Here’s how you can join a new club that promises to change the way you buy—and drink—wine.
Most wine clubs don’t give you a whole lot of choice. But Firstleaf, a startup that’s partnering with Travel + Leisure’s parent company, Time Inc., is different. Think of it as Netflix for wines: enter your preference for red or white and international or domestic, and rate the bottles that get sent to you. Over time, Firstleaf gets to know your tastes, and bases future shipments on your likes. Not into their choices? During a preview, you can change what’s in the case.
Travel + Leisure’s Wine and Spirits Correspondent, Ted Loos, has curated a Firstleaf pack of three California reds for our readers ($29.95 with a club membership, $44.95 as a one-time purchase). If you can’t take a trip to California wine country this winter or spring, sampling stellar wines at home is the next best thing. Hawthorne Grove 2013 Pinot Noir Monterey County has the sweet strawberry tastes that come from Cali sunshine, framed by toasty oak and tempered by Monterey Bay’s cool influence. This area, an hour south of Silicon Valley, is one of the state’s most underappreciated zones, especially for Chardonnay. But this wine proves that reds thrive, too. It’s hard to imagine a better match for a baked spring ham, especially with a mustard sauce to contrast with the wine’s sweetness.
Sonoma County—twice the size of Napa County—is known for being crazy versatile. Is there anything they don’t do? You’ve got five major valleys to explore here, and within those, innumerable appellations and sub-appellations. Of the big five, Alexander Valley is the zone best known for weighty, plush reds. Owl Ridge 2012 Tyto Alexander Valley has the well-structured frame and intense cherry quality that keep us coming back to this valley, and would be great with a herbed wild mushroom tart.
Smack dab between L.A. and San Francisco, up-and-coming Paso Robles, which focuses on Rhône varietals, has made light years of progress in the last decade. As of 2006, it was a brash upstart; now it’s a place with its own identity. Ultima 2009 Paso Robles would retail for north of $50 on its own, with good reason: it has a silky tannic underpinning that makes it a pleasure to drink, as do the flavors of blackberry pie and mocha. You’d be missing out if you didn’t serve it with short ribs.
T+L’s three-pack makes for a strong start with Firstleaf, but maybe those options aren’t enough for you. In many states (availability varies with your location), you’ve got great wines from France, Australia, and Italy at your disposal, too (in Firstleaf’s regular club you get six wines per shipment).
The magic of Italian grape varieties is the tongue-tingling acid on hand, making it possible to dive into a bowl of, say, guanciale-covered strangolapreti pasta without drowning in richness. Hailing from Tuscany, Argiano 2013 Non Confunditur Red Blend has a lovely tartness along with its cranberry and fresh cherry flavors. This wine is a lovely example of why Tuscany remains such a focus for American travelers—it’s beautiful, and even the entry-level bottles like this one really deliver.
You may think of Bordeaux as snobby, snotty, and possibly the oldest-school wine region on earth. But Château Loumelat 2012 Cuvée J.J. Lesgourgues Bordeaux reminds us why we keep coming back here for serious reds: structure. Moderately weighted tannins are like the bricks in a house, holding things upright so that you can fill the interior with, in this case, the cherry and cedar tastes that come from its blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Pour this into a decanter (or a pitcher of any kind) for an hour before you serve it. It asks—politely, in the Bordeaux way—to be opened up.
Australia has had its ups and downs in the wine drinking public’s mind, and two of the selections available to many on Firstleaf show that the pendulum is swinging back toward moderation and good sense. The Wits End 2013 Luna McLaren Vale Shiraz is a small-batch wine, and you can taste the handcrafted quality in the ultra-ripe raspberry fruit overlaid with a touch of savory freshness (is that a menthol note?). It clings pleasantly to the palate after you’ve taken a sip.
The Happs Estate 2011 East of Alice Margaret River Red Blend comes from one of Australia’s least-known but best regions, in the remote, southwestern corner of the country. All of Margaret River’s charms come to bear in this blended wine, dominated by 50 percent spicy, generous Grenache, a grape known for anchoring Rhône blends. The vines used to produce the Happs are more than 20 years old, a plus when it comes to wine. At five years old, it even has a touch of leather and cedar, which good wines can develop with time. —Ted Loos
Ted Loos is the Travel + Leisure’s Wine and Spirits Contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @looslips.