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.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bogus Brunello

I'm late to commenting on the Bru-haha roiling lately in Montalcino, and Brunello is a wine with which I have admittedly little experience (something I plan to remedy once my damn economic stimulus check comes in), but let's get a few things out of the way: The Italian appellation system is a hobbling pony, and despite the good things that have come from the IGT designation, a toxic brew of questionable promotions and stubborn insistence on tradition continues to hamstring the potentially best and most versatile wine-producing nation in the world.

If you play by the rules, your Brunello will contain nothing but the Sangiovese clone called Brunello. Put in anything else and you're looking at six years in the pokey. Compare this to California, where you can varietally-label your cuvee as long as it's 75% said varietal, and name the legally-defined region as long as you're using 85% indigenous fruit--the rest can be anything under the sun. Or to Bordeaux, where Bacchus help you if you make anything even approaching a single-varietal wine and your name isn't Moueix. Burgundy is a notable exception to this universal, intelligent acceptance of red wine blending, and I presume that's because no noble red grape other than Pinot Noir can thrive at such a chilly extreme (and because Pinot-Tannat-Mourvedre blends never really caught on).

So once again, Italy shoots itself in the piede with its overambitious notions of "purity". That the brilliant Montalcino oenologists have to risk screwing themselves financially to experiment with even 10% of varietals that have a track record of deliciousness in the Tuscan terroir is stultifying. The market will ensure lazily made wines get what's coming to them--give me an electrifying Brunello (90%) / Merlot (6%) /Cab Franc (4%) for $50 and my walletful of wet noodle dollars is forever open.

Today's damage:
(Plus yesterday)
  • Hogue Fume Blanc 2005 - This had been opened two days earlier and so had a certain bitterness that wasn't totally out of place with the wine's natural grapefruit and mineral flavors. Pleasing yellow color may be due to the 25% Semillon in the blend. I plan to drink gallons of this over the course of the summer.
  • Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - A steal from the Central Coast--viscous cassis and plum flavor lead off, finished off by spicy cloves on the back palate. Doesn't overwhelm white meat, but its teeth gnash for a B.A. Barracus-level food challenge.
  • Bee's Knees Sauvignon Blanc 2007 - Lush, suggestively floral nose, but don't call it cat pee. Not much depth, but a high-toned acidity integrates well with typical NZ flavors of grass, lime, and an edge of peach.
  • Georges Duboeuf Fleurie 2006 - A fragile, light-bodied wine that was perceptibly sour after less than an hour of being open. Also too warm, though lilting pear and banana flavors still squiggled through.
  • Rusden "Bakery Hill" Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - Expecting a blueberry-menthol Slush Puppie led to disappointment--this is a restrained (13.0%) Barossa Cab that offers sharp acidity and earthiness while plum/prune and raisin flavors take a backseat.
  • Highland Park 12 Year Single Malt Scotch - Still my favorite non-Islay whisky, with a round, toasty presence punctured on the finish by a tart spike. Best with a quarter-teaspoon of water swirled in.
P.S. Look back two posts, then read this Joel Stein column (published almost a week later).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

No Dark Sarcasm

Bobbing and weaving amongst the hordes of smooth talkers in the wine and spirits game are 158 who hold the title of Master Sommelier. Supposedly demonstrating an iron grasp of theory, service, and velvet-glove customer intimidation, the MS is the highest stateside distinction in the thick and disorganized pile of beverage education certificates.

Tomorrow I'm gonna get mines--not an MS, but an acceptable clink of the glass for 24 Tuesday mornings spent getting semi-drunk, taking patchy notes, and somehow absorbing at least 65% of what there is to know about every major wine-producing region in the world. Passing is a foregone conclusion, though admittedly I had hoped to be throwing a no-hitter at this point. As it stands, the minutiae of Germany, Southern Italy, and Tokaji may have gotten the better of me for now.

This is just the beginning, though; a first step in the struggle for mastery. One day I'd like to have an MS, MW, or whatever else proves I can float like a buttery chardonnay and sting like a beerenauslese.

Today's damage:
  • Newcastle Brown Ale - Body is closer to medium than suggested by the deep copper color and British Bulldog logo. Coffee and faint stone fruit fill out the palate but quit in a disappointingly thin finish.
  • Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chardonnay 2005 - A self-conscious attempt not to be an overwrought California white is a moderate success. Crisp, rustic acidity pairs well with cheese and hors d'oeuvres but I was hoping for a little more toast and fruit. Here's to the old master.
  • Atalayas de Golban Ribiera del Duero 2004 - Kirsch and plums get it on with spicy vanilla in a round, balanced, and delicious Duero.
  • Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or Single Malt Scotch (Sauternes cask) - Doesn't taste like Sauternes, but I guess I was an idiot for expecting it would. Not alcoholic-smelling. Very elegant, especially on the honeyed finish.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Wet Stone Salad

I promise this is the only time Paul Giamatti will ever appear on this blog (until someone makes a wine called "Pig Vomit").

"There is a problem when these people list all these flavours and aromas they think they have detected. It then gets on to the label of the bottle and what you are looking at appears to be a recipe for fruit salad." -Hugh Johnson

When cornered in social situations, you can always reclaim some personal space by describing your sensory reactions to whatever you're drinking. Some will humor you with mumbled agreements or half-assed nosings of their own cocktail, but most will just slink away. Immediately you are identified as a pinky-extending, Sideways-DVD-owning, swirl-and-spit blowhard best left to wallow alone in your oenological onanism.

Such is the nature of "tasting notes", the beating heart that makes alcohol enjoyment possible on a level beyond guzzling, and/or the festering sore that assures those who dare to use them will always be, to many, hideous. Case in point, the satirical (I think) tasting room scene in the aforementioned film when Miles closes his eyes, covers his ear, and rattles off an increasingly absurd list of the aromas in his glass, ending in "nutty Edam cheese". For a moment there, he's not the good guy. No way, we think. Passion fruit? Asparagus? Why can't wine just taste like wine?

Hmph. Wine does, or at least should, taste like wine--no argument there. But there needs to be a language for describing the differences between wines; otherwise restaurants and retailers could save everyone time by dividing their selections into approximately four categories: "red/good", "white/good", "red/bad", and "white/bad". To the recreational consumer, an honest and plain-spoken assessment of a wine's texture, balance, and concentration can be invaluable.

Hearing, on the other hand, that a wine smells like "vitamins" and tastes like "new saddle leather" is unlikely to help. Ultra-specific descriptors like these are primarily handy for masochists who enjoy walking the tightrope of blind tasting, since all kinds of trivia about a wine's origin can indeed be deduced from certain giveaway aromas and flavors. But if you already know what the wine is, luxuriating in "fruit salad" nouns and adjectives is just a stupid game--EXCEPT if it clarifies and makes more permanent your memory of what you drank. Recording the particulars of what you smell and taste for this purpose will presumably equip you to make better choices about what you and those who trust you drink in the future. Just don't think they'll impress anyone.

And because why not, let's take a shot at the wine press's least mobile target--Robert M. Parker, Jr.--for proliferating such blabbery tasting notes. Any Parker review from the last fifteen years is perilously likely to contain something like "wet stone", "spice box", "liquid minerals" (WTF), "violets", "crushed rocks" "road tar" (an admittedly vivid smell), and sometimes a vaguer cop-out like "dark fruits" or "dried flowers". I don't own a spice box--I just use a shelf. Where does that leave me in trying to imagine the opulent 2002 Pavie?

Parker wasn't the first to ever liken good chardonnay to pears, but just like insipid 80's guitar shredding is Eddie Van Halen's fault no matter how much of a genius he is, I blame first Parker's popularity for all the people who think the extent of your wine expertise is proportional to the logorrhea of your tasting notes. For proof, just look at wine writing pre-RP and post-RP. Hugh Johnson must be mad enough to crush rocks with his bare hands.

Buttery warm-climate chards often naturally contain diacetyl, a compound also used to flavor margarine. So I still wonder about whether a wine universally agreed to smell like blackberries really DOES have any molecular similarity to blackberries. I wouldn't be surprised if it did, but I would be if the same were true of wines garnering comparisons to road tar and vitamins. Flintstones cuvee? Bottoms up.

Today's damage:
(Plus yesterday)
  • Newton Vineyard "Red Label" Chardonnay 2005 - Deep straw color. Juicy tropical aromas wash over rich buttered toast. Just enough acidity to qualify it as wine. Tastes big, but not as big as the 15.5% wrecking ball it is. Probably interchangable with big Cabs in food-pairing applications.
  • Vina Aquitania "Sol de Sol" Chardonnay 2006 - A trickster--smells like a California behemoth, but is a nimble, steely bantamweight on the palate with lemon, green apple, and spice leading into a minerally finish. Clever.
  • Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage 2007 - Oak-free is trendy right now, but this is the wrong wine to throw under that bandwagon. Without oak's woody roundness, this is all coarse angularity propping up an ersatz savory smoke character. The bright purple color makes it all the more awkward. I understand this is a cheapo, but I'm losing faith in Pinotage.
  • Powers Merlot 2005 - A few years in bottle have done this inexpensive WA Merlot good, dulling the color a little and imparting an old world earthiness. Pronounced cooked fruit and menthol flavors come off gracefully. Almost impressive.
  • Yuengling Traditional Lager - Evergreen college quaff still satisfies where most mass-produced American beers don't. Light brown color introduces a tasty bitterness that unfortunately quits by the time it reaches your throat. Refreshing light-medium body means even beer wimps have no excuse for not liking it.
  • Lieb Family Cellars Pinot Blanc 2006 - Bright yellow color. Almost off-dry with a viscous mouthfeel and faint but perceptible sweetness. Herbs and lemon syrup define this very well-balanced North Fork white.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hope I Die Of Alcohol Poisoning Before I Get Old From Resveratrol Deficiency

I've been pronouncing it wrong for months--Resveratrol, the phytoalexin found in grape skins that's been turning rats into triatheletes, has tumbled adolescently from my lips as "uhh.. reservatrol" more times than I'll ever admit. Still, it has always been the straightest arrow in my quiver when summoned to defend my red wine habit against relative teetotalers. Purported benefits are cancer defense, increased athletic prowess, and reduced harm from scarfing fat.

Cheers to Nicholas Wade's article in yesterday's New York Times for setting my pronunciation straight and also for proffering a few more encouraging non-conclusions about why the compound may or may not prolong the lifespans of animals below us on the food chain. Cue nightmares of government scientists bottle-feeding La Tรขche to rhesus monkeys with YOUR TAX DOLLARS.

The concept of red wine as vital elixir has existed between fact and stumbling delusion for a while, and is undoubtedly responsible for at least a few hundred thousand cases of middle and upper-middle class alcoholism. As if the miracle of your head feeling balloon-light and boulder-heavy at the same time didn't already encourage (or force) you to pour the third glass, then finish the bottle, then stare lasciviously at the Macallan on the shelf, the thought of a life-extending tonic coursing through your capillaries makes willpower just a little pathetic.

But try telling that to the well-heeled oenophile who wants to educate himself by tasting Jaboulet La Chappelle next to Henschke Mt. Edelstone and insists leaving either bottle open overnight would be wasteful. Or more realistically, the young couple who follow after-work cocktails with a utilitarian 750ml accompanying their Wednesday evening takeout. Recall the genteel shitstorm that blew through the UK last year when the government railed against "hazardous drinking" among the affluent, with "hazardous" defined as intractably as one "large" glass of wine a day for men, and even less for women.

I will unscientifically conclude that four half-full Riedels every 24 hours will probably kill a person faster than they save him. Beyond that, I would love some straight answers that might help myself and others form consistent habits that balance the happy, fuzzy feelings of booze, the mysterious health benefits trumpeted on the front page of the Paper of Record, and the headaches, sinus-embedded snotwads, and weekday morning dry and not-so-dry heaves that follow too much of a very good thing.

Today's damage:
  • Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale - Molasses color doesn't lie--supremely mouthfilling coffee, chocolate, and caramel flavors that are powerful but never overbearing. Elegantly malty.
  • Moet & Chandon White Star NV - Luminous straw color with medium mousse. Tart aroma with a little ginger spice. On the palate, perceptible sweetness frames pear and green apple notes. Vanilla aura characterizes decently long finish. Probably best enjoyed shaken furiously and sprayed into Michael Jordan's face after a three-peat.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

O-post One

This begins a blog about drinking, self-control, nostril topography, hangover hospice, but mostly wine. I'm 25, I have a wobbly foothold in the adult beverage industry, and I should probably spit more. The majority of my peers are in law and finance.

I'm trying this for two reasons: To focus some vague notions I have about the current state of wine, beer, and spirit consumption, and to force some personal accountability in considering what I drink and recording my impressions. I think I thought I could also use this humble e-platform to initiate some dialogue about the aforementioned, but seriously, folks. As Mel Gibson said in The Patriot (right before shooting some imperialist redcoat bastards), "Aim small, miss small".

Today's damage:
  • Miller Lite - Fizzy, yellow, almost flavorless but for a pleasant cereal note on the blink-and-you-missed-it finish.
  • Samuel Adams Boston Lager - Satisfying brown color with solid floral and caramel flavors, though not as powerful as the giant pile of hops they trot out in their TV commercials would lead one to believe. Still the gold standard in bars with crappy beer selections.
  • Lagunitas IPA - Full-on flower bouquet aroma made interesting by a funky, almost citrus pungency. Profoundly bitter and finishes forever. Hop addiction is probably a phase, but for now I love this shit.
  • Ommegang White Ale - Tart with pronounced clove flavor. A taste that's worth the trouble to acquire.
  • Lindeman's Kriek Lambic Cherry Beer - 100% fruit explosion--cherries everywhere with a curious hint of raspberry. This is supposedly a leading Lambic, but I'm not sure I'd ID this as beer if you blindfolded me.
  • Grey Goose Vodka - Unfortunate vanilla character distorts its purity.
  • Tanqueray London Dry Gin - Just a little coarse, but huge juniper flavors and a subtle citrus finish keep this a martini staple.
  • Brugal White Label Rum - Flowers and vanilla again, without much except alcohol on the finish. Respectable blanco.
  • Gosling's Black Seal Rum - Dark and heavy with forceful but not overbearing banana aroma. Xmas spices coat the palate with minimal alcoholic heat. Delicious sipping rum.
  • Don Julio Anejo Tequila - Herbaceous and appealingly dusty nose raises expectations for a disappointingly vacant flavor profile. Best in cocktails.
  • Sherry-Lehmann Maison Rouge - Bottle opened last night and held up well. Grapey notes suggest carbonic maceration and perhaps Gamay. Not much depth but no major flaws.
  • Sipavola Nero d'Avola/Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - Dark, raisiny fruit flavors are backed by sufficient acid and tannin to stand up to food. Heavy, long-finishing style suggests a baby Amarone. Very substantial and well-balanced for a sub-$10 wine. Will drink again.
  • Laubade Bas-Armagnac X.O. - Deep orange color introduces interesting roasted aromas. Rustic alcoholic heat was a nice foil for strawberry ice cream.