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JANUARY 17, 2010
This Winter Stay Warm with Big California Reds

In late 1999, I moved to San Francisco to be with my partner, but also to fulfill a dream of living in California. It was everything I thought it could be and more and it was in SF that I was truly exposed to incredibly fresh produce and food prepared with sustainable ingredients. Most of all, however, it was where I began my love for delicious wine and the start of my wine education.

For various reasons, in 2003 we left our Northern California paradise and moved back to Chicago. Don't get me wrong, I love Chicago (it is my hometown), but I despise winter and being bitterly cold. I ask myself (and pretty much anyone who will listen) why I ever left California. I really don't know the answer, but at least each year as the temps drops to unbearable points, I can at least take solace knowing that I can open bottle after bottle of big, warm, jammy California red wine to snuggle up with and keep me warm.

Below are some of my favorites and others I've discovered in the last few months. Many are available locally, but others you may have to search around online or visit the winery's website. Either way, it'll be worth the hunt.

D&S_red  Let's start with something a little local. D&S 2006 Proprietary Red is produced by the guys behind Bin 36 restaurant--Dan Sachs and Brian Duncan, hence the D&S. Yes, there is a line of Bin 36 wines, but this one is pretty special. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot and Merlot is intricate and layered and reveals itself the longer it's open. It starts off with subtle fruit and soft tannins with blueberry and violet notes. The longer it breathes, the jammier it gets. Raisin, leather and darker red fruit come through. It's great bottle to pair with red meats, chicken and even pasta in red sauce and is available at Bin 36 for $26.95 or at select Whole Foods.

Coincidentally, I met Camille Grigsby-Rocca, the scion of the Rocca Family Vineyards, at Bin 36 for lunch last September to taste through a couple of her family's cult Napa wines. These award-winners really 2006-Rocca-Syrah  blew my mind. The Cab was big, bold and aggressive (in a good way), while the 2005 Syrah snuggled up next to me and won me over. The cherry and plum notes combined with a good amount of spice showed this wine's personality: a well-rounded beauty that goes great with a variety of food. And I recently opened their 2006 Bad Boy Red, a blend of Cab (54 percent), Cab Franc (34 percent) and Petite Verdot (12 percent). This wine is tannic yet velvety, lush and jammy and showcases blueberry, raspberry, cherry and earth. And at $32, this Bordeaux blend is worth the shipping cost as the wines are currently unavailable in Chicago, but you can order directly through their website.

While I've had the bottle for quite some time, I just opened the 2004 Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon. Being a Napa Cab, I had preconceived ideas that it would be huge, leathery and herbaceous and leave me with a sinus headache. Boy, was I wrong. It was complex and showed different AtlasPeak_Cab  sides to its personality, which was almost schizophrenic. It first showed blueberry, vanilla and cherry note, medium-bodied tannins with a long finish and round mouthfeel. As it opened, it became more elegantly tannic with licorice and smoke. I know I should've been drinking it with a filet or lamb chops, but I had it with chocolate cookies and it was a perfect match. Look for it at steakhouses and select Whole Foods for around $30.

Napa isn't just known for its Cabs. I'm a huge fan of Zinfandel (Joel Gott is one of my favorites) and in early 2009 when I was first really getting into Twitter, someone I follow mentioned Brown Estate Vineyards and that it was one of his favorites. I jumped on that and got myself a few bottles, and I'm thrilled I did. Their 2008 Zinfandel was one of the best bottles I had last year, hands down. Big and sassy. Bold and jammy. Tons of dark fruit (blueberry, blackberry, red plum), spice (cinnamon, clove), pencil lead, some earth, violet and more round out this already well-rounded Zin that keeps on going in your mouth long after it's gone down your throat. It's great with a variety of food BrownEstate_zin  (gamey meats, pepperoni pizza, pasta with a bold ragout) or a roaring fire. Get it at Randolph Wine Cellars for $39.99

Popping over to Sonoma, another winery known for its Zin is the 100 percent biodynamic and organic Quivira Vineyards. In late October they released two 2007 Zins (Dry Creek Valley for $20 and Wine Creek Ranch/Dry Creek Valley for $34--the grapes are sourced from different vineyards). The 2007 vintage from California is pretty much a guaranteed good bottle, especially from Napa and Sonoma. Fantastic growing conditions, including a much cooler-than-normal summer, allowed for the grapes to ripen without overpowering heat. Many vineyards produced really well-balanced wine that should mature nicely. Quivira is no exception. Their 2007 Petite Sirah is also worth noting. This wine is pretty big but loaded with bold fruit and jam. It has medium tannins so it's not unthinkable to drink it without food. But you could grill up a peppercorn-crusted steak or lamb rubbed with exotic spices and have a great meal. Quivira_Zin  You can hold onto this wine for a few years, but you don't have to. Get the 2007 Zinfandel at Gene's Sausage Shop (in Lincoln Square) for $18.99. The Petite Sirah ($26) and others can be purchased at Quivira's online shop.

Frank Family Vineyards, has become a leader in Napa and for good reason. They produce some beautiful award-winning sparkling wine and Cab; personally, I really got into the 2007 Zinfandel (a blend of 84 percent Zinfandel, 9 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 7 percent Petite Sirah). It was dark purple and lush with violet and blackberry notes and you could smell the spice. It nicely blends blueberry and sweet black cherry with vanilla and chocolate (kind of sounds like a great sundae!). It was smooth and velvety and goes well with meats, chocolate cake and even hearty Chinese food, which is what I had while drinking it. Grab the Zin at Binny's for $32.99

Some people may not think of Pinot Noir as big and warm, but this finicky grape has quite a range. Just look at what's coming out of Pali Wine Co. This cooperative started by a group of Pinot-loving friends is a Pali  Santa Barbara County-based winery that sources its grapes from up-and-down the West Coast. They have more affordable wines around $19 and some bigger, more cult-like wines around $50 and they're all amazing. I tasted through about seven or eight throughout 2009 and there wasn't a wine in the bunch I didn't love. I shared a bottle with friends (including the always fun and informative sommeliers Alpana Singh and Belinda Chang) at a small dinner party and Chang was thrilled we had it. Whether you go with the 2007 Huntington Santa Barbara, 2008 Riviera Sonoma Coast, the 2007 Durell Vineyard or others, you'll always get some beautiful cherry, raspberry, chocolate, cinnamon and more. Always great to serve with pork dishes. It's difficult to find Pali wines at retail outside of California and Nevada, but you can pick up some bottles online at Snooth or through the Pali website.

My final wine was a big surprise to me. With all the hype surrounding it, I thought it'd be more trendy than ChMontelena_Cab  tasty. When you have Napa Valley Cabernet, you have to sometimes be skeptical, but the Chateau Montelena 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon really, really impressed me. This winery, along with Stags Leap,  helped put Napa Valley on the worldwide wine map back in the '70s. I was expecting massive tannins and it was softer at the start and never grew too earthy or acidic. It nicely blended blackberry with spice, some licorice and a bit of mint and got jammier and rounder as it opened. It's available in many locations, but Binny's has it for $39.99. 

Who says winter has to be miserable? With a great bottle of red, you can hibernate for the season in front of a fire and never have to be cold again.

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