablo and Marianna's winery is located in Atlantida, about a 30 minute drive from Montevideo. When we visited, he was making repairs to the winery which was damaged a few months earlier by heavy winds, a huge problem in this region and the source of the wineries' name. He was very calm about the whole thing and indicated the doors were just installed the day before while most of the roof was still missing. He took us through the vineyards which were planted with everything from Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. I never thought I would see Gewurztraminer planted next to Cabernet Sauvignon, but hey there is a first time for everything.

I also fell in love with their dog, Escobar. In case you are wondering what is wrong with Escobar, this otherwise healthy 13 year old pup has a basketball sized tumor on his back. Pablo said the tumor is benign but with Escobar's age, it would be too life risking to operate. Escobar is an extremely sweet dog and he definitely runs the show on the property. They have another cute dog named Puccini.

Pablo's wines are unique in style and reflect the his genuine, fun loving nature. Here are my tasting notes:

Estival White - an extremely intriguing blend of Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Moscato Bianco. Dry but floral with flavors of apricots, peaches and pears. Great wine for Asian or Indian food.

Tannat - very well structured yet drinkable. Reminds me of a hearty Malbec.

Eola Gran Reserva - blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon is named after the Greek God of the Winds. Dark red plums, with raisins, figs and spice.

Angel's Cuvee Blanc de Bianco - soft blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Trebbiano. Ripe pears, peaches and slight jasmine floral note.

Angel's Cuvee Ripasso Tannat - Pablo and his team go through the vineyards and twist 8 rows worth of Tannat grapes bunches one by one in order to turn them into raisins. The Ripasso process is often used in the Veneto region of Italy where the pressed skins of Amarone wines are added to regular Valpolicella in order to add a slight raisiny, baby Amarone like character. Here the method helps tame Tannat's excessive richness. Flavors of figs, chocolate, star anise and spice.

Alcyone Dessert Wine - Pablo combines a method used to make Barolo Chinato, an aromatized wine with the method used to make Marsala. Tastes exactly like Hershey's Chocolate kisses. Quite possibly one of the best dessert wines I have ever had.

Who needs chocolate when you have Alycone?

Pablo's wines are brought into the US by T. Edward Wines and are distributed in Chicago by Pure Wine Company. I was able to locate the Tannat at Binny's for $16. Of course, I am already working on getting my hands on some Alcyone!


The Wines of Uruguay

The Republica Oriental del Uruguay is a small country located between it's larger neighbors, Argentina to the south and west and Brazil to the north. Uruguay was was once a Spanish colony and it was here in Uruguay that the Spanish first introduced the grapevine to South America. However, it was the Italian and Basque immigrants who followed, that started to establish the first commercial vineyards and wineries about 100 years ago. Uruguay's most famous wine is made from the Tannat grape, the origins of which can be found in the South West of France in the appellations of Cahors and Madiran. Tannat is to Uruguay what Malbec is to Argentina. Wines made from Tannat are powerfully colored, extremely rich, well structured and heavy on tannins - perfect for pairing with grass fed Uruguayan beef. There are 20,000 acres of land under vine planted to 72% red grapes, most of which is Tannat. The other main red grapes are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chardonnay is the most planted white grape followed closely by Sauvignon Blanc. There are 270 family owned wineries running boutique, small-time operations as the average estate holding is around 12 acres. Ninety million liters are produced every year, most of which gets consumed by Uruguayans who drink on average 32 liters per year. Only 3% of Uruguayan wines are exported, mostly to the US market.

Tannat Grape

I had an opportunity to visit with a number of wineries during my short two day visit. Uruguayans are extremely kind, generous and warm hearted people. The winery owners were very excited to have a US audience as they are eager to get the word out about the wines of Uruguay. We all know my love for Argentina but Uruguay has one significant advantage over Argentina and that is the close proximity of their vineyards and wineries to the capital of Montevideo, many of which are located within a half hours drive. To get to Mendoza from Buenos Aires, you would need to drive for 10 hours or take a plane. The combination of the beauty of Uruguay and the wine country is a multi-million dollar tourism based industry just waiting to happen. Meeting with the winemakers and visiting their vineyards made me think of what it must have been like to travel to San Francisco and visit Napa Valley wineries in the 60's and 70's. It's hard to believe now but California was not always known and respected for their wines. They were able to launch themselves onto the international wine scene with the now infamous Paris Tasting in 1976 when wines from Napa Valley beat highly regarded French wines in a blind tasting. They called it the shot that was heard around the world. Uruguay reminds me in many ways of a young California and I sincerely believe they too will have their shot at finding their rightful place amongst the greatest wine producing regions of the world.

Here my tasting notes

Juanico Winery
- Juanico is by far the largest winery in Uruguay and is 100% family owned by the Deicas family. They make a variety of wines under different labels but my favorites were the Don Pascual Tannat Roble and Familia Deicas Preludio. The Juanico Estate is a great winery to visit as they have a first class operation that caters to group visits of all sizes.

Carlos Pizzorno Winery - a small boutique operation started in 1910 and now run by the very handsome couple, Carlos Pizzorno and Dra. Ana Laura Rodriguez. Dra. Ana and I bonded as she is a gastroenterologist as is my father-in-law. The Pizzorno wines are very modern in style. I particularly enjoyed the fresh and zippy Don Prospero Sauvignon Blanc, the rich and spicy Pizzorno Tinto Riserva, a blend of Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the well structured Pizzorno Tannat Reserve. Carlos' Pinot Noir, although young, shows great promise.

Bouza Winery - This is another boutique run, family owned operation. The Monte Vide Eu was definitely one of my favorite wines that I tasted. The blend of Tannat, Merlot and Tempranillo was very silky, soft and extremely delicious.

Bodegas Carrau - Established in 1782, Bodegas Carrau is one of the oldest wineries in Uruguay. The estate is now run by the extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, Dr. Francisco Carrau who proved to be a great source of information regarding the Uruguayan wine industry. The wine making style is more traditional in nature with less wood and more expression of fruit. I was blown away by the nebbiolo which is released once every 10 years or so. It is the best nebbiolo I have had outside of examples from Italy.

Dr. Francisco M. Carrau sharing his knowledge of Uruguayan wines

- this winery is represented by a mother and daughter team. They were eager to receive feedback about their wines and how the US market may view the style. I was happy to inform them their Don Nelson Ariano Special Reserve would certainly have no problem with holding it's own against the big guns from California. This was a very extracted wine, full of rich tannins supported by American oak - very a modern style that would certainly be appreciated by US consumers.

Castillo Viejo Winery - What I remember most about this winery were two things: the Hasparren Espumoso Brut and the very tasty El Preciado Red. I'm always happy to see bubbles and the El Preciado was indeed a precious blend of Cab Franc, Merlot and Tannat. The packaging was really cool too!

Reinaldo De Lucca Winery - This winery was particularly interesting as they experiment with Rhone grapes like Marsanne and Syrah. The Tannat Syrah Reserva was very interesting as I never thought I would be able to taste a blend of these two varietals. I also enjoyed the Rio Colorado, a raisiny and elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Merlot.

Santa Rosa Winery - Santa Rosa has been in business for over 100 years. They produce an impressive line of sparkling wines. General Manager Daniel Mutio is another exuberant spokesperson for the wines of Uruguay and he is looking forward to sharing the wines of his country with the rest of the world. For the still red wines, The Gran Reserva Juan Bautista Passadore and the Museo Tannat were my favorites from them.

Vinos Pisano - Pisano is one of Uruguay's most highly regarded and award winning wineries. It is owned and operated by the extremely amusing, charming and well mustached, Daniel Pisano. He had me in stitches with his stories about his Italian grandfather. Daniel is a great ambassador for Uruguayan wines and his winemaking skills is a clear indicator why. I pretty much enjoyed everything he makes but his Rio de los Pajaros Torrontes and Tannat and Reserve Arretxea were out of control delicious.

Me with my new Uruguayan buddies, Daniel Mutio and Daniel Pisano


Uruguay - The Best Kept Secret in the World

My recent trip to Argentina included a two day visit to Uruguay. I had some limited experience with their wines and wanted to further explore the country and check out a few wineries. Frankly, I was not sure what to expect since I did not know a thing about Uruguay and rarely encounter any of the wines here in the States. After a three hour Buquebus ferry ride from Buenos Aires we reached the port in Montevideo and I immediately sensed we were in for something special.

Montevideo is a vibrant city, green and beautiful with miles of beaches, parks and winding trails, similar to the Fort Mason area of San Francisco. The people of Uruguay are extremely fit and active and you will see many jogging along the coast, playing volleyball or relaxing near the seaside sipping from traditional gourds filled with mate. You can walk around almost anywhere and feel safe which unfortunately is not the case in Buenos Aires. A study conducted by Yale and C0lumbia Universities in 1997, declared Uruguay the third purest natural ecosystem in the world. Uruguay also has an effective education system as 98% of all Uruguayans are literate. A friend of mine described Uruguay as the Switzerland of South America, they are politically neutral, all the Swiss banks have offices in Montevideo and the government and economy are very stable. The exchange rate makes Uruguay extremely affordable. You can get a nice hotel room for around 70 US dollars and a meal for two persons at a fancy restaurant with wine is around 30 US dollars. In other words, it's a wonderful and affordable place for a vacation.

The day following our arrival, we took a drive to the upscale and scenic resort town of Punta del Este and I kept thinking to myself, how have I not heard about this place before and why are more people not down here? I was born and raised near Carmel, California and the beaches of Punta del Este made me think of what Carmel by the Sea must have looked like in the twenties before people discovered it and turned the city into a tourist attraction. Our guide told us you can purchase a beach side home in this gated community for around $200,000 US dollars.

We also took the opportunity to visit Casa Pueblo, this icon of Uruguay is a piece of art done by the eccentric Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. It looks like a giant Salvador Dali sculpture and took 36 years to be completed. Today it is a hotel where you can book a room for around $140 a night.

A forty five minute drive from Punta del Este is the discreet town of Jose Ignacio which is known as a secret playground for celebrities, the uber-wealthy and Brazilian models. As you can see the beauty of Uruguay is simply breathtaking and stunning and I can't wait to return to explore more of it.

Jose Ignacio


What to Drink for the Holidays, besides spiked Egg Nog.

Not that there is anything wrong with spiked egg nog although I do prefer an egg nog latte. It sounds really weird but it is tasty stuff. OK, I'm digressing, back to wine. Chances are you are having a few folks over for the holidays or you are attending holiday parties and need something to either drink or bring as a host/hostess present. The number one rule in entertaining with wine is to make sure you don't serve something that will indicate to your guests exactly how much you spent on them, i.e. save the Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail for quiet times at home. Try to select affordable options that are obscure and off the beaten path - selections that are exotic by virtue of their region of origin or grape variety. Say for example you serve a Nero D'Avola from Sicily and your guests say how tasty it is and ask you where you found it. You can respond with, "Oh, it's just a little something from Sicily, I'm glad you like it." They will be impressed by your international wine prowess and talk about what a great party you threw the next day with all their coworkers. You will be legendary!

Here are my picks for the Holidays! You can find them at your local wine shop. Please note that prices will vary depending on where you purchase them. Email me if you are on the hunt and don't have any luck -

Sparkling - Gran Sarao Brut Cava $ 10

A great little sparkler from Spain. Crisp and toasty with green apple notes. Pop a bow on it and it's a great little hostess present. It's not Champagne but neither is Korbel.

Sweet Wine - Kung Fu Girl Riesling - Washington State $11

A perfect balance between not too sweet and fruity. I love the "Kill Bill-esque" label which also portrays a bowl of Asian food with chopsticks on the back. My husband's family is Jewish so I am very familiar with the tradition of Chinese food for Christmas and this would be a great wine to bring to an Asian BYOB.

Chardonnay - Buehler Russian River Valley $14

I taste many Chardonnays every year and I find that most of the value ones taste like a stick of margarine and smoked wood chips. This one caught me by surprise. Although $14 is not exactly bargain basement it is a deal when you consider the grapes come from the tony appellation of the Russian River and the the complexity of flavors on the palate - ripe pears, nice minerality, soft texture, not too oaky and the right amount of butter. Plus when you offer a round to your guests you can say, "Buehler, Buehler, Buehler anyone?"

Pinot Noir - Montoya, Monterey $15

Ever since Sideways came out, it has become increasingly difficult to find a great Pinot Noir for less than $20 per bottle. The increased demand for the varietal shot up grape prices which in turn resulted in higher priced wines. I've tried the $8 and $9 ones but they seem to lack a certain finesse that one would expect from a proper Pinot Noir. I tried this the other day, and I was immediately impressed by the sweet cherries on the nose and the balance on the palate. It's a really nice wine and sure to impress a Pinot Noir lover looking for a deal.

Cabernet Sauvignon - Hahn Estate Monterey $12

If you can get past the tacky label on the outside, there is plenty of good stuff inside. Monterey is not known for producing great Cabernet Sauvignon wines as the cooler climate is better for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but the texture on this wine is great and exactly what you want from this grape. It's well structured with cassis and blackberry fruit notes. Great for prime rib and steak dinners or have a glass while opening gifts by the fireplace.

Spanish Red - Los Dos Garnacha-Syrah $10

I love wines from Spain because they taste great and you don't have to spend a ton to get a great bottle. If you like the spiciness of Cotes du Rhone wines, you will enjoy the spiciness of this selection.

Malbec -Pascual Toso Argentina $9

I could have listed about 100 Malbecs here as it is well documented by now that I am a big fan of the grape. I tried this one recently and really enjoyed the concentrated black berry notes although your local wine store can probably turn you on to something similar if you can't find this exact producer.