Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Left Bank's Monday Special

I had a great time with friends last Monday night at Left Bank in San Mateo. Is it just my imagination or is this French restaurant, planted in the middle of a strip shopping center off Highway 101 in San Mateo, taking on some patina of a Parisian brasserie over the years?

We were there to take advantage of the restaurant’s brilliant Monday half-price wine list, plus August’s Provence dinner special prix fixe ($23.00 per) of Bourride des Pêcheurs (a bouillabaisse-type dish with rockfish, mussels, clams, crab, prawns, sliced potatoes, celery, leeks and fennel, thickened with cream) and a cheese plate of Banon (a robust, creamy Provençal cheese dipped in eau-de-vie and wrapped in chestnut leaves). The bourride was better than I expected, while the cheese was oozingly soft and well-ripened. Altogether, a terrific dinner menu for the price.

Bourride des Pêcheurs

The wines? Well, we did bring a few bottles of our own, but from the list we ordered a 2004 Pouilly-Fumé “La Moynerie”, Michel Redde et Fils (half-price off the listed $43) that was aromatic, crisp, ripe, juicy, and vibrant—a stunning pairing with the dozen Fanny Bay oysters we ordered.


We ordered another bottle, also a Loire, from the famous biodynamic producer, Nicolas Joly, which is his 2002 Savennières “Les Clos Sacrés”—an excellent wine, though still very, very young and quite sharp. But with the creamy and somewhat pungent bourride, this powerful Chenin paired very nicely. At half price the normal list of $59, this Nicolas Joly was a steal.


At the end of the meal, we kicked in $50 per person, including a healthy tip for our enthusiastic waiter, David. For sure, I will be dining at the Left Bank again soon on another Monday!

Left Bank San Mateo
1100 Park Place
San Mateo CA 94403

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Tasting Panel: Aug. 14-16 Schweiger of Spring Mountain


Schweiger Vineyards lie near the summit of Napa's Spring Mountain at an elevation of 2,000 feet. The vineyards were planted in 1981 and for the first ten years the estate's owners were solely grape growers. They started producing their own wines with the 1994 vintage. The wines undergo extended barrel aging.

1. Spring Mountain (Napa) Chardonnay, Schweiger Vineyards 2005 ($30 suggested)
100% Chardonnay. Picked at 26.2 Brix through mid-October. Aged in 100% French oak on its lees for 9 months. 3.51 pH. 0.64 g/100ml Total Acidity. 15.3% Alcohol.

2. Spring Mountain (Napa) Merlot, Schweiger Vineyards 2002 ($38.00 suggested)
100% Merlot. Aged 22 months in a mix of new and old American and French oak. 13.7% Alcohol.

3. Spring Mountain (Napa) Cabernet Sauvignon, Schweiger Vineyards 2002 ($48.00 suggested)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 32 months in a combination of new and old American and French oak. 14.5% Alcohol.

4. Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc “Uboldi Vineyards”, Schweiger Vineyards 2005 ($20.00 suggested)
100% Sauvignon Blanc from purchased fruit grown in a vineyard in Kenwood planted with 12-year-old vines. Barrel-fermented in 3-5 year-old French oak. Malolactic was blocked. Aged 4 months on the lees, with bi-weekly lees stirring. 13.8% Alcohol

5. Spring Mountain (Napa) Cabernet Sauvignon “Port VI”, Schweiger Vineyards NV 375ml ($50 suggested)
The sixth release of this unique 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Port-style wine. From 11-19 year-old vines planted in estate vineyards in Spring Mountain at 2,000 feet elevation. Harvested at 27.5 Brix. During fermentation at about 12 Brix a traditional alambic brandy of Pinot Noir/Chenin Blanc is added in to stop fermentation. The Port-style wines produced over the past several years are aged in barrels solera style and different vintages are blended for each release. Five barrels were produced for this release. 19.5% Alcohol.

Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc “Uboldi Vineyards”, Schweiger Vineyards 2005
Thumbs Up: 57%
Thumbs Down: 43%
Pros: Nice fruit, clean, citrus, good acidity, decent value
Cons: Lean, too herbal

Spring Mountain (Napa) Chardonnay, Schweiger Vineyards 2005
Thumbs Up: 45%
Thumbs Down: 55%
Pros: Delicate, smooth, tangy, good balance, full, refreshing, mineral
Cons: High acid, tart, bit alcoholic

Spring Mountain (Napa) Merlot, Schweiger Vineyards 2002
Thumbs Up: 50%
Thumbs Down: 50%
Pros: Good aroma, good balance, full-bodied, smooth, rich, good fruit, balance, very nice Merlot
Cons: Not a lot fruit, tannic, thin, too dry, flat

Spring Mountain (Napa) Cabernet Sauvignon, Schweiger Vineyards 2002
Thumbs Up: 45%
Thumbs Down: 55%
Pros: Good balance, good color
Cons: Not much fruit, not good value, hard, too oaky, cheap vanilla

Spring Mountain (Napa) Cabernet Sauvignon “Port VI”, Schweiger Vineyards NV
Thumbs Up: 71%
Thumbs Down: 29%
Pros: Delicious sweetness
Cons: Bitter, not balance, not complex

1. This tasting panel drew a good and enthusiastic crowd apparently due to the high reputation of Spring Mountain wines and the extended range of wines to be evaluated in the tasting.

2. The tasting panel results show no clear consensus, hence this was a difficult tasting panel to assess.

3. In general, the expectations for Schweiger's wines were high as shown by the enthusiastic turnout. Thus, it's somewhat of a disappointment for the wines to elicit just about a 50-50 response between pros and cons.

4. Schweiger's location and history at the top of Spring Mountain in Napa make it an elite wine estate. However, the wines evaluated clearly were not representative of the estate's excellent potential. Surely, the estate has produced much better quality, particularly in terms of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Friday, August 17, 2007

BNO Merlot: How the Moueix was Won

“I’m a superstitious man”, declared Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Funny how I can relate to this after our latest BNO (boys’ night out). The BNO theme this time was “Merlots of the World”, which was decided about the end of June. A week later we celebrated Steve’s birthday and he treated us to another bottle of the superb 1991 Dominus. Back in BNO California Cabernet Sauvignon I thought this was the best wine of the night, so I was elated to be enjoying it again especially because this particular bottle was drinking even better.

Dominus, of course, is based in Napa and is owned and run by Christian Moueix of Pomerol in Bordeaux. Known as “Mr. Merlot”, Moueix heads up his family’s negociant company that has long represented the most revered estates of Pomerol—Trotanoy, Lafleur, Lafleur-Pétrus, and Pétrus—where Merlot is the predominant grape.

On the night of the BNO, though "Merlots of the world" was the supposed theme, nearly all the wines we opened turned out to be Pomerol, and save for one, all the Pomerol were from the Moueix stable. So to backtrack, the Moueix connection to this affair was unplanned and a bit uncanny given all the related events that occurred in the buildup to this BNO. First there was the Merlot theme, then the 1991 Dominus encore, and finally the Moueix Pomerols we ended up drinking. As if this Moueix preoccupation wasn’t enough, just a few weeks before the BNO, Steve happened to lunch at Redds in Napa where he accidentally bumped into, guess who? Christian Moueix. Drinking, guess what? Yes, 1991 Dominus. How these things happen, it’s hard to explain, but somehow we were channeling Mr. Merlot himself, Christian Moueix, during the whole month of July!


Lenny prepared a most amazing food pairing for the wines. The mushroom polenta tart—a medley of cremini, Portobello, and shitake on a crust of polenta—was a revelation, as it brought out the lovely earthy quality of Merlot. Take a bite of this before blindtasting side-by-side a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon and you will nail the Merlot.


But the dish that really summoned Merlot’s savory, meaty character and accented its fruitiness was the duck in cherry sauce. In fact, it summoned apparently something more primal in Kevin and Gary, the way both of them fiercely demolished that dish. Lenny, who was still jetlagged from a long overseas trip, exhibited unreal discernment in selecting this genius pairing, and the execution was perfection. Bravo, Lenny!


The designated “glasscoater” was a 1976 Pomerol, Château Lafleur. Lafleur is a tiny estate even by Pomerol standards and is unique because of the high percentage of Cabernet Franc (50%) planted courtesy of a gravelly patch. This much Cabernet Franc gives the wine a perfumy bouquet which is evident in this bottle. Sweet plums, cedar, and minerals show nicely in the nose. We’re fortunate to have this fresh, well-aged bottle. The wine still packs energy, with a potent attack that veers on harsh and hot, but thankfully blunted by its fleshy sweetness. Steve aptly described the flavor as “roasted meat”. 2 ½ puffs was the group’s score.


Pretty Trotanoys in a row

A mini-vertical of Château Trotanoy followed interrupted by other goodies. The 1971 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy exuded all sorts of leafy aromas—raked leaves, tea leaves, tobacco leaves. Matt swore he was in Havana inside Castro’s palace “standing 20 feet away from his humidor”. There were also scents of asphalt, rubber, and dried berries. On the palate it’s sexier and nothing short of stunning. Splendid lush, velvety deep black cherry flavors with a delicious sweet raisiny note. I like the edginess of this wine, and with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s screeching guitar riffs in “Reelin’ in the Years” piping in the background, we all rocked together with it. 3 ½ puffs.


Well, we were certainly reeling in the years with the Trotanoys. Next up was the 1978 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy, which lacked the concentration of the previous wine and is a bit too herbal. Definitely past its prime, yet it still has sumptuous red fruits to offer. Helped by Lenny’s magical duck in cherry sauce this proved to be soulful. 2 ¾ puffs.


As a variation from what has turned out to be another Bordeaux affair, I suggested we break out the lone California Merlot, the 1990 Napa Merlot “Three Palms Vineyard”, Duckhorn Vineyard. Certainly the odd wine in this crowd of heavyweight Pomerols, I may have been the only one impressed by this Duckhorn’s good fruit concentration and richness of tannins. A solid Napa Merlot, without any hint of flaws after nearly two decades of aging—only bright, juicy, spicy cassis flavors. After a bit of lobbying on my part, the group finally got charitable, initially rating it 2 ½ puffs but finally knocking it down to 2 puffs.


Another Pomerol break was the 1989 St.-Emilion Grand Cru, Château Grand-Mayne (now a Grand Cru Classé). Michel Rolland was the lead winemaker for this vintage. A blend of mostly Merlot (about 75%) and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, this offered tarry, chocolatey aromas. “A Willy Wonka/Scharffenberger chocolate factory” described Matt. The group found it merely a “pleasant wine to quaff”, but I thought it had very good youthful concentration and layers of complexity. What it lacked was finesse. We shall see in another five years or so. 3 puffs.


We resumed our Pomerol adventure in a huge way with what I thought was the wine of the evening, the 1982 Pomerol, Château La Conseillante. This is an opulent and seamless wine that’s perfectly integrated, with a texture like a mouthful of cashmere gliding on the palate. Beautiful refined flavors of blackberries, taro root, infused tea, chocolate, and espresso with a touch of cumin and cinnamon. As the lushness fades towards the end it offers a lovely austerity in the earthy, gravelly finish. One of the great 1982s that is still drinking prime. 4 puffs.


In contrast, the 1995 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy was packed with aggressive concentration. Coiled, rough, powerful, and roaring wildly off the gates. This has tremendous energy, very extracted, but muddled and in need of being focused. Perhaps, more aging would tame this beast. 3 puffs.


Initially some of us thought the 1985 Pomerol, Château Trotanoy could be a 1971 in the making. But we were wrong. For me, this was the least successful wine of the evening. I’m sure it has seen better days. I waited for something to happen in the glass, but the wine took a downward spiral. The fruit lacked freshness and was pretty much flat, while the earthiness got too pronounced. No one made a noteworthy comment and I hardly scribbled any notes. How this received a group score of 3 puffs I don't know why.


That was it, the last Merlot of the evening. We were about to head out to the garden to enjoy the Sauternes but Kevin quietly slipped back to the kitchen then came back with a bottle that he casually placed on the dinner table. It was a pristine-looking 1980 Pomerol, Pétrus. We stared at it with delight and total disbelief. No one saw this coming. Kevin’s gesture was immeasurable—the surprise was to honor the two recent birthday boys, Matt and Steve. We were all blown away.


In short, the Pétrus lived up to its hallowed name. 1980 was not a great, hyped-up vintage; yet later, it proved to be a good classic year, like a 2001 or 2004, for medium-term drinking. But always the mark of a great wine is to overachieve and, boy, this Pétrus at nearly 30-years-old is drinking prime. Soft and silky in the mouth like chocolate and cream, with an earthy, gravelly nose that opened up to cherries. The flavors tasted fresh, with a graceful energy that wasn’t forceful; it was so easy and pleasurable to drink. We all felt fortunate to have this Pétrus experience.


Finally, in the cool comfort of the garden under the stars we enjoyed a refreshing glass of Cordier’s 1983 Sauternes, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. Though from one of the greatest, richest vintages in Sauternes, this Lafaurie-Peyraguey exude sheer elegance—flowery, medium-bodied, vibrant, and very pure—atypical of the vintage for its medium botrytis, delicacy, and great acidity. What a tease, as this makes you come back for more.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Tasting Panel: Aug. 7-8 Mix Reds


Here is a mix of three full-bodied red wines from three interesting producers.

1. Vin de Pays d'OC Red Cabernet Sauvignon "Mediterranée", Jean-Claude Boisset 2001 ($20 suggested)
From the Languedoc region in southern France. 13% Alcohol.

2. La Mancha Crianza "Torre de Gazate", Vinicola de Tomelloso 2002 ($18.00 suggested)
60% Tempranillo and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. 13.5% Alcohol.

3. Carneros Syrah "Las Madres Vineyard", Connor Brennan Cellars 2005 ($30.00 suggested)

100% Syrah from the 300 clone. 14.5% Alcohol.


Vin de Pays d'OC Red Cabernet Sauvignon "Mediterranée", Jean-Claude Boisset 2001
Thumbs Up: 56%
Thumbs Down: 44%
Pros: Smooth, good balance, nice acid, good food wine
Cons: So-so value

La Mancha Crianza "Torre de Gazate", Vinicola de Tomelloso 2002
Thumbs Up: 78%
Thumbs Down: 22%
Pros: Very drinkable, nice complexity, good mouthfeel, nice balance, smooth
Cons: Not big enough

Carneros Syrah "Las Madres Vineyard", Connor Brennan Cellars 2005
Thumbs Up: 89%
Thumbs Down: 11%
Pros: Fine example of Syrah, soft and smooth, long finish
Cons: Thin

1. Most drinkers enjoyed all the three red wines featured.

2. The Cabernet Sauvignon surprised many drinkers because of its significant acidity and lighter body.

3. The overwhelming favorites were the Spanish Crianza and the Carneros Syrah, particularly the latter for its overall high quality.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Tasting Panel: July 31-Aug. 1 Cool Climate Grapes in Hot Zones


Cool climate grapes such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot are now planted in some of the warmest winegrowing regions in the world. So how good do they turn out? Here are three new releases from of cool climate grape varietals from producers in warm climate areas.

1. Mendocino Chardonnay "Francine's Selection", Toad Hollow 2006 ($15.00 suggested)

Vinified in stainless steel, no wood. Full malolactic fermentation and aged on its lees for 8 months. 13.9% Alcohol.

2. Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, 337 Wine Cellars 2005 ($16.00 suggested)

Made from the 337 clone, a type of Cabernet Sauvignon that ripens early and does not develop herbal flavors. This grower has been a pioneer of this clone and has supplied fruit to many wineries. The grapes were cold-soaked for 24-36 hours before fermentation. The wine was aged in a mix of French and American oak. 14.5% Alcohol.

3. Barossa Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot "Clancy's", Peter Lehmann 2004 ($21.00 suggested)

A blend of 43% Shiraz, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Merlot. 14.5% Alcohol.


Mendocino Chardonnay "Francine's Selection", Toad Hollow 2006
Thumbs Up: 80%
Thumbs Down: 20%
Pros: Fresh and smooth, citrusy, good acid
Cons: Too fruity

Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, 337 Wine Cellars 2005
Thumbs Up: 60%
Thumbs Down: 40%
Pros: Good midweek wine, starts impressive but flattens out, smooth
Cons: Too fruity and extracted, too vegetal

Barossa Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot "Clancy's", Peter Lehmann 2004
Thumbs Up: 80%
Thumbs Down: 20%
Pros: Classy, complex, smooth
Cons: none

1. Cool climate grape varietals planted in warm climate areas result in fruity wines that have wide appeal among today's drinkers.

2. In addition, even more drinkers prefer those fruity wines that show interesting layers of flavors.

3. Peter Lehmann's Clancy was the overall winner in this series. The wine's blend of different grape varietals resulted in an interesting and complex flavor profile that appealed to most drinkers.