Saturday, October 14, 2006

The BNO California Pinot Noir Theme

Our BNO (Boys’ Night Out) wine group was called into order on August 25th. The theme this time was California Pinot Noir. But as always, there were tasty deviations from the theme.

To start things off the sparkler was a California Mumm's Napa Blanc de Noirs Rosé ("in honor of our Kawleeforniaa theme", said Kevin). Appropriate with the theme as this is made with Pinot Noir. “Highly rated, good value also. Very nice wine—loads of Pinot fruit, decent balance.” (Kevin)

Ours hosts (John and Bonnie) put out an outstanding spread of appetizers, with different cheeses (Brie and Parmesian) coupled with Bruschetta and salami. Fabulous with the Mumm’s Napa. The presence of Bonnie added a new element to BNO, as she’s so far the only woman to have joined the group—a most welcome intrusion (?), so to speak.


Williams Selyem’s 2002 Rochioli Riverblock Vineyard got drained quickly. “Classy, clean, fragrant”, says Kevin. Unfortunately, our main scribe for the night didn’t pull his pen fast enough to take copious notes and had only this comment: “I started taking notes well after they were gone, and my recollections would not do them justice, although the Selyem was Bonnie’s favorite wine.”

Hereafter, Steve’s notetaking was exemplary.

"Dinner was an outstanding cut of prime rib, with baked potatoes and all the fixings, a great compliment to the wines which rapidly began flowing. We scored them on the puff system, with 4 puffs being the highest accolade that a wine can receive. The wines started to flow fairly rapidly, and continued flowing all through dinner. The comments are not presented in the order of opening and the comments represent many opinions, and for me personally, many glasses of wine:


1976 Hanzell - Who says California Pinots can’t age? This wine exceeded everyone’s expectations and was fabulous! An unbelievable nose, full of anise, leather, strawberries forest floor, mushrooms and rose petals. It was very concentrated in appearance, dark, deep, with little bit of a burnt edge. Full flavored, with a very complete mouth feel, good fruit, well integrated, but still with notable acid. 15.4% alchohol. 3.5 puffs

1994 Hanzell – A deep ruby color, more leather, earth and forest floor, the sweet fruit has not emerged yet, but the wines are clearly cousins. Very tight right out of the bottle, still tannic and full of acid, the fruit started to emerge later in the evening. Very balanced, chewy and rich on the palette, the overwhelming view of the group was that it was just to young, and it needs more time to emerge and develop. This (like the previous bottle) was clearly viewed as a serious food wine. 3.5 puffs


1999 Marcassin, marcassin vineyards: If the Hanzell, was a brute, a school yard bully, the Marcassin was a graceful ballerina (I told you I had several glasses of wine as I started writing). Because I brought this wine, I was expecting it to blow away the competition (at leased based upon auction price). The wine was delightful, if the Hanzell was a food wine, this was a wine that cried for a party. Soft and lush on the palette, a complete wine. Perfectly integrated, round and balanced in the mouth, bursting with soft red fruits, raspberry, strawberry. Beautiful nose, incredibly subtle, with rose petal, flowers and red fruit. 3.0 puffs

1984 Calera - WOW, what a surprise! The killer wine of the evening, certainly blowing away my expectations. Fragrant and earthy, an explosive intoxicating nose of red fruit and violets. Complete mouth feel, a multi-dimensional wine, perfectly balanced acid and soft tannins, not soft in the mouth more chewy, full of violets and richness. At it’s peak, Great right now, nothing to improve. The most complete wine of the evening, stylistaclly, more French than Californian. If the Hanzell is food, and the Marcassin is party, this is the wine I would take to desert island wine. 4.0 puffs

1996 Gary Farrell – One of California’s legendary wine makers. Lighter than the others, but still rich in color. Light pomegranite and plum fragrance on the still tight nose. Mouth feel was a little disappointing, thin on mid and back palette, a little flat, perhaps past it’s prime. Drink now, still a great wine, but it had some brutal competition, which hurt it in a head to head comparison. 2.5 puffs”

Kevin chimed in: “Williams Selyem ' 02., suggested what the G. Farrell might have been like 3-4 yrs. earlier. Dry mouthfeel, good acidity, some rhubarb notes, I didn't think this would improve.” (Kevin)

“If I could drink mahogany, this would be it.”

“1927 Cockburn Port - It’s nights like this, that I feel lucky to be associated with this wine group. Any one of these wines would be a huge treat on it’s own, but to have them together, and then to end on a wine like is pure luck. The bottle fill was low shoulder, but no signs of seepage. The port was a bit cold on opening, and very tight. The color was jewel like, garnet in color, but clear, not at all cloudy. Kevin swears by his port tongs for opening old bottles, and if this bottle was any indication, I may have to risk personal injury and switch. Opening a bottle with port tongs involves fire, red hot metal, ice cubes and broken glass. As it warmed, it’s richness emerged, a heady nose of black walnut, tobacco and caramel. If I could drink mahogany, this would be it. In a blind tasting, I would have picked this as a late 80’s early 90’s wine. A bit light on the front palette, but it gained weight and muscle as it went on. The finish went on and on, 60+ seconds. A viscous and oily mouth feel, after sweet dark fruits on front palette (cherries and blackberries), a spicy richness of carroway and nutmeg emerged. YUM YUM!!!!!” Very nice wine."

Kevin’s comments: “Cockburn ' 27. I agree, youngish, my thought was more like ' 60 or ' 66. Cockburn pre 40's vintages, even more austere and tight than its reputation for those qualities in later years. Would have been fun to see how it would have developed with a day or two--I agree Steve, opened up considerably, lean, elegant, dry, good acidity."

No “puffs” were recorded for this wine. I don’t know if it was just in the euphoria of the moment or no one bothered any more, but I guess it’s safe to assume this Cockburn is a four pointer.

And for the newbies out there, Cockburn is pronounced: Koh-burn. My friend, Dennis Foley, reinforced this fact on me when he commented, quite accurately I would say, that:
"cock burn is a condition, while Cockburn is a Port".

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

R.W. Apple, Jr.

Global gourmand and New York Times super-journalist, R.W. Apple, Jr., passed away today at the age of 71.

A gifted journlist with a prodigious appetite for fine food and wine, he used such talents to perfection, reporting blissfully about his food adventures around the world. He was unique among journalists as he criss-crossed the world of news reporting and that of food and wine.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Hail to Olive Garden, Wine Marketer Extraordinaire!

Olive Garden.jpg

The hugely popular Italian-themed restaurant chain Olive Garden is not just good with breadsticks, but it's also the top wine seller among restaurants in the country. With nearly 600 locations, the chain goes through over half a million cases a year according to recent reports. Okay, they don't exactly sell classified-growth Bordeaux or Napa cults, but their wine program is a smashing success and, therefore, remarkable considering that the chain targets middle America, not upscale gourmands who are usually regarded as the main wine consumers in this country.

How does Olive Garden entice their customers to drink wine? It starts with an easy to understand, one-page wine list dominated by wines selling in the range of $20-$30 per bottle. The list is classified not by price, grape varietal, or geography, but by flavor profile: something more understandable and friendly to their customers. They have "Slight Sweet" (white Zinfandel, Riesling, Asti), "Light & Fruity" (Pinot Grigio), "Full & Smooth" (Chardonnay), "Smooth & Fruity" (Pinot Noir, Valpolicella), "Soft Berry Flavors" (Merlot, Chianti), and "Robust & Rich" (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Barolo, Amarone). Mark-ups are 2X-3X retail. Brands are well-known mass market, large-volume producers such as Sutter Home, Robert Mondavi, Penfolds, Cavit, Yellow Tail, and Kendall-Jackson.

But the restaurant also hooks customers by having a staff member go around offering free tastes of some of their wines. Though white Zinfandel still accounts for 40% of wine sales, customers are increasingly moving on to Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.

This is a welcome exception to the wine establishements' dependence on wine critics' scores to promote wines. It's good to see restaurants like the Olive Garden tackle the marketing successfully with, shall we say, a more user-friendly approach.