With the holiday season coming over the horizon, it's time to prepare for visitors, for groups (some would say hordes) of friends, relatives and neighbors, dropping by to wish you well. They may be carrying empty wassail cups in hopes of receiving a refill, in the style of a friend from Dallas who used to carry an empty martini glass while trick-or-treating.
Big box wines, those three-liter containers that are priced in the low $20s, seem to be gaining in popularity or exposure, and can be seen in many wine shops. Like most bulk wines, they're better than they used to be. Many are quite acceptable in terms of quality, and since three liters equals four 750-ml bottles, they're quite a bargain.
Underdog Wine Merchants and Octavin Home Wine Bar, based in Livermore, Calif., make and distribute a number of octagonal wine boxes (hence "octavin"), with both red and white wines from California, New Zealand, Spain and France. A soft-sided plastic container, inside the box, holds the wine, and there's a nifty spigot to decant it. According to Underdog, the wine will keep 4-6 weeks after opening. In addition, the Underdog folks report that using the box instead of four 750-ml glass bottles will reduce packaging waste by 92 percent and decrease carbon emissions by 55 percent.
A couple of Underdogs who had slipped their leashes wound up at my back door recently and, generous soul that I am, I opened the door for a 2008 Boho Vineyards Old Vines Zinfandel ($24) and a non-vintage Spanish red by Bodegas Osborne called Seven ($22) for the seven red varieties that comprise the blend. It begins with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (25 percent each) and continues with Syrah (18), Petit Verdot (8),Tempranillo (8), Grenache (8) and Graciano (8). The latter is a Spanish grape used in Rioja. The wine is very pleasant, similar to a Syrah or to a wine from the Languedoc region of France. It's dark red, with berry and plum flavors and excellent body. I liked it a lot.
I'm a major fan of Zinfandel, but the Boho was a little light and lacked some of the complexity that is present in better Zins.
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AND CHILE, TOO -- Don Sebastiani and Sons winemakers, negociants, importers and members of a legendary California wine family, also have a box-wine outlet. Pepperwood Grove's Big Green Box offers Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and other wines, at about $20, which breaks down to five bucks for the standard 750-milliliter bottle. I sampled the non-vintage Cab and was delighted. The wine is a touch light (no one would confuse it with a French Bordeaux), but it has lots of fruit, good balance and is delightfully drinkable with, say, meat-sauced pasta, right now.
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STYLE AND SUBSTANCE -- Napa Cellars is offering a couple of '09 Chardonnays, one from various Napa areas, including Atlas Peak and Oakville, another, which could be called a reserve, strictly from the small Mount Veeder appellation. The latter ($35), smooth and oaky, has the buttery overtones that distinguishes the better California varieties; it spends nine months in French oak, with two-thirds of that time on the lees. A quarter of the former ($24) is fermented in stainless steel, the rest in French oak, and its six months in steel or wood includes malolactic fermentation. The resulting wine is brighter and crisper, with citrus overtones and a bit of the French Burgundy aura. Very tasty.
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AND SOME OTHER NEW OFFERINGS -- Dry Creek Vineyard's 2009 Sauvignon Blanc ($16) is a delight, with smooth, delicious fruit, pleasing citrus overtones and nice acidity. . . An all-stainless steel version from Bogle ($9) is a splendid value from the same vintage, but lacks some of the finesse shown by its cousin. . . Riesling fans will be pleased by a 2007 from Firestone Vineyards on the Central Coast ($11). It would work very well with Asian dishes. . .
Trefethen, a long-time Napa producer of elegant wines, now has a second label, Double T, with a 2008 Napa Chardonnay ($17) that is a winner in its price range, with aromas of peaches and flavors that are burnished with a hint of cinnamon, a fine accompaniment to roast pork. . . Another Chardonnay, from Dry Creek Vineyards and the Russian River Valley ($20), is rich and buttery and shouts its California heritage.