Oktoberfest: Munich Mania

Watch: How do you say Thirsty Girl in Bavarian?

I’m a wine expert, but my love of libations leads me in many directions from bourbon, to tequila, to pisco. If asked my go-to-sipper after wine though, suds are a close second.

TG in MunichWhen the opportunity arose recently to attend the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest in Munich, I jumped at the chance. Hanging out at one of the biggest parties in the world has “Thirsty Girl” written all over it. So off I went to spend a weekend in Bavaria.

Knowing that I wanted to shoot footage for Thirsty Girl TV, I lined up a camera crew to meet me when I got off the 14-hour plane ride. Within an hour of landing in Munich, I was in front of the camera. After taking a shower at the airport and changing in the car (a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do), I met the crew at Paulaner Brewery, my host for the festival.

Fortified by a quick pint of real Oktoberfest brew – Paulaner is one of the original brewers of the Oktoberfest beer dating back to 1634 – I interviewed the Paulaner brewmaster, then it was off to the Oktoberfest tents. No rest for the weary….or sober.

(TGTV segments about Oktoberfest coming soon!)

Oktoberfest is a party fit for royalty.

Those Bavarians know how to have fun. The Oktoberfest festival began centuries ago as a party in honor of the marriage of Bavaria’s Prince Ludwig to Princess Theresa. Locals had such a good time it turned into an annual affair and the event now draws crowds from all over the world. This year’s tally totaled six and a half million people in just over two weeks. They consumed nearly seven million liters of beer, half a million roast chickens and tens of thousands of sausages and freshly-baked pretzels. It’s truly a celebration of Bavarian culture.

I spent two days and nights in the tents of Paulaner and their sister brewery, Hacker-Pschorr, which is less well-known in the United States but a brewery to discover.

Hacker-PschorrThe Hacker-Pschorr tent should be on the top of your list if you ever attend Oktoberfest. Here you indulge in beers under the “clouds” (a reference to the elaborate décor of a painted sky and Bavarian landscapeadorning the massive tent) and dance on tables to the music of a live band (oompah-pahs expected).

Let me say that there are 14 “tents” housing beer. I use the word tent loosely as these are massive structures housing 8-10,000 people. Inside each tent is a world unto itself. Each is decorated differently with a unique vibe and crowd.

I thought I’d seen a lot but nothing can prepare you for the noise level, the people, the organized chaos, and yes the drunks you see at Oktoberfest. Luckily, they’re pretty much all happy drunks.

Despite the 6 million plus litres of beer served over the course of two weeks, it’s a relatively peaceful group. Sure, people are passed out on the hillside behind the massive tents and you see some unsavory sights when you mix that many people with that much beer, but my advice is just don’t look too closely.

Along with that, I recommend the following tips if you ever go to Oktoberfest – and it should be on every booze lover’s bucket list.

Tips for an awesome Oktoberfest:

· Go V.I.P. Make reservations to sit on the balcony areas of one of the 14 tents. Each tent holds around 8-10,000 people so up top you get a view of the chaos below.

· Prepare to dance on the tables and be on your feet all night. Wear flat shoes.

· What to wear? Men are in traditional suede walking shorts called lederhosen (they look hot) and women wear gorgeous fitted dirndls that are figure flattering (they look hotter). I bought a dirndl when I arrived. I recommend it. Seriously, just about every woman has one on.

· Eat — Big soft, chewy pretzels, tangy cheese spreads, spicy sausages all the fare is salty and hearty to sop up the beer. The tender, crispy-skinned roast chickens are the best, though.

· Pace yourself — Beer is served in one-liter steins by fraulines hoisting up to a dozen at a time. You drink it like water, so sipslowly.

· Learn how to say “prost!” it means cheers and you do a lot of it.

Not heading to Munich? No worries, host your own Oktoberfest party with my beer recommendations below. Just stock up on food, don your dirndl and enjoy.

Look tomorrow for my picks on the best beers to drink for Halloween weekend.



A Big State on a Small Scale

Though the California wine industry is big, it still embraces small, family-owned wineries crafting boutique bottles. Here’s a roundup of my latest discoveries; ranging from affordable to luxurious, and spanning the state from north to south, these vintners tell a story with every glass.

maritas vineyardMarita’s Vineyard:

It’s the American dream. After coming to California as a teenager from Mexico, Maro Montes worked his way up from laborer to vineyard manager to Vice President of Operations for the famous Joseph Phelps Vineyards. With a passion for growing grapes it was only natural to start his own label; in 2003 he did just that. Their signature Cabernet from the family’s 3-acre vineyard is a collector’s dream. Looking for a unique Napa experience? Make an appointment and get a home-cooked lunch from the Montes clan.

Star Sip: 2005 SOMA Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa $86. Named for Maro’s daughters, this supple, smooth red is a true beauty. 

Watch Leslie’s video interview with the Montes Family on TGTV


bolenBolen Family Estates:

Celebrate Merlot Mondays with the Bolens. After a career spent running construction companies, Mike Bolen felt it was time to build something new. He and son Eric are proprietors of Napa Valley-based Bolen Family Estates whose focus is only Merlot. They’ve hired Merlot master Tom Rinaldi (Duckhorn’s founding winemaker) and managed to garner high praise in a valley devoted to Cabernet.

Star Sip: 2007 Bolen Legacy Merlot, Oak Knoll District Napa Valley $60. Pure Merlot, pure pleasure from the world-class Beckstoffer Orchard Vineyard.

Watch Leslie’s video interview with Eric Bolen on TGTV


C. Donatiello Winery:

For those wanting to visit California soon, put C. Donatiello on your itinerary. An in-the-know spot in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, the estate has wine-inspired aroma gardens, an intimate concert series and most importantly, killer wine. Owner Chris Donatiello, a young vintner with a rich background in the business, along with winemaker Webster Marquez, craft elegant Chardonnay and terroir-driven Pinot Noir.

Star Sip: 2008 C. Donatiello Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley $38. Silky, sexy and complex, a Pinot to embrace full on. 


arista-labelArista Winery:

This destination winery with Japanese -inspired landscaping, beautiful hillside panoramas and scenic picnic areas, is another Russian River Valley treasure. The real treasure, though, is what’s in the bottle. Focused on Pinot Noir including their signature “Longbow” Pinot, the winery started in 2002 by the McWilliams family also produces swoon-worthy aromatic whites. In addition to Arista, owner Mark McWilliams has a miniscule-production brand that makes some of the best Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc I’ve ever sampled. Named Mark David, it’s a discovery not to be missed.

Star Sip: 2009 Arista Gewurztraminer “Ferrington Vineyard” Anderson Valley $25. Spicy, sultry, and still crisp, a stellar example of New World Gewurz. 

Star Sip: 2009 Mark David Sauvignon Blanc “Skellenger Vineyard” Oakville, Napa Valley $32. If I gave points to wine, this Sauvignon would be a perfect 100


Jorian Hill Vineyards:

Focused on Rhone varieties such as Viognier and Syrah, this family-owned winery is one to watch. Gary and Jeanne Newman (he president of 20th Century Fox television and she an entertainment attorney) named the brand for their three kids. When the duo were looking for a retreat north of Los Angeles in bucolic Santa Barbara County, the property they found already had vineyards so instead of just a home they found a new passion – wine.

Star Sip: 2007 Jorian Hill “BEEspoke” Santa Ynez Valley $38. A Rhone blend of equal parts Grenache and Syrah, this intensely juicy, peppery red has celebrity status.


Longoria Wines:

Well-respected winemaker Rick Longoria began his eponymous winery in 1982 focusing on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley. He is known for Pinot, but today his entire portfolio is world class. My favorites are Rick’s esoteric Spanish varietals. Making California Albarino and Tempranillo has brought him well-deserved attention and acclaim.

Star Sip: 2007 Longoria Tempranillo “Clover Creek Vineyard” Santa Ynez Valley $36. The best version of the variety I’ve ever sipped outside of Spain. A stunning red with layers of flavor and loads of character. 


Bien Nacido Vineyards:

If we had grand cru vineyards in this country, Bien Nacido would rank at the top. Located in the Santa Maria Valley of California’s southern/central coast, the historic vineyard been the source of cult wines from the likes of Au Bon Climat and Sine Qua Non. In 1969, the Miller family purchased the property and only now is launching their own wine from the famous plot of land.

Star Sip: 2007 Bien Nacido Vineyards Syrah $52. Deeply-hued, licorice-scented red that captures the power-packed intensity of Syrah. 

California’s Kingdom of Cabernet: Napa’s Stags Leap District

There’s an old adage in wine touting Cabernet as King.

Grown all over the world from France to Australia, and Chile to California, the thick-skinned red grape variety produces classically complex wines. Like a monarch, Cabernet Sauvignon often rules alone, but shows its strength as well in Bordeaux-style blends alongside varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Though its stature conjures up images of a wide-shouldered, robust red, Cabernet Sauvignon can be a King in touch with his feminine side, too.  When grown in the right spot – the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, California, for example – the grape produces powerful wines with signature softness befitting a benevolent ruler.

What is it about this miniscule viticultural area – just one mile by three miles – that makes the wines so special? Simply put, Stags Leap District is the perfect place for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordered on the east by the Stags Leap Palisades, a rugged mountainous outcropping, vineyards blanket the hillsides and descend to the curves of the Napa Valley floor. Heat radiates down from the mountain side to help grapes ripen fully while cool breezes at night allow for a long, slow growing season. These conditions, along with ideal volcanic and riverbed soils, provide the late-ripening grape variety a chance to shine.

The District lays claim to a rich past with grape plantings dating back to the mid-1800. However, their modern era really kicked off when in 1976 at the now-famous Paris Tasting, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet  Sauvignon bested top Bordeaux and placed California squarely on the world wine map.

Nearly 80 percent of the Stags Leap District is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Showcasing structure wrapped in suppleness, some of my most beloved Cabernet Sauvignons come from this unique place.

Pricing generally ranges from $40 to several hundred, but you can find values in the $25 range, as well.

With around twenty, primarily boutique producers, there is something for every red wine lover to enjoy making it easy to say, “Hail to the King.”

Prized Producers:

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – The winery that put Stags Leap in the spotlight, its iconic Cabernet is named “Cask 23,” but my personal favorite in their lineup is the “Fay Vineyard” Cabernet. From vineyards initially planted by veteran grower Nathan Fay in 1961, the wine is elegance in a bottle.

Shafer Vineyards – Dating to the early 1970s when John Shafer began the winery, their highly-coveted “Hillside Select” is world class, but don’t miss the Shafer Syrah-based red dubbed “Relentless” and their “Red Shoulder Ranch” Chardonnay from the Carneros area (I dream about drinking that wine, that’s how much I love it.)

Silverado Vineyards – Ron and Diane Miller founded this beautiful winery in 1981 and it’s known for not only crafting world-class Cabernet such as the “Solo” but also for producing delicious Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Sangiovese.

Chimney Rock – With Cape Dutch-inspired architecture this dramatic winery is a top spot to visit. Another of the classic producers in the district dating back nearly 30 years, this winery’s focus is on Bordeaux varieties. Their flagship red blend “Elevage” is a beauty.

Pine Ridge – Impressive caves and bucolic surroundings make this a destination. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is an understated classic and their limited-production “Le Petit Clos” Chardonnay from the Stags Leap District makes me swoon.

Other top producers include Clos du Val, which crafts stylish and still affordable wines, Robert Sinskey whose focus on biodynamics sets them apart, Cliff Lede, an insider’s secret spot producing plush, dramatic Cabernet, and Stelzner Vineyards, one of the districts anchor producers making a Reserve Cabernet that ranks among the best.

Riesling and Pinot Noir take center stage in New Zealand

If you were stranded on a deserted island, what wines would you crave? I’m a Riesling and Pinot Noir gal. As two of the most flexible food wines, these noble varieties go with freshly-speared fish, roasted wild boar, and even homemade coconut cream pie. So, I’m not too far off then when I say my current favorites for both wine types hail from an island nation – New Zealand.

pinot noir conference 2pinot noir conference Actually two islands – North and South – Kiwi country is small but powerful in the wine world. As one of several international hot spots showing sales growth in the United States (the other is Argentina), New Zealand creates signature styles reflecting the unique place. The most well-known is herbal-scented, juicy Sauvignon Blanc. But New Zealand is far more complex than that. Notoriously fickle Pinot Noir has found a home there in the cool but sunny climate, as has Riesling and other aromatic white varieties like Pinot Gris.

After a recent trip to speak at an event dubbed, Pinot Noir 2010, I had a chance to revisit many classic wineries and discover numerous upcoming stars. All I can say is that for lovers of elegant wines packed with personality, seek out the duo of New Zealand Riesling and Pinot Noir. If I see you on that island beach, though, remember to share.

Producers and Places to know

nz wine mapAs the wine industry matures in New Zealand, the most striking development is how wines are starting to express a sense of regionality. Each of these wine-growing areas is distinctive and the producers highlighted have mastered letting the land speak. Most Pinot Noir prices range from $25-$45 but numerous wineries are crafting second labels that hit the sweet spot of $18-22. Rieslings span $12-25, making them relative bargains.

The combination of high quality and reasonable pricing is why New Zealand is generating such excitement these days.

Place: Martinborough

A bucolic town situated in the North Island’s Wairarapa region, Martinborough is home to New Zealand’s most historic Pinot Noir plantings dating back more than 30 years. Pinots hailing from Martinborough are intense and complex with Burgundian-style earthiness. Taut, racy Rieslings, meanwhile, weigh in on the dry side of the scale.

Top Producers of Riesling and Pinot Noir:

*Ata Rangi

*Dry River

*Palliser Estate


*Craggy Range

*Martinborough Vineyards


marlboro riesling Place: Marlborough

Located on the northern tip of the South Island, Marlborough is the most well-known of New Zealand’s wine regions. Made famous by producing pungent Sauvignon Blancs (can you say Cloudy Bay?) this sweeping swath of ancient riverbed is also planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Their trademarks are vibrancy, intense fruit notes, and freshness.


Top Producers of Riesling and Pinot Noir:

*Villa Maria 


*Wither Hills

*Jackson Estate

*Staete Landt


*Wairau River

*Nautilus Estate




Place: Central Otago

As the southernmost wine region in the world, Central Otago is extreme. Gazing up to the Remarkables mountain range, you know this is a place where adventure abounds. Growing grapes in Central takes guts and gusto. It’s the wild, wild south and the Pinots make a statement.  Complex with dark fruit and wild herbal aromas, they reflect the rugged terrain. Riesling, however, is the surprise expressing purity of fruit wrapped with a fleshy texture.

nz mt edwardsTop Producers of Riesling and Pinot Noir:

*Felton Road


*Mount Difficulty

*Mount Edward

*Tarras Vineyards


Other places and people to watch

Nelson:As the artistic epicenter of New Zealand, Nelson attracts artists and craftspeople with its scenic beauty and relaxed atmosphere. Due to the maritime climate, Riesling and other aromatic varieties are the stars.

Top Producers of Riesling and other Aromatics:  




Waipara: Located near Christchurch on the South Island, the Waipara (pronounced Why-para) isn’t as well-known as other regions, but is home to two of the country’s cult superstars of Riesling and Pinot Noir:

*Pegasus Bay

*Pyramid Valley