Wine in cans, organic spirits, and real-fruit sparkling water

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New players in the huge beverage market are out there contending for our drink dollars and responding to the public’s deep desires for 1) convenience, 2) organic and natural, and 3) healthy alternatives to soda pop. We don’t include plain bottled water ‘cuz we worry a lot about companies siphoning water from natural springs that already belong to the people – and charging us for processing it and putting it in bottles. Doesn’t sound like a pyramid scheme at all, right? So here are a few new items worth a try:
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Backpack Wines
Backpack Wines

Backpack canned wine. You’ve heard of boxed wine, of course, and a number of makers are putting out some excellent quality in that formerly-scorned-but-becoming-more-popular packaging. Now comes wine in a can. Backpack Wines, based here in Chicago, recently put out two blend varieties: Cheek Rosè® and Snappy White®, in four-can packs. Made with grapes from quality vineyards, the wines come in recyclable cans you can take anywhere with the same convenience you get from canned beer or soda. We’re not talking luxury wines here, but the taste is reasonable and the convenience unbeatable. Chill a few cans for your next barbecue, picnic, beach outing – or just sip one with a friend sittin’ on the patio on a summer evening (yes, summer is going to hit with a vengeaance any minute).

Prairie cucumber vodka
Prairie cucumber vodka

Prairie organic spirits. Another new player in the alcoholic beverages category is the line of Prairie organic Spirits. “Made with respect from seed to glass,” Prairie Organic Spirits offers 100% certified organic vodka, made from a single-sourced, organic corn grown on a handful family-owned and operated Minnesota farms. Each bottle of Prairie Organic Spirits takes three years of meticulous work. The Cucumber version we sampled gives off lovely and unmistakable aromas of fresh cucumbers. Immediately upon opening the bottle we imagined making our favorite chilled gazpacho or Bloody Mary recipe spiked with this pure, unadulterated spirit. It’s also great as a mixer with flavored sparkling water or in your favorite cocktail. Without question will increase the aromatic intensity of whatever you use it in.

Spindrift sparkling fruit water
Spindrift sparkling fruit water

Spindrift fresh-squeezed-fruit-flavored sparkling water. It’s always important to stay hydrated, but it can be problematic if you don’t enjoy plain water. And there’s some evidence that neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners are very healthy, so here’s a new option: sparkling water made with real fruit. Spindrift is the only bubbly that uses real fruit to flavor its water. It’s refreshing on its own or a great mixer for summer cocktails. These waters are flavored only with 100% organically grown fruit – juice and purée. We love the fruit aromas and the bubbles of all the flavors. Now imagine topping up a shot of Prairie cucumber vodka (above) with ice and a few ounces of cucumber Spindriftr sparkling water – and top it with a spring of mint. Hard to get more refreshing than that. Comes in blackberry, cucumber, grapefruit, orange mango, lemon and – our favorite so far – raspberry lime.

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Cafe Brauer – good food, cocktails and great views

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English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Re...
English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Refectory is a National Historic Place in Lincoln Park Chicago. It is currently run by the Lincoln Park Zoological Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lincoln Park has a number of interesting places to eat, and I just discovered the pleasure of one of those – the patio at Cafe Brauer. Delicious American food specialties, served by warm and friendly people, and a small selection of wines, craft beers and cocktails designed to satisfy most of us. One menu item promises fresh vegetables from Green City Market, one of the city of Chicago’s markets that sets up every Wednesday and Saturday nearly across the street on Stockton Blvd. This is a marriage made in heaven.

I love the fact that the patio  sits right next to the Nature Boardwalk that meanders through a nature preserve. Watch people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, enjoy the scenery. Or bring your own dog – the restaurant welcomes dogs on the patio.
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English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln P...
English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk in Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Entrance to the Nature Boardwalk is right off the patio. You can walk all the way around its half-mile perimeter as it wends through a 14-acre nature preserve. It’s a closed pathway, so you can trust that your bicycling or dog-walking grandchild or friend will definitely find her way back to you. No way to get lost. Being in “the wild” in the middle of the city without being worried you’ll get lost. Can’t wait to bring my granddaughter here.

Mallard duck pairs occasionally break the still waters of the pond next to the patio. It’s an incredibly peaceful and calming environment. Bird song everywhere. People walking.

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Fried chicken with french fries
Fried chicken with french fries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cafe Brauer patio is the site of many weddings, school and corporate events. The staff are highly experienced at providing buffets full of tasty all-American foods like buttermilk fried chicken (delicious!). The regular menu offers big plates to share – calamari, wings, guac and salsa, or steak chili nachos. Then there are soups and salads, plus paninis, burgers – including turkey and black bean and classic sandwiches, all served with fries. Sides are interesting – side salad,  Parmesan fries, waffle-battered sweet potato fries with maple-vinegar aioli, mac & cheese, and stir-fried Green City Market vegetablea, all priced at $4.95, but if you order them with a sandwich they’re only two bucks. Desserts are $5.95 and include Brownie Sundae, Blueberry Crisp, and Cookie Skillet with ice cream. Hungry yet?

Basically, Cafe Brauer has just about anything your heart could desire. They even play upbeat music at just the right decibel level – cheers the atmosphere and lightens the spirit.

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If you hop the bus through Lincoln Park, you can catch either the 156 or the 151 down Stockton Blvd. There are several stops you can get off at; the first stop for the zoo on the southbound 151 is at Webster. The next stop, Armitage, lets you off close to Cafe Brauer.
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Hours for the patio are 11 to 9pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 to 9pm on weekends. Obviously, Café Brauer has been around quite a while, but it sure feels nice to discover this charming option. BTW, they have free Wi-Fi, and if the restaurant is not busy, you are welcome to sit and enjoy as long as you like. So delightful. Thank you, Chicago. Another reason to love our city.
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Redeem yourself on Dad’s day – toast with Redemption Whiskey

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We are big fans of distilled brown spirits of all types. And if you happen to be, as well, Father’s Day is a great excuse to splurge on a really nice bottle. But, then, so is Memorial Day, or summer, or Saturday, or… Heck, who needs an excuse anyway?

Redemption whiskey comes in several versions
Redemption whiskey comes in several versions

Redemption WhiskeyThe bold, flask shaped bottle is a perfect fit for the hardworking Dads in our lives, and the story of the whiskey is right on the label.

Redemption Wheated Bourbon ($44.99; 48% ABV) – NEW! This new limited edition offering, coming June 2017 just in time for Father’s Day, is harmonious on the palate, delicate, yet robust and intense. Most Wheated Bourbons have between 20% and 30% wheat in their mash bill while Redemption has 45%. Flavors of roasted coffee bean, smoked meats and hazelnut marry harmoniously with spicy notes of cardamom and black pepper and a fresh hint of mint. Deep topaz and amber with hues of orange and lime.

Redemption Rye ($29.99; 46% ABV) – A true expression of the rye grain, beautifully flavored rye spice with light floral and citrus notes. Slight mint finish makes this great or sipping or mixing in a classic cocktail.

Redemption Bourbon ($29.99; 42% ABV) – The high amount of corn gives this bourbon a classic sweet taste with notes of vanilla and caramel from the wood, and the rye adds some light spice flavor. Bottled at 84 proof for a lighter experience, great on the rocks or in mixed drinks.

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Dreaming Tree – Wines you’ll love that love the earth

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Dreaeming Tree Chardonnay
Dreaeming Tree Chardonnay

Dreaming Tree is a winery that loves the environment as much as it loves making wine. Not only are their wines  delicious values at well under $20, but they’re also bottled in lightweight bottles that are manufactured with clean-burning natural gas. Labels are made with 100% recycled paper, using black ink printing—which means  no bleach is used and fewer toxins and heavy metals are released into the earth. And, get this, even Dreaming Tree’s corks are recyclable. All of which are good reasons to try these wines, but then there’s the taste! Below are tasting notes on some of their most popular vintages. Think green. Think delicious. Think value.

Oh, and if you’re into music, the guy behind the wines is also the guy in front of the Dave Matthews Band. And he partnered up for Dreaming Tree with New Zealand native Sean McKenzie – winemaker par excellence for his entire lifetime. Their goal is to make wines that preserve the true terroir and style of California’s fabulous growing regions.
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And now the Band’s professional chef, Fiona Bohane, creates recipes that pair with the wines and use local ingredients everywhere they travel. Check out some of the cool recipes here.
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Dreaming Tree Crush 2014. Blended of California’s finest varieties, this red wine gives you raspberry jam and vanilla oak characters on the nose. The flavors remind you of juicy mixed berries, and the wine’s tannins are full, yet soft and approachable. A robust red wine that goes great with spicy foods like barbecue ribs, Vietnamese-style pork sandwiches, or vegetarian stuffed poblano peppers. Worth every penny. SRP ~$15
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Dreaming Tree Sauvignon Blanc 2015. Lovely California-style SV, meaning its grapefruit zing is moderate and mellow as opposed to sharp. Winemaker notes: “fresh and juicy with tropical fruit aromas of passion fruit and kiwi. Finishing crisp and clean with hints of grapefruit and zesty lime.” Delicious as an aperitif, or serve it with fish, seafood or zesty Mexican food. ¡Olé! SRP ~$15
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And then there’s Dreaming Tree Chardonnay – delicious with grilled seafood, goat cheese, herb-roasted chicken, or fruit/ricotta/arugula salad. And their luscious, award-winning Dreaming Tree Cabernet Sauvignon – aromas of berries, cherries and cassis, wraped in toasted caramel with soft, mouth-filling tannins. Try it with grilled flank steak, ribs or vegetable kebobs.
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Environmentally conscious, sustainably grown, delicious wines at affordable prices and a good story to tell about them. Just in time for Mom, Dad or Grad gifts. Available at Walgreens, Target and lots of other locations around Chicago.
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Wisdom from Jackson Family winemakers – Masters of Oregon Pinot Noir

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Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley
Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley

If you’ve ever thought a Pinot Noir from Oregon tasted like a Burgundy, you’re not alone. Though half a world away from each other, both regions are located on nearly the same latitude and many winemakers in each area practice similar vinification techniques. Early makers of Pinot Noir in America had to go to Burgundy to study because no wineries here were making Pinot Noir at the time. Willamette Valley has been focusing on Pinot Noir for the last 51 years, and its capricious weather keeps winemakers on their toes.

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Oregon, according to a panel of Jackson Family Wines Collection winemakers from there who visited Chicago recently, is a state of mind that’s slightly different for each of them, but all of them speak about the need to be flexible and creative and collaborative because of the challenge of Oregon’s cool, fast-changing climate conditions.
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Chicago is 6th in the United States in consumption of Oregon Pinot Noir – consumption here is up by 26% in the last year. And one of the big reasons is the excellent quality of the Pinot Noirs produced in the Willamette Valley by these very winemakers.
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Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Va...
Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is a glimpse into the collective wisdom of these passionate and skilled winemakers – a somewhat loose arrangement of interesting bits about winemaking from the half-dozen panelists – who were, by the way, having more fun up there than we’ve ever seen in a wine tasting program!

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  • The soils in Willamette (pronounced Will-am-it, dammit) are actually oceanic, which is really good for growing Pinot Noir grapes. As the earth’s tectonic plates scraped against each other creating mountains in that area, they dislodged soil that was formerly at the bottom of an ocean and deposited that in the valley between the two mountain ranges, Cascade and Coast that both influence the environment and protect the grapes that grow here.
  • In 1988 there were only 49 wineries in Oregon. Now there are 700.
  • Unlike in Napa Valley where many owners don’t live, Jackson Family winemakers live on site. They also meet regularly and readily share information with each other. For example, when one grower decided to try earlier thinning than tradition, he readily passed along the results: vines mature better and the grapes have more flavor.
  • California, Oregon’s southern neighbor, is too warm to grow Pinot Noir grapes. It seldom has difficult growing seasons, whereas Oregon’s climate is a constant challenge to wine growers.
  • Julia Jackson, born in Sonoma, said her mother had a vision of going to Oregon, and then the whole family fell in love with wines grown there. Julia herself loves being out in the vineyards, being stewards of the land, a sense of discovery about the great wines.  Jackson Family winemakers also believe in educating visitors and so sponsor collaborative trips for that purpose.
  • The grapes in Willamette are more transparent than those grown in Burgundy, yet the finished wines can easily be aged 10 to 15 years. Burgundy has many different producers. Willamette offers multiple mesoclimates. Producers must be in intimate touch with the features of their terroir, and most consider their big markers as the specific site and the vintage – yielding wines with a rustic nature and a nice backbone of tannins. Even though Oregon Pinots have a darker profile, they tend to be fresher and more acidic than California’s.
  • Napa is most known for its Cabernet; Willamette is identified with Pinot Noir; Argentina with Malbec. La Crema was the first Jackson Family winery to move into Oregon. They definitely don’t try to make a California version of Pinot, but rather work on discovering what’s there and stay true to that. Willamette’s vintage-to-vintage variability necessitates constant continuing education. Jackson Family winemakers are required to dedicate 5% of land to biodiversity as part of the goal of keeping the land healthy.
  • Lots of volcanic soils are good for winemaking and viticulture. They have greater water holding capacity. Results in plush, fruit-driven wines. Sedimentary soil (as in Willakenzie) drains more freely. Vines struggle more, resulting in wines that are a bit more rustic, firm, structured. Oregon has only these two soil types – sedimentary and volcanic. California has many more soil types than France.
  • Wind is a moderating influence, and in Oregon it is significant. The last two wines listed below are grown in seriously windy areas. Zena-Crown is in the Van Duzer Corridor, where the same strong wind blows all year, even on 90-degree days. “We pick 2-3 weeks later, because vines shut down at night. It’s always been a truism that we can’t plant above 1000 feet, but now we’re considering it because the summers have been so much warmer. Skins get thicker from the wind – which helps grapes defend against weather. Keeps higher acidity, which equals freshness and tannins.” Read more about the cool-climate growing conditions in Willamette Valley.
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The winemakers are taking their program to various destinations around the U.S., and they said the character of the just-opened wines changes with every location – influenced by such things as barometric pressure, humidity, and the altitude at which you drink them. Even being on an upper floor, as we were in one of the beautiful Kimpton Gray Hotel event spaces where the program took place, would make a difference. They all said the wines were giving off more florals and more spice here than they had in the previous city. Ha! Most of us can only dream of one day achieving the level of sensitivity of such highly educated noses and palates…
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Jackson Family winemakers talk to each other and taste wines together. They are individual artists who make their own decisions. The Jackson Family does not prescribe that a winemaker must do something in a particular way. In fact, they even allow them to use blocks of land from partner wineries to make their blends.
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Structure, texture, and aroma are the concerns when putting together a blend. All Jackson Family vintners use French wood barrels and must be instinctive about how many oak barrels to buy – a decision that’s made long before the harvest.
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“Look out for the tannins,” said one panel member. “The fermentation process can get away from you. It’s not good to add salt later in the process – that amounts to ‘remedial winemaking’ and isn’t where we want to go.” In Oregon, it always rains during harvest, but every good winemaker will say that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. They know how to compensate.
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One panelist said they don’t drink their own wines at home, but rather experiment with others. “We go to the grocery store and buy European wines for $18-$20 a bottle. We want to know what the consumer is buying and experiencing.”
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Below are the names of the six wines the panelists provided for tasting, organized from lightest to most substantial in structure. Each is marked with our totally subjective star rating (remember, we tend to love highly structured wines) and a few winemaker tasting notes.
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  • Siduri Willamette Valley 2015. ***1/2  This Pinot is made with a blend of three different regions, uses 25% whole cluster (means they keep the grapes on their stems) and is made using Burgundian vinification techniques. Winemaker notes: “Darker berry and currant flavors, along with hints of cherry joined by earth, dried brush, and even tobacco flavors.” SRP ~$24
  • WillaKenzie Gisele Willamette Valley 2014. **** Blended to produce a rustic, brambly fruit flavor. Winemaker notes: “Juicy acidity and flavors of raspberry, plum and a hint of white pepper. The mouthfeel is elegant and polished with a long, velvety finish.” SRP ~$24
  • Penner-Ash Willamette Valley 2014. ****1/2 A gorgeous dark purple color but transparent. Jammy flavor. Winemaker notes: “Experience ripe, fresh raspberry, red plums and strawberry compote with a hint of subtle cedar. The fine texture and silky tannins enhance the vanilla, brown sugar, and leather notes on the finish.” SRP ~$40
  • La Crema Dundee Hills 2014. ***** Purple/garnet color with a mid-palate richness. Grown by the independent Oregon contingent of this famed La Crema California winery from two clones in an area sheltered from the winds, so with a longer growing season. This vineyard has 18 different soil types within its 80 acres. Winemaker notes: “A nose brimming with violets, cherry pie and earth. Flavors of pomegranate, raspberry and anise. Nuanced yet concentrated.” SRP ~$50
  • Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton 2014. ***** Another wine made with 25% whole cluster. Lovely pink-purple color. Winemaker notes: “Cranberry and rose hips up front that transform into orange zest and Meyer lemon on the mid pallet. This is followed by morel mushroom, red cedar, and exotic spices as allspice and mace.  Precise but broad; exhibiting restrained power and elegance combined with immense aging potential. Finish lingers giving impressions of pipe tobacco, earth, white sage and pure cocoa. Shaped like a teardrop rippling outward at the point of contact with a still body of water.” SRP ~$45
  • Zena Crown Slope Eola-Amity Hills 2013. ***** Couldn’t put it better than Wine Spectator’s 93-point rating – “Rich and expressive, featuring black cherry and pepper notes set against tangy mineral flavors. Comes together smoothly as the finish gains traction, with a light bite of tannins. Drink now through 2023. 348 cases made.” SRP ~$100
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Trader Todd’s shows off its brunch chops

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If you know Trader Todd’s, 3216 N. Sheffield, you may think of it mainly as a karaoke joint with tiki-bar-style drinks and atmosphere. But guess what? They are now doing brunch, and their Executive Chef Mark Hill really knows how to put food on the plate, with here and there his own unique touch to dishes you thought you knew.

Sweet spicy crunch chicken and waffles
Sweet spicy crunch chicken and waffles

For example, ever ordered fried chicken and waffles? It’s always seemed like a stretch to understand what makes the two go together. But Chef Hill has changed that up for many Trader Todd brunch customers. The way he combines these two is totally unique – kind of like eating your main course and your dessert at the same time. The waffle has a sweet crunch, and the chicken comes in chunks bathed in a rich, brown, slightly sweet-spicy jerk sauce sparked with Chef’s own mixture of allspice and peppers and maybe some or all of these: cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, and salt. It’s his secret – and it’s a good one.

Tenderly cooked eggs make a moist omelette
Tenderly cooked eggs make a moist omelette

And lest you wonder about the kitchen’s ability to do standard brunch items up right, check out the lovely omelette, cooked so that the eggs come out tender and moist rather than dry and tough. Get your choice of cheeses and fillings and eat ’em with the kitchen’s house-made fried potato chunks – tender inside and just enough crust on the outside. Delicious.

Pile the toppings high on your burger
Pile the toppings high on your burger

Or if you’re in the mood for a burger, Trader Todd’s does ’em good. Nice helping of ground beef, grilled and served with whatever toppings your heart desires. And some more of those good fried potato chunks.  But don’t stop there. They’ve got Benedicts and sliders and conch cakes, Jerk Chicken and Jerk Pork sandwiches and more. It’s pan-tropical food and drink to make you feel like you’re in the islands. Lots of open-air space, and there’s even a boat you can sit in in the back bar. It’s a faux-island paradise for brunchers to start off a Saturday or Sunday of relaxation.

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