Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wine Travels to Explore

I’ve come across some interesting opportunities for wine tasting and exploration that I thought I would pass along:

The Bellagio is always full of great activity and gourmet restaurants. On May 7th the Las Vegas hotel’s Tuscany Kitchen will be hosting UnCork'd wine seminars.. The schedule includes “Wine Immersion: A Master Sommelier’s View on Organic Wine, Culinary Revelations: A Piece of Chocolate and a Glass of Wine,” and “Wine Immersion Experience: Wine Scores and Ratings, What Do They Actually Mean.” There's also an opportunity for a five-course wine pairing dinner.

Speaking of Tuscany, there’s nothing like the real thing for an Italian wine experience. I’m hoping to experience my own adventure this fall with DiVine Tours, a company I recently discovered that specializes in wine trips. DiVine offers a selection of wine exploration for everything from day tours in great Italian cities like Florence, Rome, Amalfi Coast, San Gimignano and Pisa to in-depth week long adventures. They even do private tours. I’m currently looking at two tours that sound incredible – The Vineyards of Tuscany and The Grand Harvest Tour of Tuscany. Both tours give an in-depth look at behind the scenes wine-making in this beautiful region. Visit their website or write to

Between the mountains of Montana is a hideaway called Triple Creek Ranch. I haven’t been there yet, but I feel relaxed just going to their website. Their fireplace-filled cabins, hot tubs and hammocks look inviting, but there’s another reason to head there in May and June. Vitner’s Weekends feature a different winery each week. Guests can stay for a package that includes accommodations, food, tastings, ranch activities and receptions. The wineries participating this year are: Fidelitas Wines, Koenig Vineyards and Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards. For more information, contact the Triple Creek Ranch- 800-654-2943,

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Flavored Vodka Party

I am working on a story on flavored vodkas and had the terrible task (!) this past weekend of tasting 13 flavors from 6 different companies.  It was such a difficult task that I decided I needed to call in some friends to help me out.  I wasn't surprised when there were quite a few volunteers!

I plan on doing an in-depth story on the vodkas involved for print, but I just can't keep all the results to myself that long.  We divided the drinks into two groups -- Unusual Flavors and Berries, and took an intermission in between.  There were some surprises so let's start with what we thought about the flavor... 

Smirnoff Pear-Everyone said this tasted like banana and I was in agreement. 

Voli Orange Vanilla-"Orange Creamsicle" was the consensus on this one.

Ciroc Coconut-I don't know if it was imagination or visions of Pina Coladas, but a few people said they tasted a bit of pineapple in this.  The coconut was clear, though.

Voli Lemon-This was described as a "lemon drop."  It clearly tasted like its name.

Rehorst Citrus Honey-This vodka -- which was not the strongest by alcohol -- tasted the strongest to all.  A few people tasted a bit of lemon, but no one identified the honey.

Voli Espresso Vanilla -The coffee was the strongest flavor in this.  Only one person picked out the vanilla.  All said it was the most unusual.

Voli Pear Vanilla-This one couldn't be identified (it must be something about pears).  I got "fruit punch" and "caramel," but no pear.

As for the favorite in this group.  It was a toss up between Ciroc Coconut and Voli Espresso Vanilla -- the only two that received votes as the best.  Personally, I couldn't decide between the two, but I have to qualify my answer with the fact that I am allergic to citrus so I didn't taste much of those flavors.  The least favorite was the Rehorst Citrus Honey.  Also note that there was supposed to be 14 flavors at the tasting, but Smirnoff Pineapple broke in the hands of the FedEx driver.

Now for the berry flavors..
Effen Black Cherry-Everyone chimed in at once that this was black cherry.  The flavor was clear and strong.

Absolute Acai Berry-No one guessed this.  Perhaps it is because, in addition to the acai, this vodka also contains blueberry and pomegranate.

Ciroc Red Berry-This smelled more like berry than it tasted. The grape (it is a grape-based vodka) flavor was a bit stronger than the berries.

Voli Raspberry Cocoa-Everyone tasted the chocolate and "berry," but couldn't identify it as raspberry.

Effen Raspberry-There wasn't that much flavor in this one -- certainly nothing like Effen's Black Cherry.

The berry flavors had no clear favorite.  The votes were pretty well divided among them all, with the exception of the Effen Raspberry.  I really liked the Absolute Berry Acai best, though the Effen Black Cherry was very tasty.

I'd also like to mention that the Voli Vodkas, which were very popular in the taste tests, are light vodkas.  They all contain under 100 calories and also contain electrolytes.  I don't know if their quite "healthy" enough to take to the gym for your workout, but they are worth checking out as a option that will keep your diet a little more in check than many spirits.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Minimus is a perfect partner on the road

If there's one thing I hate to see,  it's people doing stories about their advertisers just because they took in an ad.  This is very different.  I sought out Minimus ads for this site because it is a company I have useed with for years and I think it's a great source for my traveling readers.

Minimus is not just a place to get hard to find travel-sized products, they are a source of everything you need for your trip that doesn't come in the form of shoes, clothes or equipment.  For long trips, I have frequently ordered in advance and had a package of toiletries, food items and laundry supplies waiting for me.  Before leaving on short trips (or trips with multiple destinations), I often place a Minimus order.

I will leave you with a couple of my favorite Minimus items...

Cereal-With the exception of the over-sugared ones, cereal is a great meal, fortified with vitamins.  Add some milk and you've got a quick bowl of nutrition -- without a lot of calories and fat.  It's my go to meal when I'm traveling and have a night off between gourmet meals.  Minimus has a great selection of snack-sized cereal and you can even pick up some powdered milk if you don't think you can get some easily where you are staying.

Caffeine-You go into every hotel in the U.S., whether it's a budget motel or a five star and you will find a nice selection of coffee and tea, but it's not so simple out of the country.  I like variety and at Minimus I can get a variety of coffee, tea and hot chocolate that fits in an envelope.

Over-the-Counter Meds-Wherever you are going, it's good to be prepared with Tylenol, cold medicine, stomach remedies and even disposable thermometers.  Minimus has them all.

Beyond the Ziploc-Even before the fees, no one wanted to check luggage, but can you fit all your favorite products in a Ziploc?  I can squeeze more in that bag than most, yet I can't get in all my favorites. Ordering in advance from Minimus has definitely helped me keep my favorite beauty routine without always having to check my luggage.

I could probably go on for hours, but I think you got the idea.  Miminus is definitely worth a visit before you head anywhere.  The best part is that they don't charge for shipping on orders over $20, an amount that will get you a lot of travel supplies.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Edgewater Hotel hosts Celebration of American Distilling

The Edgewater Hotel, which overlooks Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, has been home to politicians and actors throughout its history, but it's also a great place to explore the spirits.

For my trip, it was a beautiful lake full of snow that I witnessed outside my room, but there are also sunsets to be viewed from the Cove Lounge.  It is a cozy place to sip one of their specialty Martinis (Palladin Pear, anyone?) or Bellinis (Peach, Strawberry or Raspberry), Craft Beers, or something from the extended Wine, Sherry, Scotch, Cordial or Port list. Sandwiches, burgers and appetizers are also available in the lounge, which is full of pictures signed by celebrities of all kinds who have one thing in common -- they have stayed at The Edgewater.

The Admiralty Dining Room also enjoys the lake view, serving full dinners and a large Sunday Brunch.  While I did not eat in the dining room,  I tasted some delicious samples in the evening of Chicken Cordon Bleu balls and Swedish Meatballs, and thoroughly enjoyed the Mediterranean Omelette for breakfast.

While the food and drinks here don't seem to need any tweaking, the rooms and common areas can use a facelift. There are some major renovations in the works as the resort awaits the city's approval for additions that include a new building, renovated rooms, a pool and rooftop spa, among other things.

Banquet rooms at The Edgewater are available for a variety of events.  For my visit it was the Celebration of American Distilleries that took up the majority of space.  This event featured some great distilleries (everything from whisky to gin, vodka to absinthe) gathering in one spot.   There were a total of 30 companies exhibiting at the Celebration of American Distilleries (check here for some of my favorites).  Three hundred spectators were able to visit as many booths as they wanted and taste the many different spirits.  For me it was also a chance to scope out the places I want to visit and it's quite a list.

The event came during a week when DISCUS (Distilled Spirits of the United States) opened up a new Craft Distiller Affiliate Membership, which some of these small distillers have taken advantage of.  It will hopefully lead to more opportunities for many to taste the Rye of Templeton, Spruce Gin of Rogue, the Whisky of Stranahan's Colorado and the Rouge Absinthe of Great Lake's Distillery, but we are all grateful for hard workers like Adam Casey of the Madison Malt Society and Star Liquor who put together events like this.

I'm looking forward to coming back next year to the Celebration of American Distilleries  for some more sampling from the latest artisans, as well as checking out the renovations at The Edgewater Hotel.

Monday, March 1, 2010

South Beach Wine and Food Festival Finale

The finale of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival was as tasty as the previous days as I learned about Spanish wines and then sampled a bit of everything.

I was back in the classroom Sunday morning.  This time it was to learn about wines from Spain and who better to teach that than Doug (no relation) Frost, author of 2008 Wines from Spain Far from Ordinary Wine Guide.  It's been years since I was in Spain and I was quickly taken out of any preconceived notions of the $5-10 wine the country had poured with no consideration to quality years ago.  We had 10 wines to taste and, though they were all still moderately priced ($17-45), it was clear how the third most producer of wine in the world has earned that position.

It was Cava I had chosen this seminar for, on assignment for Crave Magazine, but as in the previous day's seminar, Doug Frost kept it fun and moving as he took us through some of the growing regions, like Rioja, Galicia and La Mancha. We tasted a wide variety from the Cava Segura Viudas, Aria Estate, to the very light Morgadio Albarino Rias Baixas (I would have loved to take a bottle of this down to the beach) and the heavier Pago de Vallegarcia Syrah.

After the 10 wine tasting, I decided to take a walk along the beach to the Whole Foods Tasting Village, which was actually on the sand.  It was a brisk (for Florida) 60 degree day, but the warm sun and the blue ocean made for an inviting break (and a chance to burn of some of these calories).  It wasn't nearly enough as the festival's village was an endless array of food and drinks that one could not imagine without being there.  I had done a few quick tastings the day before, but it was time to get serious.  I grabbed some delicious pasta at the Barilla booth and got working.

It is physically impossible to taste everything at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, though I'm sure many tried.  I was able to do some immediately elimination based on my seafood allergy, but that still left quite a bit to eat.  There was such a great assortment (including some tasty dishes from Tasting Village sponsor Whole Foods), but here are a few that stick in my mind...

The French Cheese & Wine tent, with Ile de France cheeses and some great French wines, including Champagne Henriot..

Ty Ku Japanese spirits-The Soju was delicious (and under 100 calories).

Villa de Borgo Pinot Grigio-I must put an Italian wine trip somewhere on my schedule.

Kahlua-While I've been busy with wine and hard spirits, this old favorite came in with (incredible) French Vanilla and Hazelnut flavors.

Allen Brothers Steaks-Some great beef in every presentation.

I tried a number of wines from California vineyards in my Waterford crystal glass (with a handy neckstrap) which I am definitely considering adding to my upcoming Napa trip. And a special mention to Lindt chocolates for those wonderful bars they were giving out.  After all, I day isn't complete without a little dark chocolate.

Since the Food Network is the top sponsor of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, there were also plenty of cooking and appearances throughout the Tasting Village by some of the network's major chefs, Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, Guy Feri, Rachel Ray and many others.  There was no one that left there hungry and we all went home with samples too.

All proceeds from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival will benefit the Florida International University (FIU) School of Hospitality and Tourism.  Prior to this year, the festival had raised a combined $8 million for the school. 

Look for additional stories on my Examiner Wine and Spirits Travel column.