Too Much Wine Too Little Time

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A Tasting with Fortress Vineyards

Lake County – Just north of Napa Valley. It’s a relatively new wine producing region in California. We thought we would try to check out some of these new wineries. I stumbled across Fortress Vineyards while searching for some Lake County up and comers. I gave them a call a few weeks before coming out to Napa Valley to see if we could visit them. As it turns out, they don’t have a tasting room, but share space at the Frank Family Winery on Larkmead Lane in Calistoga. Barbara from Fortress offered to meet us at Frank Family.

No tasting room and sharing space, but seeming to have won a few awards, that’s my idea of an up and comer. Fortress focuses on Sauv Blanc, the 07 we tasted was flat out the best Sauv Blanc I have recollection of ever having. The brightness and balanced acidity was unmatched, no cut grass, the bottle even says “grass is for cows”. Apparently, the high altitude (2400’) and lake affect winds from Clear Lake have something to do with that. Finding this gem would have been satisfying enough, but she followed it up with a Petite Syrah that is currently leading the pack of all that we have tasted so far in Napa.

As we were tasting a few of their other wines, we found the secret sauce they were using in their wine. Wine making consultant to Fortress is none other than Nils Venge. We have been bumping into Nils wines all over the valley this week, and have become fans. As luck would have it, later in the day we found Nils working around the barrels at his signature winery Saddleback Cellars, it was a great tie in to a great day.

To visit their website click here:

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Dining out in Napa Valley

There is a lot of good food in Napa. St. Helena has some very fine restaurants. Usually there are not bar fights in them, but hey, I guess we came during a good time. Nothing like luxury without the attitude. I like that idea. What a night. A four star meal, started with the best mushroom soup on the planet, followed by a steak and “eggs” that that defies description and definitely not like anything you ever had in a French bistro, finished off with bread pudding from another planet. Ok, so the middle of the meal was made interesting by a loud party that was wisely managed out of the restaurant without missing a beat. Real people, in a real restaurant serving world class food, the kind of place a beer guy on wine can appreciate – Martini House, St. Helena.

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Wine At the Ball Park

They serve wine, even good stuff, at the new fancy baseball stadiums! What’s that about? I visited Citi Field, new home of the New York Mets. They have a climate controlled Wine Cellar in the Sterling Club, which is behind the seats the home plate seats. Sorry, wine doesn’t belong at the ball park, get rid of it! Dump it! They are ruining the spirit of enjoying a good ball game. Some people always take things too far!

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Jug Wine

Before California was world renowned for wine on par with the best in the world, it was known for “jug” wine. Called “jug” because it came in gallon bottle with a handle on it. Today, we call it “box” wine. California is still the world’s largest producer of “box” wine. It is what it is, known for its consistency from year to year batch to batch; it’s a testament to the production ingenuity of the big California producers. It was the forbearer of our wonderful California wines we enjoy today, the finest coming from Napa and Sonoma, representing only 2 to 4% of the total California production. Next time someone brings a box wine to put in your wine cellar, don’t laugh too hard. It’s the hard working grandparent that paid the freight for the other stuff that sits in the racks!

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How to Handle Napa the Valley of the Gods

OK, quick lesson from the “beer guy” on wine. Pace yourself when on a pilgrimage to the valley of the gods. That itinerary might have seemed a bit rough and leave a dent in your next day. Not really. Pace Pace Pace is the trick. First and foremost, take in three times the amount of water then wine. Don’t drink all the wine. Face it; it’s all not that good. If you even think you don’t like it, don’t drink it. That’s what that silver bucket on the table is for, us it! You are just tasting it, not drinking it after all. When you pick up that picnic lunch, pack lots of bread! Have some in between every tasting. During the picnic lunch, don’t drink a bottle of wine; there is plenty of wine to drink. Just enjoy the miniscule buzz you might have from the earlier tastings. OK, you are back at the Inn. Alright, maybe you can start opening it up a bit. If, and only if, the complementary wine pour is good, enjoy it. Again, lots of water. Enjoy your meal, pacing the wine as the courses unfold, with lots of water, you’ll be fine the next day to enjoy it again and make new discoveries.

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A Typical day in Napa

Let me lay out a typical itinerary for a day in the valley of the gods. Up at 7AM, big breakfast. Out the door at 8AM. Stop by Dean & Deluca or the Sunshine Market. Pack a cooler full of great picnic lunch. First tasting 9AM. YES! 9AM! Silver Oak is open weekdays at 9AM, along with a few others, call it a warm up. Next, it’s up one of the mountains, Howell, Spring, Diamond. Start at the top and work your way down. Make an appointment at one and ask them to refer you to someone else on the way down. Pick the best views to enjoy your picnic lunch. 3 or 4 tastings later, you are on the valley floor again. If you have it in you, stop at another on the way back to your B&B. Back to the B&B in time for late afternoon appetizers and invited winery pouring complementary for the Inn. Well, next get to your dinner reservation at Martini House by 7:30. Bring one bottle, buy one bottle, and finish it off with a little port or dessert wine. B&B shuttle ride back to the Inn, a night cap to finish the night.

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Annual Napa Valley Pilgrimage

OK, so it’s been a while since I blogged. I can’t wait any longer. The annual pilgrimage to Napa Valley is coming up in a week. Some people face east when they pray, well . . . we face west. I guess it just depends where you come from. As long as you are facing in some direction where you hope good things will come from, I guess it’s all good.
This year’s pilgrimage will include some of the oldies but goodies. We’ll also leave enough open time to just wing it. That’s how you develop oldie but goodies. I think I want to go to Duckhorn. I love those little ducks on their label, and I have developed an appreciation for their classic Duckhorn Merlot. Damn, that’s an expensive merlot, but it’s very good. I wonder what they might have in their tasting room that I haven’t had before. Last time, I was too buzzed or too early in the morning to get much out of it. I can’t seem to remember. I’ll go back and revisit.

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How much to pay for wine

Many a wine drinker has pondered this question. Well, the real answer is, whatever you feel comfortable paying. Whether you want to admit or not, the amount of money you pay for a bottle of wine has a lot to do with your perceptions of how good it really was or will be. But, at the end of the day, does it really have anything at all to do with it. There are so many things that go into pricing a bottle of wine . . . I don’t profess to know any of it from an industry point of view. Although, I think I have figured some things out from experience.
Generally speaking, a bottle of wine that costs less then $5 is going to be in all likelihood, swill. Face it; in today’s economy does anyone really think it is possible to produce something that requires a natural metamorphosis to occur under a minimal amount of quality control and ship it to your local hooch dealer for less then $5 retail. Ounce for ounce, you can’t even produce beer at these prices, which is made from some of the cheapest and easiest to grow and harvest products. Forget about it, sorry Trader Joe and 2 Buck Chuck, Mad Dog 20/20, the list goes on. Leave that stuff to anyone who needs wine simply as a means to an end.
Once you pass $5, watch out, it’s all fair game. In the simple white wine category such as Sauvignon Blanc from Australia decent drinkable fun wine can be had for less then $10 a bottle. I wouldn’t go near red wine at this price point, but I won’t disqualify it, you might get lucky. Passing $10 a bottle there begins to be enough gross margins to produce wine with a modicum of care required to reveal complex tastes for real enjoyment. Go past $20, well, the conversation gets more interesting. At this point, let me introduce Cliff, our limo driver for a first time visit to Napa Valley several years ago. We piled into his town car and one of the first questions we asked him was “How much should we pay for wine?” Cliffs’ response was insightful and a rule I live by to this day that has never let me down. Paraphrasing Cliff:
Spend what you feel comfortable spending, but in general not more then $40 a bottle. A $5 bottle of wine will be crap. A $10 bottle of wine will be at least twice as good as a $5 bottle of wine and drinkable. A $20 bottle of wine will be very much better then a $10 bottle and wine priced at $20-$40 range will be regal and quite possibly give you experiences of a life time. Beyond $40, serious marketing/exclusivity claims kick in and put the buyer in a position of paying for the wine producers indulgences or special nuances of production technique. This may be worth it for some, but probably not a beer guy on wine.
All that said, obviously its up to ones personal budget. Do I spend more then $40 on a bottle of wine? Yes I do, and more often then I like to think about. Tip; try some wine produced by Vincent Arroyo. It sells at the $40 price point and for uniqueness; complexity and joy of drinking will stand up to any much “bigger” Napa Valley wine. But then again, you would have to spend more then $40 on a bottle to prove me wrong.

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The First good Wine

Having been a beer guy for so many years you probably wouldn’t expect such a person spending a significant amount of vacation time and money on trips to Paris, France. Paris, Texas maybe – but not Paris, France. Be it, as it may, due to a collision of work assignments and passing interest in art and architecture combined with an appreciation for almost anything old, I had come to grow very fond of Paris. On one of our vacation trips there, I decided to investigate The Hotel Ritz (pre-Diana fame) and one of its infamous haunts within, The Hemingway Bar. Infamous, because lore has it that upon the news of Paris’ liberation from Nazi rule, Ernest Hemingway bought the bar a round and toasted by firing his sidearm through the ceiling. Pssst, if you want to go to fun places on vacation, go to places where Hemingway liked to go. The place is now famous because it is home to the undisputed “Best Bartender in the world”, Collin Field. So, back to the wine. My wife and I decided on a pre-dinner drink at The Hemingway Bar. After successfully making it through the gauntlet that is the lobby of The Ritz(go there, you’ll know what I mean), then down a long hallway lined with jewelry shops only the Queen could appreciate, part the heavy drapes covering an unmarked doorway, you’ll find The Hemingway Bar. We saddle up to two of the total of only six seats the bar has. We were hosted to an unparalleled gracious hour or so by Collin. From perfectly prepared martinis to tiny appetizers prepared in seconds, Billy Holliday playing on an authentic 78rpm Victrolla, quiet conversation under subdued sepia lighting. Ouch, atmosphere so good you can cut it with a knife. We sadly needed to head out to our dinner when Collin stopped us and asked us if we would like to try some complimentary wine. He explained there was a couple at one of the few tables that had lost track of time and could no longer wait for their wine to decant. We both said “Is it red?” He didn’t reply, just pinched his eyebrows. Of course, our reply was – “we don’t care for red wine”. Pinching his eyebrows again, he proceeded to pour us a taste. And, without saying a word, we knew a whole new dimension of our life was about to open up. Collin kept pouring. I won’t pretend to describe the wine, as it was almost 10 years ago. What I do remember is it was a 1964 Château Ausone. We couldn’t resist asking Collin how much the couple had paid for the wine that we had drunk. 7,000 French Franc, about $700 U.S. dollars at the time. It remains the most richly priced bottle of wine we have ever consumed. We never made it to our dinner; we spent the rest of the evening chatting with Collin and various guests at the bar until the wee hours of the morning.


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Just who is beer guy?

It all started about 25 years ago. I started to enjoy an ice cold beer. Nothing fancy, a can of Bud or maybe for a special occasion I’d go for some fancy import, like a Molson. Back in those days I really liked a Ballentine Ale. It tasted good enough, and it did the job from a buzz prospective. But the best part was the little puzzles on the inside of the cap. Over the years I became an aficionado of watered down American beers, I just loved them. How could you not like something that tasted almost as good from the first one to the 15th! That old Schaefer commercial was right on. You know it “. . . the one beer to have, when . . .” There was even a little dive bar in town that served Bud bottles along with a little glass to pour it into. You could sniff it I guess, the wonderful owner of the bar has passed away and the place changed hands. I don’t go there anymore. I wish I found out why he served Bud with those little glasses, it was such a classy little touch.
Over those 20 or so years I found it difficult to enjoy other types of alcoholic beverages. The reason being, I had fine tuned my taste buds and pace to perfection with respect to beer. If I drank any other beverage, it all went down at the same pace and seemingly tasting the same. This is not a good thing if you are drinking a Martini or Margarita!
Over the past few years on a weekend having a few of those good ‘ole brewskies I’d experience some shortness of breath and feel my neck being a little itchy. Didn’t think much of it until one time I felt particularly itchy and went to the bathroom, oh yea, it was at that dive bar. Wow, my neck was all red and blotchy and I could feel that shortness of breath. After some experimenting with what I was eating and drinking I narrowed it down. I had developed an allergy to BEER!
Although there were many other experiences over a several year period that helped me to see the light, this was the beginning of my transition to the “red side”.
In coming articles I’ll share some of those strategic inflection points (can you guess where I worked once), many of them have occurred during the many fortunate opportunities I have had to travel on business. They were a long time coming and from many different places on the globe, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Singapore and good old New Jersey. As well, I’ll talk about wine from a “beer guys” prospective. I’ll tackle some of the most pressing questions I have pondered and maybe you did too. Things like; what is the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $150 bottle of wine? All those flavors, smells, fruits is really just a bunch of bull, isn’t it? If I love wine, but still enjoy a beer, which should I drink first on an evening that I might have both? How to do a full day of wine tasting, followed by dinner, followed by after dinner drinks without a hangover the next day? This is all important stuff, stay tuned.