Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fifteen Rounds With Apollo Greed, or, You've Gotta Be $$$$ing Kidding Me


I.


"But surely, Emperor," said Ausonius, "Surely the Gods would better favor the munificence you would demonstrate bestowing this wealth upon your subjects. The aqueduct at Nemausus is near collapse. . ."

There was a small knife now in Caligula's left hand, absently stroking the skin of a green apple.

"My dear poet, I am. . . disappointed," he began, his eyes on a painting hanging from the far wall. "Disappointed that a Roman of your renowned good taste would stand opposed to the most magnificent feast the world has ever seen. Spices are already en route from Persia and Thracian bulls have arrived for slaughter." The poet sighed. "Ausonius, this will be the ultimate legacy of my glorious reign. I asked you here because I wish your own Burdigalian wines to accompany the celebration. You will pour them beside me, your own glory recorded for all eternity. But if this offends you. . . you are free to go."

"Caesar," said Ausonius. He was unsure how to continue. "Please hear my humblest apologies. I would never deign to question your divine wisdom. It will be the honor of my life to stand beside you on this wonderful night. I will send for my finest wines at once."

"Thank you, Ausonius." The emperor let some time pass. "You may go." Ausonius kissed his outstretched hand and left.

Caligula stabbed the apple. "He is never to speak before the Senate again. No poet is ever to again." White knuckles twisted the knife until the fruit's core cracked and split into three chunks. "Fanciful, idealistic hearts--incapable of understanding matters of state. How dare he attack my decisions about the welfare of Rome?" He turned to Macro, the centurion at his right.

"Shall I inform him of your displeasure, Caesar?" the soldier asked.

"Yes," hissed Caligula. "And Macro--" Macro paused, having started for the door.

"Bring back every drop of his blood."


II.


A storm descended on the afternoon of the feast. Two men died in the scramble to erect tents in the palace garden. Caligula sulked in his chambers all day, occasionally snapping orders for things he neither needed nor wanted. Late in the afternoon he told his head servant to cancel the event and send everyone away. Having survived the post longer than any of his predecessors, the old man knew better and simply nodded. He had a dram of morphine sent to the emperor and continued directing the chaos in the garden.

The storm continued into the evening, but by then Caligula was under the tents in full regalia and apparent good spirits. The meager attendance was lost on him as he drank prodigiously from a dark bottle labeled with ornate Gallic script and spoke loudly to no one in particular. Guests ate ravenously, moreso out of nervousness than than appetite. Macro carved the first bull at sunset, and the eighth three hours later.

Caligula, now hopelessly drunk, was haranguing a senator at the central table. The squat politician's gestures of agreement were punctuated by reflexive lurches backwards when the emperor spat or leaned into his face to underscore a point. Finally the senator, himself saturated with meat and drink, turned sideways and emptied his gullet into a shrub. The table howled at the percussive retches harmonizing with the damp cadence of vomit striking soil.

The emperor joined the laughter at first but was too intoxicated to experience joy. He looked indifferently around his feast until he seized Macro in a long, expressionless eye contact, then raised his bottle and drank; unctuous, deep red.


III.


Meanwhile, with the American Empire declining and falling around my ankles, I banished all dialogue from my brain and took the first sip of Chateau d'Yquem 1988.


So you're a dime-a-case wine nerd: You don't have a swinging dick cellar, but you do own a tulip-shaped tasting glass, you can find Yecla on a map, touching a real Cheval Blanc label excites you indiscreetly, and somewhere along the line you've swallowed a few drops of really exquisite juice. The prospect of drinking Yquem '88 is going to occupy your daydreams for weeks. And so it did for this dweeb after floating the notion of a potluck, a potpowerball, to eight fellow pilgrims.

"With your best bottles in one hand and your best Escoffier impression in the other, the whole will spill like glowing lava over the sum of its parts," said I. Or maybe it was "Bring it on!" One best bottle was the big Y, chanced into a friend's collection by a set of circumstances that don't matter here. Fourteen others showcased different faces of scarcity, and like flags on a mini-golf course served as guideposts for a 360-minute dinner that unfolded in shameproof degrees.

I haven't had much caviar outside of the orange measles speckling $4 California rolls at quickie sushi joints, so a tin of domestic (no profits for Putin/Ahmadinedingdong) sturgeon eggs destined for creme fraiche-schmeared blini was an exotically exemplary way to kick things off. And when the aroma of the ocean distilled to a concentrated essence hooks up with Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1990, you just feel like finding a revolution to grind beneath your ibexskin boot. Few things get my mojo working like champagne in its last years of bright yellow color. An old-souled eighteen, Grande Dame 1990 was brassy and rich with a fizz so profound it felt like The Brothers Karamazov tapped in morse code on the tongue.

As insurance against anticlimax, we opened the Yquem next. This is not a wine that invites food-pairing creativity from mortals. So it was seared foie gras on toasted brioche with balsamic and sherry vinegar reduction. A lump of Roquefort stood by on each plate as, hah!, a palate cleanser.


Monsieur Lur Saluces, what have you done? The laser acidity hit me first, even ahead of a sweetness that I doubt exists anywhere else on earth. I felt compelled to make mental tasting notes, knowing this would be my only chance for a long time to codify MY OWN IMPRESSION OF CHATEAU D'YQUEM. No dice, of course. I did picture the candied peel of an especially edenic orange after the third or fourth sip, but try as I might it was so overwhelming I just couldn't bend it like Broadbent. Whatever. Half the bottle was still there, waiting.

Ordurvs over, the idea was to have whites before reds. A silky pea and basil soup stropped the razor edges of F.X. Pichler Gruner Veltliner Federspiel "Klostersatz" 2006 and Helfrich Riesling Grand Cru "Steinklotz" 2005. Pichler is a freaking genius. Every time fate has thrown his wines my way, my definition of "intensity" has been stretched, strained, ripped to confetti. I love them all.

Diver scallops in an eloquent cantaloupe-mint sauce propped up fatter wines. First, the symmetrically balanced Rustenberg "Five Soldiers" Chardonnay 2006, the finest non-Burgundy chard I've had excluding Dan Goldfield's single vineyard Sonoma bulls-eye. Then, two Chenin Blancs--De Morgenzon 2006, a stately ambassador from the cultivar's adopted home, and Clos de la Coulee de Serrant 2004, Nicolas Joly's argument for Chenin's immortality.

A word on Coulee de Serrant--legendary as much for its quality as its winemaker's insistence that that the berries are only harvested under a waxing gibbous moon with tungsten carbide pruning shears soaked for exactly seven hours in a baptismal font (not exactly true), this incredible wine is a front-runner for the greatest white I've ever drunked. After decanting about 90 minutes before pouring, the cognac/Pale Ale color forecasted something very special:




Liquid pennies from heaven. Bracingly dry with a hazelnutty depth that one usually only encounters in things oxidized, this wine illuminates every centimeter of the palate like a pinball bleeping bonus lights as it hurtles downramp. More, please, forever.

Reds began with Argyle "Spirithouse" Pinot Noir 1999 and Pisoni Pinot Noir 1998. Duck confit, duh. Spirithouse packed more luscious fruit than I was expecting from a 1990s American pinot--maybe I assumed they were all veggie-flavored ersatz Burgundies back then. Wrong! An eerie yarn explaining the proprietary name lent a toasty campfire vibe. The Pisoni, then, was a visceral, "wow, this is really #*!%ing good" wine. I almost let the lamb and hen-of-the-woods mushroom ravioli I was tending disintegrate in the pot--couldn't keep my face out of the glass.


IV.

We also had:
  • Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia 2005
  • Bodegas Los Astrales Ribera del Duero 2005
  • Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
  • Chateau Branaire-Ducru, St.-Julien, 1995
  • Witch Creek Winery Aglianico 2006
  • Sandeman Royal Corregidor Rich Oloroso Sherry
Sorry to go to digest form here, but I feel this account Thelma and Louising into the abyss of long-winded wine bullshit. Also, my senses were blurring at this point in the dinner. Getting sloshed with an Ornellaia coming down the pipe is dumb anywhere, but what the hell was I supposed to do--spit the Yquem? Or maybe just not have any delusions about the effect of eleven glasses of wine, and front-load the lineup with the best of the best. Or just cut the "lineup" down to size. Maybe dinners like this are bad idea. I don't have a job at the moment, and this was six hours I could have spent looking for one. Or doing anything other than simulating wealth that should be punishable by death these days (kidding, kidding, stop writing my name on that list, c'mon).

Though the expense was modest--the bottles I contributed were bought in better times, and the tab for ground lamb shank, a few ounces of foie gras, and flowers for the table wasn't crippling--an evening like this leaves a disorienting reference point for pleasure. This isn't the venue to dissect the morality of indulgence, but suffice it to say I indulge all the damn time. Regardless of whether spiking the luxury mainline like the above-described garden of gustatory delights is inherently OK, fact is that doing it makes licking Mammon's boots after every quotidian "do I really need this -----?" dilemma that much easier. I can live with this, uneasily.

Now, the experience of drinking Yquem and Grande Dame and Coulee de Serrant and Ornellaia is surely worth something from the appreciation side. The clueless conclusion would be that once the universe's only Premier Cru Superieur weaves its spell on the nervous system, no Barsac will ever be man--er, wine enough to satisfy the lucky drinker. I think not. Possibilities can only open when a grape/region/whatever's ultimate potential is in the sensory trophy case. Certain bottles of garbage will be more quickly identified, as will undervalued lovelies that you always liked but never realized tasted almost like Yquem! Another happy result is a generally more perceptive palate. After surviving the beautiful ordeal of the indescribable--yes, they are indescribable, sorry Suckling--aromas and flavors in wines like these, the simpler characteristics of more earthbound bottles are easier to pin down and name.


V.

Did you hear about the Park Avenue tax lawyer who volunteered at the soup kitchen and poured one of his Lafite 1959s into the minestrone? No, I just made that up. Shut up about the recession. We'll review the meaning of living within our means, then live the hell out of the whole thing.

The dinner guests were long gone, and I had been cleaning for three hours. It was 4 AM, my fingertips were shriveled by bleach, and I had manslaughtered two Riedels and a big Pyrex. Atop the begging-for-mercy dishwasher was a sweaty half-glass of Yquem. I shot it like a double Jameson and flicked off the light.





Ebrius occurrit quoties tibi, vinum
Non nimium, dicis, sed bibit ille malum.



Recent notables:
  • Red Hook Long Hammer IPA - Well here's everything great about IPAs--perfumy, ass-kicking bitter hops, a little seamlessly-integrated sugar. Not exactly "extreme" but very intense. Though as a Brooklynite, I think the Red Hook Brewery (Portsmouth, NH) should have to relocate or change its name.
  • Red Tail Lager - Two things going for it, going all the way--it's one of the finest beers (the finest, IMH,H,O) to cost typically under $8 per six-pack, and it's a really delicious, complex lager. I don't find many of the latter. Singed orange color, big barley taste, refreshing concise finish. I'm stocking up for the summer already.
  • Willi Schaefer Riesling Kabinett Mosel Graacher Domprobst 2007 - Beguiling perfume of peaches and lime, initially chalky in the mouth with citrus stuffing that falls halfway between lime and grapefruit. Enough residual sugar to put it safely in the "off-dry" basket. This is great stuff--if it were half the price I'd drink it three times a week.
  • Chateau La Vielle Cure 2005 - It's Joe Calzaghe's cocked right hand--just leading you around the ring for now, not quite ready to make your head spin. One senses tightly wound nuggets of really delicious fruit not asserting themselves at the moment over strong acidity and tannins. Still a great Bordeaux value, this is one worth laying down and having next year. (Note: LVC's second wine '05 is kickin', right now.)
  • Chateau Clarke 2004 -Drinking this made me realize, with some melancholy, that 2004 was a long time ago. This is drinking great. When I worked in a wine shop a year ago I operated under the assumption that '04 Bordeaux wasn't "ready". Maybe true for Leoville-Barton, but not this Rothschild outpost in Listrac, which combines soft, giving Merlot touchstones (blackberry, stewed raspberry, licorice) with a stout graphitey backbone that proves (to me, at least) that the left bank is still keeping it real.
  • Caol Ila Islay Single Malt Scotch 12 Yr. - A mellow Islay that spares us the hyper-assertive smoke of Laphroaig or Ardbeg. Nice, plush (tropical?) fruit aromas add a welcome dimension to the nose.
  • Highland Park Orkney Single Malt Scotch 18 Yr. - Much has been written about this whisky, sometimes with an extra jigger of hyperbole. That aside, it is hedonistic and very good. I don't think I've had a better single malt. Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or is close, but an unambiguous silver medalist. This has a layer of flavor that is easy to understand if you can picture the difference between brown butter and regular melted butter. And a very long finish. Towers above M********s that are far more expensive.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

No Subject

Reader, please invest five minutes in this article.

Then, forgive this new, back-dated post.

Cheers.

Recent notables:
  • Ipswich IPA - Classic amber color, fantastically bitter without being too floral or fruity. For real puritans only.
  • Chateau Verdu 2005 - Apparently the only way to make bad wine in Bordeaux in 2005 was to urinate in each barrique. Another cheap, obscure gem, this time from a St.-Emilion satellite. Black cherry and espresso aromas set up the rich, spicy, pruny palate presence. Finish is impressive for a wine that most of us can probably afford.

Monday, October 27, 2008

King of Kings


"Beer has regained a comfortable margin over wine when U.S. drinkers are asked to name which alcoholic beverage they most often drink. In recent years, wine had narrowed the gap, including pulling slightly ahead in 2005 (though not by a significant margin), but for the first time since 2002, beer enjoys a better-than-double-digit advantage over wine. "
-Gallup.com

Statistics? Polls? Gallup? Pshaw. The wine vs. beer narrative has been fairly consistent in post-Atkins America, with the gentle dignitary of the good life gaining ever-so-righteously on its bloaty, vomit and violence-inducing malted nemesis. How far the noble barley spritzer has fallen since "Beer Street and Gin Lane", the best publicity it ever had.

But now, if we believe the statistic, the trend wanes. We do believe the statistic. Even with all the rocks one can throw at Gallup's methodology (right, President Kerry?), it's going to take more than a fad diet and Sideways for wine to knock beer to the mat in this country. And with hard times already squeezing us, $11.99 is probably better spent on a reliably delicious and relatively long-lasting 6 of Dogfish Head than a reedy Corbieres or a sticky Jumilla.

I can live with this. Beer is nearly as interesting as wine, and so long as the 42% of drinkers who prefer beer are preferring good beer, whiny oenofascists can suck a cork. What a good time it is to love beer in America, sea to shining sea dotted with craft breweries turning out big, rich pilsners, lagers, stouts, etc. that can square off with anything trickling out of Europe.

Though I cut my teeth (literally, one time) on gut-rotting bullet 40s, early encounters with the locally abundant Brooklyn Lager etched a love for dark, bold, bitter flavors into my palate. I recall eleventh grade, clandestinely double-fisting Brooklyn IPA's at a Christmas party full of indecipherable grown-ups. So floral and sticky and cold, I wanted to cram a stent down my gullet and let the hoppy cataract cascade down forever. As evil French archaeologists might say, I grew up with this.

Now technically grown up, beer is a primary source of pleasure and fascination for me and remains the preferred aperitif at potentially overlong dinners. Despite promoting neither the fizzy/acidic appetite stimulation of Champagne nor the drunk munchies of martinis, a gently overflowing pint glass with a 1.5" foamy head perfectly bridges the gap between cocktails and dinner rolls. Or maybe it satisfies The Preppy Handbook's purpose for social drinking (giving your hands something to do) better than a fleeting glass of wine.

Or maybe it's time to get to the damn point, which is: I have now tasted Utopias--the most elusive, legendary, mystical, brew of all save a cultish outlier or two.


What is there to blurt about a "beer" that has double the alcohol of a strong wine, costs as much as Lynch-Bages and is illegal in twelve states? How about. . .O M G. Nothing, not Warre's 1963, not Delamain Tres Venerable, nothing could have prepared me for the warm, flat, viscous, and mind-explodingly delicious sensations of Jim Koch's apotheosis. What's that flavor? Maple syrup. They brew it with maple syrup. And so much else is intertwined in its cereally ether that I make no excuses for confusing almonds and apricots or conflating vanilla and violets. Or for breaking out a stopwatch and timing the 73-second finish. Pancakes are unworthy.

If beer's continued supremacy in the American liver means more brewers aspiring to the standard of Utopias, botrytis on anyone who complains about wine playing Martin Prince to beer's Jimbo Jones. I will always come out swinging when haters impugn American viticulture, but I embrace the fact that hops and barley own a big wedge of our fermented future.

Recent notables:
  • Domino de Eguren "Codice" VDLT Castilla 2006 - Medium-bodied not-too-oaky Tempranillo has few assertive flavors and good structure, making it a solid choice for pairing with leftovers (or for Sangria). I'm also a fan of this domaine's dirt-cheap "Protocolo".
  • Urban "Uco" Torrontes 2006 - Crisp but round, this typical (in a good way) wine from Salta, Argentina matches food-friendly acidity with notes of pear and white flowers. Holds up well after being open for a day, an increasing plus as the economy swirls down the commode.
  • Louis Jadot Moulin à Vent Château des Jacques "Clos de Rochegres" 2005 - It's hard not to feel like a sucker dropping $40 on a Beaujolais, but this Pommard-esque colossus pulverizes such reservations with the first whiff of its dark cherry, rosepetal, and vanilla cologne. Substantial tannins have no trouble handling red meat, and probably provide the stuffing for 10 years of cellaring. Had me wondering how Pinot would behave in Beaujolais terroir.
  • Duvel Belgian Ale - The glass matters. I hate to admit it, but this outstanding beer loses its fruity, bready nuance in a pint glass. The hoppy spine and velvety mouthfeel are still there, but the aromas have already dispersed too much by the time the glass reaches your face. Invest in something bowl-shaped if you're going to drink this.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Let's Do This

(Insert boilerplate apology for infrequent updates.)

I'm leaving for Europe. I'll be back in a month. There will be saignée.

A wine I had a while back and still remember:
  • Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2007: Sharp and intoxicating nose of toast and orange peel. Bewildering-in-a-good-way flavors of wildflowers and Xmas tree crisscross the palate and follow through to the rich, high-acid finish. No wonder everyone is looking for this.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hysterical Blindness

Bordeaux makes me sick. Wines of Bordeaux, that is. That are. Argh! Not from flavor (still reliably incredible), C2H6O content (still relatively low), or price tag (still frequently absurd), but rather the vertigo I suffer teetering cruciform on the edge of a Riedel top-heavy with Girondin ambrosia.

It's not the wine itself, but the notion of Bordeaux that sandbags the drinking experience with an obligation to make it count, to make it definitive. The thought that all wine strives for Bordeaux's brand recognition and--generally speaking--sensory impact spins the head. The pressure is felt in all four corners of the tongue, and discipline in tasting is uprooted. Eventually the inner ear stops making promises. Sick!

A function of inexperience, bien sur. The last time Emile Peynaud had any such problem he was probably wearing culottes. I cling to a dopey confidence that enough drinking will obliterate all such "notions" and each palate-glazing of Bordeaux (and Burgundy, Rioja, Carneros Pinot, etc.) will one day be nothing more than what it is.

This understood, I was happy to confront six veiled bottles of BDX on a hazy t-shirt Sunday near the end of the summer. Blind tasting. I've described my aspirations and frustrations spinning the wheel in this spooky art, but doing it with Bordeaux has a distinctly game-seven feel. What would prove mastery of craft better than arranging each piece of La Conseillante 2000's sensory 411 into the checkmate of identification?

I brought a Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte 2003, motivated by Decanter's piece on the Cathiards' run of accomplished vintages this decade. After wrapping the bottle in shimmering polyethylene, I sliced the capsule to reveal a cork luxuriant with pale blue mold. God damn it. No equivocating about a corked bottle's educational benefits could cast this as anything other than a heartbreaking waste. The first glasses of a deep purple sludge were already circulating, so I muttered a warning that there was a dud in the chamber and started nosing.

1. Anderson's Conn Valley Vineyards "Right Bank" (Napa), 2005

"Pomerol... I'd have to say it's a Pomerol." I pierced the swollen silence, intent on drawing first blood. At that moment I felt confident in my assertion. The wine was sweet, silky, low acid, and lacking the operatic thunder of Cabernet Sauvignon. I have tasted maybe ten Pomerols in my life, but am well-versed in reviews and stereotypes. It had not occurred to me that there are wineries in California that make a declared effort to replicate Bordeaux cuvees. A noble whiff.

2. Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac), 1998

Curranty, medium-bodied, cheese-loving acidity pinned the wine's origin to the east bank of the great estuary. Tilting the glass revealed a brick crayon dissolving into a mist. "This has to be at least four years old," I offered. "It's not rich enough to be an '03, so I've gotta go with '04". Wines from the .com boom were outside my thinking-box at that moment. No magic number exists for when a claret emerges from sour adolescence, but I would have assumed that after ten years an above-average Grand-Puy-Lacoste would be ready for a command performance. This one sulked in the corner. To get it right I would have needed to taste a mellow depth that the 1998 probably needs three more years in bottle to show. I've since had an "Aha!" moment with a Phelan-Segur 1993 that I think will head off this sort of mistake in the future.

3. Chateau Gloria (G-L-O-R-I-A, err... St. Julien), 2005

My notes from this are sparse, but I remember this struck me as too soft and fruity to peg as either St. Julien or 2005. Somewhere in my ensuing litany about St.-Emilion and supplelicious tannin was a kernel of accuracy about the wine being an overperforming fifth-growth or unclassified gem--it was quite excellent. Having had more oh-fives since this evening, and marveling each time at their accessibility, I get it now.

4. Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte (Pessac-Leognan) 2003

In the pourer's hand I saw the foully familiar blue capsule poking out from the bag and prepared to dance with the wet dog. But on the nose, something was amiss, namely the vile mildew odor of the cork. It smelled like...great red Bordeaux. It tasted like... sweet, generous, vanilla-saturated fruit that lacquers the midpalate and lights up the back. It was a non-disaster on par with Y2K. I'm especially grateful for this lesson that a dirty cork is meaningless, since without it I may have dumped out an unforgettable 1999 Maison Leroy Bourgogne Rouge that had the same superficial grossness.

5. Clos de L'Oratoire (St.-Emilion), 2001

No lie, we was a little drunk by now. I still marvel at pro tasters plowing through hundreds of wines in a session, even without intentional swallowing. Beyond the slurred blackberry/licorice flavors I perceived some feisty tannin, leading me to believe this '01 was three years younger--the same pothole I fell into with the Lacoste. These suckers are built to last!

6. Miles Mossop Wines "Max" (South Africa), 2004

At this point you could have given me Wild Irish Rose and told me it was Gerard Perse's latest 97-pointer. If I remember correctly, the blind-taster consensus was either "I don't know" or "blahghaghaghah". Perhaps the end of the line was the best time to encounter a spy from Stellenbosch, a Cabernet-dominated wine rounded out by 22% each Merlot and Petit Verdot (that's a lot of Petit Verdot!) After much gnashing of teeth, I suggested that it did not smell or taste like a Bordeaux. The aroma was particularly floral (the PV, methinks), and the cab giveaways in the flavor profile were underscored by gamey and chocolatey things that made Max stick out like modesty in a Jay McInerney essay.

Sorry to arrive at such a tired old saw, but a Bordeaux blend from another hemisphere is going to taste worlds different from the stuff that got President Jefferson drunk. Mr. Mossop, is, of course, aiming to make his own unique wine, and succeeding admirably. But Max and all other wines that blend Cabernets, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, etc. will always ferment under the long shadow of "Bordeaux"--an increasingly meaningful and meaningless word that may refer to a port city, a vine-infested suburb, a blending recipe, or an unrealistic ideal. Which one, I reckon, depends on how blind you are.

Recent notables:
  • A. Clape Cornas 2001 - Purple color, with a very floral and blackberry-scented nose. Indisputably delicious, but is holding something back right now. Wish I could afford to lay some down.
  • M. Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone "Belleruche" 2006 - Full-bodied and exploding with fruit, this is a boffo value for under $10. Firm tannins guarantee success with any hearty meat or vegetable preparations.
  • Yalumba Viognier 2007 - Well, I don't expect much throwing the dice on budget viognier. Chateau-Grillet it ain't, but if you like simple, less-oaked whites made from inherently rich grapes, give it a go. Smells kind of like the inside of an apple pie before it's cooked, and has substantial acid. I'd probably prefer similarly-priced Chardonnay.
  • Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling 2007 - Eh. I struggle with the idea of "everyday" Riesling. This is nicely off-dry with the required acidity, but the lime/apple fruit makes its point too quickly, and there are no indications that this has the potential to develop petroleum-flavored perfection over time.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Waiting For The Barbera-ians


The bottle cuts a curious figure on the table--stately and somehow blacker than a red wine container has any place being, Sicilian ruminant cartooned across the face in crisp relief. It's Fairview's "The Goat Father", a wine that I reasonably expected to be terrible based on the fact that it's affordable, from South Africa (bear with me here), and attempts to blend Shiraz, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera, Primitivo, and other cultivars that you need a faithful hound's nose to discern.

But it was good! Sexy, translucent color, spicy nose redolent of red berries, and dueling bright/earthy flavors that land halfway between Piemonte and Paarl (technically Cameroon, but whatever). The wine is a keeper. A head-scratcher, but a keeper nonetheless. I remain intrigued by the willingness of South African winemakers to try anything, whether doing this sort of mad-scientist blending, making dirt-cheap viognier, or going the distance with a home-spliced grape.

From this Thunderdome of vinification I've found that you're as likely to get a consummately delicious wine as a disorienting sensory experience more akin to eating meat than drinking juice. The latter can be a particular hazard in "value" South African wines, where some truly bizarre flavors lurk.

The good ones, though, are wowwww. Are we looking at a gawky McDonald's All-American suffering its last bout of growing pains? Count a yes vote here. The not-so-invisible hand of U.S. taste seems to have wreaked its confusion in the early noughties and now, tasting South African wines, one senses that it's starting to marry a fierce individualism with the opulent delectability inherent in its terroir.

Having had nearly two decades to sweat out the economic poison of the apartheid regime, innovation has nowhere left to hide in the wine world's erstwhile palate of darkness. Proof is in one taste of Rudi Schultz's "suck on this, Hunter Valley" 2005 Syrah which is as mind-blowingly good as the villians in Lethal Weapon 2 were bad. Or, in Brampton's $11 "I killed the Yellow Tail kangaroo" wine from the same grape . (Preceding proprietary names not real.)

Give it 5-10 years, but I'm betting the ruthless inventiveness of South Africa will push it past its wine-producing fraternal twin Australia in the price-quality ratio of its product. Inklings of this are evident, as it just came up huge at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Gelukwensing!

Recent notables:
  • Chateau Pavie-Macquin 2003: Deep red color, not quite inky-purple. Rich nose of spice, ripe raspberry, stone, and violet. Soft tannins but substantial acid for a reputed fatso blockbuster. End result is a major black cherry-ish intensity that finishes forever.
  • Domaine J. Chartron Puligny-Montrachet "Clos du Cailleret" 2005: Glistening gold intoduces typically luxurious nose of red apple, pear, and a curious note of slate. A low-acid Puligny that's almost more a cocktail wine, albeit a supremely delicious one. Could probably use some time in bottle.
  • Clos Apalta 2004: Dark color that barely disperses, even at the rim. Has Rolland written all over it with sweet vanilla, blackberry, and crushed rock aromas. Velvety texture with notes of mocha and licorice on the finish. Decanting is valuable here.
  • Damn it, there are so many others and I just haven't been doing this enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sense For Sale


"I'm stupid rich, got r*tarded money
I'm special ed, I got special bread" ~G-Unit

As the only legitimate partnership of luxury and drugs, wine offers endless opportunities for financial idiocy. To their credit, 50 and Tony Yayo never dropped 80% of their weekly income on a bottle of '98 Margaux. Still, there is no shortage of "special bread" changing hands in the booze game. The consumoisseurs who know how much better Serralunga Barolo ages in a bowlegged garcon wine rack and how nothing carbonates your johnson like a skankified bottle of Piper-Heidsieck will always have a gaping hole in which to jettison their cash.

I wonder if I've suckled the bait myself by purchasing the red wine edition of Le Nez du Vin, a kit promising to hone your all-important olfactories via twelve vials of concentrated scents--cassis, raspberry, licorice, violet, etc. There is some accompanying literature more akin to a pamphlet than a book. The whole thing is expensive enough that the price per milliliter of the liquid essences is on par with an above-average vintage of Mouton.

I've been "seriously" into wine for lo these past two years, and I guess I've grown impatient with the development of my sensory apparatus. Between publicly misidentifying Cabernet as Chianti more than once and regularly scourging myself with Jay McInerney's boasts of his blind-tasting mojo, I yank corks and crack Stelvins every day in fear that I'm doing more wanton consuming than wise considering.

Jean Lenoir
, assuming he exists/existed, had me in mind when he created his product. Me and everyone else tortured by our inability to parse the fury of white noise that roars in our brains every time we nose a glass: Black Cherry? Truffle? Red Cherry? Chocolate? Strawbecznxcj,dncksdvkn... Ability to confidently name these elements and arrange them into a tidy profile of the wine's character is the men-from-boys divider of intelligent drinking. The names themselves are fraught with complications, but they're the only train running if we're to get as far away from "it just smells like wine" as possible.

Sold. To all of us dreading mediocrity in wine appreciation, Le Nez du Vin represents a blast of buckshot for the wolf at the door. If RMPJr is willing to insure his schnozzle for a cellar-temperature million, I can part with a the cost of a top Meursault to make every red wine I drink from now on more. . . sensible.

Most importantly, I've had it for two weeks and it's working. I can remember what cassis smells like, and the differences between white and green peppercorns. I'm recalling the scent of blackberry right now--something I could never do before getting these neat little bottles, even though I've always scarfed blackberries by the handful. Unraveling these olfactory threads with a bullish glass of Madiran hoofing the dust in front of you is another story, but it's an incomprehensible one if you can't place the scents to begin with.

I believe this was a good investment, and I'll probably get the white wine counterpart when I run out of guesses about the ethereal aromas in my next bottleful of bub.

Recent notables:

  • Stone "Ruination" IPA - Alluring dark amber color. Aromas not as floral as many IPA's. Intense--not f'ing around with the bitterness. For serious IPA addicts only.
  • Chateau Rouget 2001 - Brooding low-acid Pomerol has developed rich, mellow red fruit flavors with an edge of earth. Velvety and easy to drink. The finish is pure smoke on the water and I guess you could describe the color as... Deep Purple? Hah!
  • Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - Opulent and full with dark berry/plum flavors and a sticky kiss of residual sugar. Great value for anyone who likes porty reds.
  • Concha y Toro "Casillero del Diablo" 2006 - Restrained without being wimpy, featuring peppery spice and earth flavors framing black black cherries. The bookend to the Excelsior on the "Great cabs for under $8" shelf.
  • Mitolo "Jester" Shiraz 2006 - Not as syrupy as some other Parker darlings, but with supposedly 20% dried grapes used in the blend, this doesn't lack for weight. No over-the top flavors--instead, smoke, blueberry, etc. converse civilly in a well-balanced Shiraz.
  • Salomon Finniss River Shiraz 1998 - Bet you don't have this in your cellar. I was worried that it would be a dead dog, but its core of tarry fruit hasn't gone anywhere. Age has brought out some bonus acidity and what I'm going to guess they call "terroir". The pale maroon halo around a deep center color may be the most memorable thing here.
  • Domaine de Blanes Muscat Sec 2007 - If you will, glance at the prior post about whites I can't stand. I wish every "refreshing" wine tasted like this tropical, honeysuckle-drenched beauty. Still bone dry, great acidity, and crisp as H20.
  • Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge 2006 - Not the reputed "Latour of the Languedoc", but a serious red nonetheless. Cassis, dark cherry, and loamy earth rides in on chewy tannins and takes an impressively long time to quit your mouth. Supposedly ages forever--anyone know where to find an old bottle?
  • Chateau Pibarnon 2004 - Clear aroma of... Prosciutto? Won't find that in Le Nez du Vin, but it's unmistakable on the Pibarnon nose. I'd heard cautionary tales about these Bandol bruisers, but this is more elegant and less gamey than your typical Monastrell or Mourvedre-heavy Rhone.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doloroso


It's August and I'm tired of scrawny, sour white wines being canonized as "refreshing", "light", "crisp", "pure", etc. by sniveling Parker-bashers who hate America(n wines) on principle and think oak is a four-letter word.

Deep breath.

Spain is responsible for lots of these insipid enamel solvents, with Italy and Portugal trailing at spitting distance. These countries also make some good or great whites (Spain and Italy at least--that anyone seriously enjoys Vinho Verde blows my mind), but if the distribution in stores and on wine lists is to be believed, they trade primarily in nasty juice. Even Alice Feiring, an enemy of the state on multiple levels, recently called out Albarino for being a waste of yeast.

I wasn't drinking when the buttery, low-acid, pineapple-and-cream style of New World Chardonnay was at its apogee and I imagine it got pretty frustrating, as did the gauche attempts to beef up Sauvignon Blanc with barriques. But as is the wont of backlashes, the "ABC" movement outlasted its usefulness.

Not every white has to be thick and rich, but it seems that being the opposite is an automatic virtue nowadays--especially once May rolls around and columnists herald the arrival of Summer Wine Season, when locusts play Chopin and everyone with a dribble of taste is epoxied to their deck (because they all have decks) quaffing buoyant goblets of helium-light grapeade.

Look, just because the trees have leaves doesn't mean that indulgent Chardonnays, Viogniers, and reds have to be in hibernation until Election Day. (Likewise, woe unto anyone who's never slurped a snow-chilled bottle of Gavi fireside with Pecorino and almonds.) Using summer as a selling point for horrid wine shouldn't be as easy as it apparently is. When the mercury surges, there is no shortage of beers and cocktails that do a much more flavorful and heartburn-free job of cooling the soul than (virtually) any $8 Muscadet or white Rioja Crianza.

Or just try this: drink 2-4 generous glasses of Albarino, Txakoli, Pinot Grigio, Fiano di Avellino, or whatever else the cognoscenti are touting as this year's "perfect summer refresher". Pass out, then wake up and chew a big handful of Tostitos. While the nerves under your molars re-enact Marathon Man, ponder whether or not the romantic ideal of summer is really Hondarrabi grapes trembling as they await their destiny beneath a leathery Basque foot.

Recent notables:
  • Trimbach Riesling "Cuvee Frederic Emile" 2002 - Fermented bone-dry to 12.5%, this silky, massive-bodied wookie from Alsace is starting to deepen in color to a dark gold and develop tantalizing rubber and petrol aromas. A snap of acidity without sugar to balance makes pairing this with typical Riesling foils tricky, but oh man is it worth it.
  • Chateau Brisson 2005 - Against my contrarian will, I'm getting very excited about BDX '05, particularly since stunners like this are available for under $20. Amazing grip and typical but ultra-pure and delicious cassis, cedar, and mineral notes.
  • Guitian Godello "Sobre Lias" 2006 - Sweet stone fruit perfume continues on the palate as peach, lemon, and cinnamon(?) flavors. Good structure and just a suggestion of tannin. Great Spanish white.
  • Rustenberg "John X. Merriman" 2005 - A curious South African Bordeaux-5 blend lent exceptional gravitas by 13% divided amongst Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, and Malbec. A year or two might soften some rough edges, but there's good stuff here now.
  • Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition NV - Arrestingly deep brass color forecasts the full, nutty body. A pleasant sour raspberry flavor (likely from the 75% Pinot Noir) duets (duels?) with yeast notes aplenty. Substantial.

Ed. Note 8/13: Eric Asimov is a fine columnist and an even better blogger. But his 8/13 column: ugh!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Businessmen, They Drink My Oaky Cab-Merlot Blend

I've gotta have this. I will even invest in a slowly rotating pedestal for displaying it:

Though the Streisand and KISS editions are hard to resist, nothing says "supple tannins" like an etched caricature of Mick Jagger's mouth.

I wonder, non-judgmentally, who really buys these things. Surely they're in highest demand around Christmastime, when Bill Wyman's divorce lawyer's clients need reminders of how good they've been all year. And the corporate logo ones probably make nice briefcase-stuffers at Caligulesque i-bank holiday parties. The right wine to the right person is the most meaningful of gifts, but vitis vinifera's true strength come December is that it's the best impersonal gift imaginable. To the recipient, it offers a cozy, inoffensive obviousness--you know 50+ other people got the exact same thing from the deep-pocketed master of etiquette who sent it, likely with the same typed message. But that's fine because you either a) like wine, in which case you'll enjoy evaluating the contents, b) are indifferent to wine, in which case you'll enjoy getting drunk from the contents, or c) don't drink, in which case you have a re-gifting trump card.

Do these rock bottles ever twist'n'shout their way into distinguished private collections? I'm guessing not, though I welcome evidence to the contrary. The liquid inside is produced by Miramonte. I've never had any of their wines, which appear to be middle-class SoCal fruities, but assuming the Syrah with the gold-tongued Stones icon is the same as the one advertised on the Miramonte site, you're paying a fancy restaurant markup (nearly 3x) to get Mick's kisser on the bottle. Only the truest fan, sure the wine will transubstantiate into Keef's dope-saturated blood once it crosses the threshold of his teeth, would personally invest in this supreme piece of kitsch.

But what a pleasant surprise as the centerpiece of an anonymous gift basket on your desk one sleety morning during the endless corporate goodwill season when, to understate the matter, you can't always get what you want.

Recent notables:

  • Domaine de L'Ameillaud Vin de Pays Vaucluse 2006 - Basso profundo flavors of dark berries, pepper, and smoldering tobacco make this Grenache-heavy Vin de Pays an incredible value for under $10. Buy buy buy!!
  • Domaine Guy Roulot Bourgogne Blanc 2006 - Apparent wood influence of slightly burnt sugar on the nose. Spicy apple flavors and nice acidity equal a good ambassador of an underrated white Burgundy vintage.
  • Miner Pinot Noir 2000 - Elder statesman. Tantalizing wet leaf/forest floor nose totally falls apart five minutes after pouring. Stewed strawberry and rhubarb fruit flavors survive a little better, but this offers a difficult paradox--a cerebral, complex wine that must be guzzled.
  • Louis Michel Chablis 2006 - Pale with green hue. O.G. Chablis--green apple is the only obvious fruit flavor. No pear, melon, toast, etc. Major acidity. Gains depth as it gets a little warmer.
  • Silverado Merlot 2003 - Very mellow with the only remaining tannins coming from the bigtime French oak. I didn't perceive the cocoa you're supposed to take for granted in Napa Merlot, but there was vanilla a-plenty and juicy blackberry that was delicious with blue-collar Brooklyn pizza. Time for these great wines to get their reputation back.
  • Cos D'Estournel 1995 - A baller Bordeaux that distinguishes itself with browbeating black and white pepper flavors supporting incredibly pure and concentrated cigar box, blackberry, and cassis. I opened this a bit too early--over two hours before pouring, and so there was more oxygen than I would have ideally liked in the composition. But no biggie--a defining experience.
  • Bollinger R.D. 1996 - Oh wow, oh wow. A Champagne that would make you sit down if you weren't already. One of those wines that hits you so hard and so completely that the specific flavors (candied apple, Christmas spice, yeast) are trivial.
  • Louis Latour Corton-Grancey 1999 - Grand Cru all the way--imagine eating a black cherry the size of a plum. Characteristic Cote de Beaune Pinot heaviness might overwhelm in the second glass, but the elegance imparted by nine years of age counters that hazard. I'd love to try this again in 2013.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cos D'Elena

I own a lot more Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon than a person in my income bracket should. I haven't purchased it all, but suffice to say I haven't stolen any of it. It is such a good wine. If I had more experience with high-end California reds I could say something like: "Admirable old-world restraint distinguishes this aristocratic Cabernet amidst a sea of cloying Napa syrup". But that would be an especially putrid strain of bullshit, and I also happen to love that cloying syrup.

I digress. Montelena just became the first in a not-unlikely succession of top American wineries pursued by foreign buyers with fistfuls of muscle-bound currency. In this case, the suitor was Montelena's oenological frat brother Cos D'Estournel. The Prats clan has combined a keen business acumen and a Midas winemaking touch to build quite a little empire over the years, but acquiring Montelena makes a particularly strong statement vis-a-vis the Paris Tasting (in theaters soon!).

Undoubtedly James Laube knows Montelena a lot better than I do, but I can't contort my palate around his gloom'n'doom post about California red wine, capped by the assertion that Montelena's "quality has lagged" lately. Having tasted the '04, '03, '97, '89, and '88 vintages of Estate in the past month, I think it's doing just fine.

Better, even. Whether the purple-black intensity of a younger vintage or the brick-brown finesse of a Bush/Quayle harvest, I see no yawning gulf between Montelena's quality today and the ideal of a perfect red wine. Versatility? Try their decidedly un-jammy Estate Zinfandel or, if you can find it, the rich, crisp Riesling. I can only imagine Mike Grgich's flag-waving 1973 Chardonnay, but I'll be goddamned if the current release, a sparingly oaked, zero-malo iconoclast is much inferior.

Laube writes somewhat dismissively that Montelena "still has fans who admire its sturdy, distinctive, ageworthy style, but most of them are old-guard collectors". The implication is that the winery is ossifying into a crusty memory that won't spark any nostalgia--let alone interest--in young turk collectors. Well now. As long as Estate is racking up consistent mid-90s from Parker, I don't think it's headed for any clearence racks. First-hand observation bears this out.

And though some seething Montelena-sucks missives from WS commentors make me doubt my frame of reference a little more, I still side with Parker. If the winery's cellars are still infested with TCA, that's a serious issue that needs addressing and I trust the new management to do so--their track record of improving the wineries they acquire is solid. But I have a good feeling Jean-Guillaume Prats, Michel Reybier, et al. won't feel the need to overhaul the Montelena portfolio or the style of the wines.

Why? Because they know that premium, historic terroir like Montelena's doesn't respond well to meddling. They're even smarter wine guys than they are businessmen, which is why I look so forward to opening one of the crown jewels of my modest collection--a Cos D'Estournel 1995--tonight.

Recent notables:
  • Captain Lawrence "Liquid Gold" Ale - Looks like Budweiser, tastes like what Budweiser might taste like if you reduced it over high heat for 10 minutes. Huge malt attack with some interesting woody, violety flavors on the midpalate. Profoundly bitter finish.
  • Lagunitas "Censored" Copper Ale - Spicy, round, slightly doughy character keeps this brawny ale eminently gulpable. The comforting color of a 10 year-old penny. Just edges the Capt. Lawrence as the best new beer I've had in the past 3 months.
  • Magic Hat "Lucky Kat" IPA - Nice floral hoppyness on the attack, disappoints just a little on a finish that could support more bitterness.
  • Ardbeg 10 Year Single Malt Scotch - Not the peat beast it's reputed to be (less so than Laphroaig 10). Definitely some heavy smoke, plus dashes of sugar and brine. OK.
  • La Sacrisite de la Vieille Cure 2005 - The eagle has landed! Finally a non-Petit Chateau bottle of 2005 Bordeaux. A little tight now, but not especially tannic and fantastic balance. I suspect the blackberry, mocha, and mellow currant flavors would be clearer with decanting. Given the reasonable price, I'd like to lay a few of these down.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wine!


To be fair and balanced, my California jaunt involved more than stepping on a landmine at The French Laundry. One, my sister got married and I inherited sole responsibility of keeping the family name alive. Two, I did a 36-hour tour of Napa and Sonoma where my cup ranneth over with all the juice I could gargle.

An early-morning drive to Calistoga--a pastoral oasis after the Hamptons-esque vibe of 29 as it cleaves Rutherford and St. Helena--ended at Chateau Montelena. As Odette Kahn's vengeful spirit hissed at us from the rafters, we tasted eight wines beginning with a crackling, powerful Potter Valley Riesling and ending with a 1989 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon that, blindfolded, I would have pegged as a high-end St. Julien. Roaming the grounds was therapeutic, notwithstanding a faceoff with a three-legged turtle (below).


We ditched the car in St. Helena and continued south on bicycles. I hate bicycles. My knees and neck were wretched after 800 meters. The pickup trucks screaming past inches from my left elbow got progressively older and rattlier as we approached the next merciful stop. At Hall, we sipped brooding, chocolaty cabs with a Frank Gehry skeleton looming in the background. I thought of the Atlantic Yards and reflexively spit on the ground.

On the road again, a familiar sign came into view beyond some protruding train tracks: Provenance, a new-ish Rutherford winery that I had encountered months ago at a tasting conducted by its winemaker Tom Rinaldi. This was not on the itinerary. I hollered at my friends, far ahead of me at this point, to please stop. The opposing wind slapped my voice back into my face as they pulled further away.

Now how's this for fate: Just past the far corner of the vineyard, the speed demon so indifferent to my floundering yelped and swerved off the road towards the tracks. The chain had detached from the gears of his bike. With an earnest effort to hide my schadenfreude, I pulled up next to him and gently suggested we walk back to Provenance to catch "our" breath.

Between nosings of a lush, unabashedly American Sauvignon Blanc, I identified myself to the pourer and asked if Tom was by any chance around. Affirmative. Tall, bearded, and emanating an intelligence as laid-back as vast, he is the quintessential California wine dude. I would have been stoked with a simple "nice to see you again", so when he blindsided us with a comprehensive tour of the fermenting, aging, and bottling facilities--holy shit! The thrill of staring into a huge box containing maybe 10,000 corks was eclipsed only by the Wonka-esque bottle assembly line full of sound (metal clanks, hydraulic whooshes) and fury (corks slammed into openings, labels smacked on faces). And, just to verify that he is in fact Batman, Tom fixed the crippled bike and sent us on our way.


To Quintessa. Even the eye candy on the Silverado Trail can't prepare you for how incredible this estate is. First off, 280 acres--this is COLOSSAL compared to neighboring wineries. The structure itself is a sprawling crescent embedded into an east-facing hillside. Guzzling my third complimentary split of Voss in the cathedral-like reception area, I was reminded of Cameron Frye's house: "It's very beautiful and very cold, and you're not allowed to touch anything". You can touch stuff at Quintessa, but it's the kind of place where a drop of water reverberates for ten seconds.

Underground, narrow candlelit corridors jutted spoke-like from a central fountain. Barrels everywhere. How nice to sniff the same wood (below) that may or may not have been selected by M. Michel Rolland (whom I consider a genius, more on that later). Our tasting was the 2005 Red alongside young, unblended lots of Cabernet Sauvignon. It was an instructive exercise in the craft of blending--tasting the pure cab made it possible to imagine exactly how the blend would taste without it. Ending with posh canapes prepared onsite, the Quintessa experience was an appropriately bling-bling farewell to Napa. I'm never getting on a bike again.

Eighteen hours later we were lost in Sebastopol, desperately searching for the Gravenstein Highway so as not to be any later than we already were to Dutton-Goldfield. Sonoma (below) has a very different vibe from Napa, with more clunky old farm equipment than BMW's in the scenery. There are even redwoods and a townie or two hundred. W instantly formulated plans to move there by 2012.


Dan Goldfield
, alongside whom I've had the privilege of pouring, is to me the potions master of the Russian River Valley. He keeps his non-Zin wines under 14.0%, achieving Burgundian finesse without sacrificing American muscle. His Rued Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 is the best American white I've ever had. The wizard was gone from his workshop that morning, but his colleagues treated us to A LOT of barrel samples, including embryonic single-vineyard wines that I'd never encountered on the east coast. Couldn't bear to spit.

Our last NoCal stop was Iron Horse. I'd always known it primarily as a bubble factory, and was caught off guard by an array of impressive dry red wines, particularly the T-Bar-T Bdx-3 2004. Robot name aside, it's a toothsome, dense Cab/Cab/Petit Verdot cuvee made from young vine Alexander Valley grapes. It has a refreshing old-world austerity and pulls off the cigar-box-full-of-fresh-mud Bordeaux thing with style. Of the sparklers, the pointy, complex Wedding Cuvee 2005 beats the creamy, opulent Russian Cuvee 2003 by a nose, and you can tell the poor pourers are so tired of having to repeat the Gorbachev anecdote to every visiting bumpkin.

That did it for "wine country", though I'll quickly mention a couple of fortuitous Cal-Ital discoveries during the long drive south: Witch Creek Winery's jammy, meaty Aglianico (Mexican-grown fruit!) was booming when the winemaker pulled a dram of the '07 from barrel, so I'm interested to see how a the '06 I bought will be after a year (or two, if I can bear the suspense). And I left a pit stop in Paso Robles with a bottle of Pianetta Sangiovese 2005. Kool-aid for grownups--that's the only way I can describe the intensity of the cherry flavors in the best treatment of this varietal I've ever tasted from outside The Boot.

I'm left with rumblings that I'd like to be a winemaker one day, though completing the prerequisites to apply to Davis would take at least two years. What's neat, however, is that with average price of Napa land hovering around a hundred grand per acre, California's status as the only US destination for an interesting winemaking career is going to be on the ropes by the time I'd theoretically be graduating from an academic program. I guess it is already, what with it raining great juice in Oregon, Washington, and New York every year. But they'll eventually be Napa-fied to some extent, and I'll optimistically posit that the next wave of scrappy winemakers will find a way to wrest magic from the terroir in Virginia, Texas, The Carolinas, Pennsylvania... Raise a Kluge to that happy thought.

P.S. In case you hadn't heard, California is ON FIRE. Here's what it looks like driving past Santa Barbara just before sunset.


The silver flecks are ash reflecting the camera flash. Guess what the "clouds" are. Ultra-premium Sonoma winery Hanzell had a near miss the day before we were in that area. How many vintages will pass before at least one major vineyard gets speed-raisinated by a roaring inferno? I'd wager you can count them on one peace sign.

Recent notables:
  • Nicolas Feuillate Palmes d'Or 1997 - I've never been a huge fan of the Feuillate style (see earlier post about the champagnes I dig), but this prestige cuvee carries itself with a voluptuous dignity. It's light, no doubt, but there's a creamy, bready intimation towards the back that keeps it level and swallowable. A long and satisfying finish elevates it to memorable.
  • Taittinger Prelude NV - Fine mousse. Lemony with considerably more body than the delicious Brut Francaise. Toasted nut notes and lots of flowers define the midpalate and finish. Accompanying berries and whipped cream, goddamn.
  • Conundrum 2006 - I guess I can't be surprised that this boastfully off-dry California heavy is a love-it-or-hate-it wine, but for my money there's nothing better with sharp cheeses. Five odd-couple white varietals play very nicely together in this bottle, generating tropical and floral flavors coated in oaky vanilla.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Food

"I am looking for a restaurant, can you help me?

It exists quietly sixty-plus miles from any major city, on a dark street where people live all year. You walk into the hard-to-find and unassumingly blue front door and are met by an unknown friend who's been expecting you without a blink of impatience. She asks you to wait five minutes on a luxuriously familiar sofa where the chef's own cookbook, obscene in its temptation, opens itself in your hands.

Then you're at a large table--all the restaurant's tables are large--with your companion, and it feels like you're in the house you've always wanted to live in for the rest of your life. A server appears and speaks to you in a high baritone that you know is a performance but such a perfect one that you forgive it immediately. You glance at the menu but there isn't much choice--you're there to eat what the chef wants to cook for you that night. Trust is the mother sauce.

A few words and that server is gone, but another soon materializes in his place. This isn't a restaurant where a single wage slave is lashed to your table all night. Here, a gently buzzing hive cooperates as suavely as the zeroes and ones in the guts of an iPhone to get you what you want, when you want it, and nothing more.

There is a wine list, over a hundred pages long. Its nectars range from geeked-out gems like Pacific Northwest Gewurztraminer to the baller blockin' five-figure extremes of DRC 2005. Nothing is cheap, but everything is purposeful--as it must be when the same dinner is served to a hundred people, each of whose different noses and tongues need a specific wine to carry the food to their personal euphoria triggers.

And, the food: Nominally French/New American, but truly the borders-be-damned Esperanto of culinary transcendence. Flavors you're surprised you can comprehend wait like a cocked Mayweather right and punch your lights out the instant you dare to swallow. Every conceivable texture is conjured fearlessly: creamy, crunchy, tingling, liquid, chewy, popping, ambrosially slimy. Spread over nine (de facto eleven) courses, the array of stimuli suggests nothing less than infinity. It is a selfish and thoroughly unproductive achievement of man to create a restaurant this good. Please help me find it."

"Well, pilgrim, you stand under the Golden Gate Bridge, point your nose to the North Star, and stop when the locals correct your pronunciation of 'Yountville'."

The name of this restaurant is, of course, The French Laundry, and I would like to relate a recent evening spent in its care. Not because I want to trumpet my ability to get the reservation (you just need an account on opentable.com, two months' notice, and a talent for left-clicking) and to foot the bill (you just need a black AmEx or a low financial IQ--guess which one applies here), but because I left 6640 Washington Street way past midnight with a bulging doggy bag of perspective on indulgence, gastric wellness, and why I bother making my mouth available as a port of entry.

Paeans to Thomas Keller's virtuosity come easy, so I had ample time to get excited about experiencing his food, then become cynical and lower my expectations, and finally get excited again. In the week before leaving home, I read M.F.K. Fisher's "The Standing and the Waiting" three times on the subway, sure that her lyrical account of a near-perfect meal would put me in the proper frame of mind for "the best restaurant in the Americas".

Then I was there, and the "Pinces de Homard Pochees Au Beurre Doux" with Morels, English Peas, Garden Herb Salad, and "Mousseline Americane" were in front of me, and I felt very sick. I swallowed a salty half-teaspoon of saliva to stem the reverse peristalsis that was threatening to propel courses one through four across the tablecloth. It did not pair well with the Rebholz "Kastanienbusch Birkweiler" Grosses Gewachs Riesling Spatlese 2004. Perpendicular, W's rapture was apparent as her second piece of lobster dissolved in her mouth. I ran my fork's rightmost tine through a blot of pea puree and drew a little hook.

Suddenly I was sweating and asked if I could remove my jacket. The server mumbled that it was against policy before graciously consenting. An oncoming burp promised temporary stomach relief, treacherously arriving as a searing acid bath for my esophagus. I'd heard of these ultra-rarified restaurants occasionally doubling as vomitoria, but it was a much funnier notion on a sheet of newsprint than in my gullet as I stared down a savory, glistening "Pressee" of Four Story Hill Farm "Poularde" with Hobbs' Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Arrowleaf Spinach, Sunchokes and Royal Blenheim Apricot.

I was suffering this way because I had eaten too much--way too much--the previous day, and drunk just enough to compound the torment. For breakfast in San Francisco, black bean cakes, eggs, and cornbread at Dottie's True Blue Cafe. Mid-morning, a sourdough loaf from Boudin Bakery on the Fisherman's Wharf. Late lunch at Swan's Oyster Depot--dense clam chowder, six icy Blue Points, and a huge hill of crab salad accompanied by Muscadet and Anchor Steam. An aperitif bottle of Artesa Pinot Noir 2005 upon arriving at the Best Western in Napa. Very late dinner at Mustard's Grill beginning with Far Niente Chardonnay 2005, Perrier-Jouet NV, and small plates galore, continuing with rich Sonoma rabbit and a killer Willamette Valley Pinot 2006 called Antica Terra. Zero physical activity all day.

I probably would have gotten away with all this if I had held off on the banana cheesecake, key lime pie, and Prager Port-style Petite Sirah at Mustard's, but I didn't, and crumpled into bed around 1AM with a spinning head and distended belly. I woke up at 3 and never got back to sleep. Nothing had been digested. I was dehydrated and it hurt to move. I thought of Bruce Bogtrotter in Roald Dahl's Matilda, a zaftig child forced to eat a gigantic chocolate cake by an evil schoolmarm. For two hours I writhed, hoping no one else was awake. Finally, I made the death row walk to the toilet and vomited prolifically.

The pain faded as the sun rose, but any thought of consuming food met with severe physiological punishment. I steeled myself for a day of wine tasting and managed to swallow some canned pineapple and grapes at Denny's, while burying the prospect of dinner at The French Laundry as deeply as my brain stem allowed. Nothing budged over the next twelve hours. As we traveled I envisioned my body as a porno-addled hard drive, infested with free radicals and chemical imbalances.

Back to the evening, my despair peaked when I realized that the second bottle of wine I had ordered, a Robert Groffier Chambolle-Musigny "Les Sentiers" 1995, would be on the table soon and there was no way I'd be able to finish it. I faintly beckoned the sommelier and explained my plight. He returned with a half bottle of Gros Frere et Soeur Grands Echezeaux 2005 and transferred it to a Riedel "Duck" Decanter. Seeing this was comforting. And tasting the wine--the most intense, lilting Pinot Noir I've ever encountered--was temporary anesthesia.

Not a miracle cure, but I caught my breath. Then, like when the Yellow Submarine triumphantly returns to Pepperland at the Fab Four's most desperate moment, our initial server descended and asked if we were ready for the next course. I handed him my half-finished "Poularde" and our eyes met with understanding. The Elysian Fields Farm "Selle D'Agneau Rotie Entiere" with Panisse, Globe Artichokes, "Piperade", and Spring Garlic Jus came next and W accepted a third of mine. She was happy, which was wonderful.

Minutes later, watching a local cow cheese being quenelled tableside over Yellow Corn "Financier", Caramelized Fig, Mache, and Black Truffle Coulis, I knew I was out of the woods. My GI tract was free of acid and inching towards equilibrium, I had a half-glass left of gorgeous grand cru Burgundy, and the remaining two courses brandished relatively few animal proteins. I smiled weakly (see right) and passed on coffee.

The bill arrived on a charming laundry ticket: One thousand sixty-one dollars and thirty-four cents. To reveal the cost of this four-hour hallucination certainly breaches etiquette, but it's necessary to understand my final impression of the night. There was no sense of wastefulness, and only a twinge of anticlimax. What followed me home down Route 29 as the witching hour approached was a conviction that my approach to dining--and more broadly, nourishment and consumption--needed adjustment.

Food has been a cerebral pleasure of mine since 2005, when I tossed my pothead Munchos-and-salsa jones onto the junk heap alongside my DiGiorno-and-YooHoo high school meanderings. Day to day now I don't demand haute cuisine that costs a month's rent--I just want food that sits on my spork minimally altered from its natural state, free of artificial chemicals, and capable of telling me something interesting. This affords me a sense of wellness without compromising my unwavering love of fat, salt, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol (which, if need be, I am perfectly willing to let kill me a decade or two early).

My lesson from a tumble in The French Laundry is that the food one consumes is an ongoing and interconnected narrative--once it's done keeping you alive, it sets to work coloring your perception of your next bite, your next meal, your next restaurant choice. If you, the author, value a good story over a good sentence, you need to consider how today's Wyoming burger will flavor tomorrow's gravlax. I didn't. It's so easy to deface the big picture when Sonoma rabbit and banana cheesecake tease you from a menu page, but you pay in the end--well over $1,061.34.

The only objective complaints--and they really don't matter--involve Keller's two alliterative vices: Quenelles (at least three, they got boring) and quotation marks (count 'em--seventeen pairs on the menu). But everything he prepared was delicious--the finest ingredients on earth handled minimally in the most innovative and perfect proportions imaginable. The setting is beautiful without ever intimidating. And a trip to the restroom is so much more satisfying knowing that Tom Cruise and Heidi Klum occupied the same commode days earlier. Nothing about this evening gives me reason to begrudge The French Laundry's place at the pinnacle of American eateries.

And yet it lands at the bottom of my twenty most pleasurable dining experiences. I'm reminded of (and confounded by) an analogous 24 hours in Philadelphia when I followed a Yuengling bender with four Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast, cheesesteak at D'Alessandro's for lunch, and then the ten-course degustazione at Vetri, which was top three without question.

It's hard to grapple with the Orwellian truth that we are mobile food bags, and I frustrated myself trying as I lay voluntarily awake that night. Comfort came when I remembered that "The Standing and the Waiting" ends with madame in tears.

Today's damage:

  • Domaine de Lagrezette "Zette" Malbec 2003: Perfume of dried fruits and clove gets you ready for brawny raisin and tobacco flavors. Gains some acidity and depth after being open and re-sealed for a day. Take that, Argentina!
  • R Wines, "Boarding Pass" Shiraz 2005: No mistaking this 15.7% bigfoot, though the finish is impressively non-boozy. Smoky attack and nice blueberry syrup midpalate.
  • Domaine A. et J-P Colinot, Irancy "Les Mazelots", 2005: A black sheep from Burgundy, this 90% Pinot Noir / 10% Cesar (Julius should have kept it) is sharp and austere with scant varietal typicity. Nice for the novelty, but not for enjoyment.
  • Chateau de Rully, Rully "La Pucelle" 1er Cru, 2005: Fat, almost California-style oak jumps out first, but closer examination reveals a basket of Cote Chalonnaise fruit: Green apple, barely ripe pear, a little lime. Toes the new world-old world line well.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The City By the Crappy Airport

Scribbling this now because the pay-internet kiosk in the San Francisco airport has a 10-minute minimum use time. I'm stranded here for at least two hours. Rewards for patience to include tours/tastings at Chateau Montelena, Quintessa (hopefully), Dutton-Goldfield, and several more, plus dinner at The French Laundry. Unfortunately American Airlines won't be paying. Valhalla I am coming!

Today's damage:
  • Fish Eye Shiraz 2004- My constant air travel companion. Tastes like bacon!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Betrayed, or, The Jeroboam's Story

Hyphen and all, Billecart-Salmon stokes white whale obsession in champagne hunters. At least that's the view from my perch, where I tangle with frustrated BS-seekers weekly. So I was excited to snag a 375ml of nonvintage brut reserve on Monday and see if the liquid inside is really worth threats of physical violence.

Well. Let's admit that it was hardly the first bottle opened that night, and I drank it from a technically inappropriate glass. Throw in the speculation that Champagne generally tastes worse in smaller bottles and maybe I wasn't coming at it from the best angle. Or maybe I'm just making excuses. The disappointment threatened by the scrunched-up nose was verified by the second and third austere sips. The wine was grapefruity, thin, and abrasive, and the mousse disappeared quickly (perhaps the glass's fault).

So there I sat, out $24 and too tipsy to pay attention to The Last King of Scotland, suckered again by a veblen good. In fairness, BS is of a style that I typically don't prefer--the Champagnes I enjoy most taste like raw wads of bread dough studded with ripe green apple slices. But some others, notably Henriot, do the super-crisp, borderline briny thing with palpably better results. They taste as though the sharp citrus flavors and electric acidity were totally intended by the maitre de chai, whereas in Billecart-Salmon they seem unfortunately accidental.

Having only had it once (under less than ideal circumstances to boot), I'm not going to assert that this champagne should be dumped down the piss-pot followed by those who adore it. And, I did pick up some interesting amaretto and malted milkball aromas on continued nosings. AND, there's always the niggling possibility that it was a skunked bottle. In the end though, I can't escape the feeling that I was betrayed by a fizzy drink--putting me in the same seasick boat as the poor chumps who got hypodermics in their Pepsi. And only I am escaped alone to tell thee.

Other recent notables:
  • Domaine de Baumard Quarts de Chaume 2004 - Light lemon color. Floral and apricot aromas introduce a not-too-syrupy sweet wine. Youthful (for something that can last decades) acidity is probably masking some of the botrytised goodness right now.
  • Belle Pente Pinot Noir 2006 - Very light color. Lots of rhubarby fruit plays nicely against sharp acid and gamey earthiness.
  • Tiara Carmenere 2006 - Soft, easy-drinking Chilean red honestly presents an overlooked varietal with typical dark fruit surrounded by innuendos of green pepper and chocolate.
  • Vina Aquitania Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - A seriously undervalued Chilean Cab that's much better-balanced than the menthol explosion on the nose suggests. Curiously, it's joined by some tobacco notes on the finish, but this is much classier than a pack of Newps.
  • Kim Crawford Pinot Gris 2005 - A true Pinot Gris (i.e. not Grigio) with a peachy nose leading into round, waxy flavors and pronounced floral stuff on the back palate.
  • Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc "Taylor's Pass" 2007 - Very mellow for a Marlborough SB with atypical orange peel aromas and round, creamy apricot/cinnamon flavors coupled with surprisingly low acidity. The distinctiveness of this lush New Zealand white is worth the price of admission.
  • Castello Tricerchi Brunello di Montalcino 2003 - Approachable now, with lots of vanilla and superdark cherry making the massive body manageable. Who cares what they put in it, it's delicious.