Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freddie Hubbard Passes Away

hubbard.jpgAs much as food and wine, I love music, especially jazz (we have jazz piped in all day at the store to inspire customers). One of my jazz idols, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, passed away yesterday at age 70. Read this well-written obituary.

I discovered Freddie Hubbard in the mid-1970s when on a lark I bought his album Sky Dive. I was immediately mesmerized by his music, and I started listening more to jazz since then.

I finally saw Freddie Hubbard perform live in 1989 in Cambridge, Mass. at the Regatta Bar with his touring group at that time which included the brilliant Cedar Walton on piano. I was seated at the front row, no more than five feet away from the band. Mr. Hubbard was strutting proudly and blowing his horn fast and hard, pumping out music that soared in his signature staccato bursts. It was a virtuoso performance and, of course, I was blown away. Yet, Mr. Hubbard looked cool and dapper, just another day at the office it seemed. He was the best jazz trumpet player I've heard.

Looking back I feel fortunate to have watched Freddie Hubbard play live still at the peak of his genius. I'm really proud of that moment.

(photo of the young Freddie Hubbard by Price Givens on the masterpiece Red Clay album)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Digital Christmas Greetings

Every Christmas I receive a handful of Christmas cheers sent electronically. I love getting these things and I thought I'll start collecting them like traditional Christmas cards. So don't forget to send me one next year!

This one from Vignobles Despagne in Bordeaux, specialist producer of overachieving wines of Rauzan-Despagne, Girolate, Mont-Perat, etc. I met the young Thiebault Despagne years ago when he dropped by the store. He writes a interesting blog

I'm honored to be acquainted to Bernard de Laage de Meux, Business Director at Chateau Palmer, but I'd be even more honored to be invited for a sumptuous dinner there!

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I'm not sure who sent this, but this is one of my favorites this year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Change in Ownership at The Wine Club

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After reading a posting today on the erobertparker bulletin board that The Wine Club has just changed ownership, I tried to dig up more news in the local papers about it but found nothing. Today, for example, is when the wine section appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, but all I read are the usual soft, fluffy, dumbed-down wine articles. In contrast, the food section on Wednesday is more interesting. You can bet that if a well-known restaurant in the Bay Area is closing, you’ll get the skinny in the food section. Why can’t they run the wine section this way?

The Wine Club has long been one of California’s and the San Francisco Bay Area’s major wine retailers. Unlike most of its competitors, The Wine Club has thrived selling almost wine exclusively

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Weingut Emrich-Schönleber Rieslings

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Stoic Frank Schönleber enjoying his Thai chicken curry over rice

Last week proved to be very interesting meeting with two brilliant young winemakers who are still in their twenties but already doing fantastic things heading up their family's domaines. Monday was with François Bitouzet of Domaine Bitouzet-Prieur of Volnay and Meursault and Thursday was with Frank Schönleber of Weingut Emrich-Schönleber.

I took Frank Schönleber to my favorite neighborhood Thai restaurant, Thai Stick, in Millbrae, where we proceeded to drink, er taste, a bunch of his '06 and 07 Rieslings over rice and chicken curry and roast duck.

Frank took over his family's estate in the Nahe last year from his father, Werner; thus, 2007 is his first solo vintage. I told him that he was fortunate to start with such a great vintage, perhaps the best overall vintage since 2001 in my estimation. He forced a smile, but didn't beam, as he believed 2006, which he helped make with his father, has some terrific wines as well. Sure enough, we tasted some of the 2006s he brought and they were spectacular.

I've previously mentioned that in the Nahe, Helmut Dönnhoff is great, but those in the know search out the wines of Emrich-Schönleber.

Gault Millau's "The Guide to German Wines" bestows its highest 5-Star rating to just two producers in the Nahe, Hermann Dönnhoff and Emrich-Schönleber. But Dönnhoff's wines cost big buck, while Emrich-Schönleber's wines are much better values, though maybe not for long, as the buzz is spreading fast and many are discovering this brilliant producer and its thrilling wines.

The styles are also very different. Schönleber's Rieslings are much more ethereal and filigreed, very reminiscent of a Mosel. In fact I describe Emrich-Schönleber Rieslings as being like the Mosel of the Nahe, very delicate, minerally, and really refined.

Weingut Emrich-Schönleber.owns about 18 acres in Monzingen’s Frühlingsplätzchen vineyard and 10 acres in Halenberg. The two vineyards are just 500 meters apart but couldn’t be more different from each other. Frühlingsplätzchen has soft, crumbly red slate soils mixed with loam, while Halenberg has harder blue slate soils. Though Riesling accounts for over eighty percent of vines planted, there is some Pinot Blanc as well.

Germany has been on a roll and vintages from 2001 to 2007 are all great. 2007s offer relatively more moderate ripeness levels; hence, the wines offer consistency and purity across the range. 2006s offer mindblowing Ausleses, with perfect balance of richness and structure, for passionate Riesling collectors.

Frank and I enjoyed the following Rieslings with curry and roast duck. Riesling is one of the most versatile wines. Last Thanksgiving, my brother and I drank nothing but German Riesling (2007s from Leitz) with turkey, ham, pancit noodles, and pork rinds (seriously).

Nahe Riesling Kabinett Monzinger, Emrich-Schönleber 2007
Mainly from parcels in the Frühlingsplätzchen vineyard. A joy to drink! Pure, precise Riesling Kabinett offering vivid fruit and mineral flavors. Aromas of white flowers, apricot, pear, and cut-grass with focused, precise, well-delinated layers of fruits and minerals. Off-dry, sweetish fruity flavors that are crisp and sappy with excellent acid balance. A very lovely Riesling for pairing with shellfish that are just coming in season and with various Asian dishes. Riesling fans should not miss this. A great success in this vintage!

Nahe Riesling Spätlese Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen, Emrich-Schönleber 2007
Frank Schönleber say Frühlingsplätzchen means "nice little place in spring time". This is from the best parcels of the vineyard with vines averaging about 30-years-old planted in crumbly red slate and loamy soils. Very ripe, very sweet fruit hinting of peach, grapefruit, and guava, with layers of minerals and lavender honey. Fresh and open, with wonderful purity and outstanding richness on the finish. This is drinking very, very lovely.

Nahe Riesling Spätlese Monzinger Halenberg, Emrich-Schönleber 2007

From firm blue slate soils with quartzite. This is richer and riper with the same acid level as the Frühlingsplätzchen, thus it tastes more lush and sweeter on the palate—yet it starts out tight. After some time it opens up gloriously, revealing an almost opulent core of fruit with excellent minerality. Outstanding concentration. Very long finish.

Nahe Riesling Auslese** Monzinger Frühlingsplätzchen, Emrich-Schönleber 2006
A special selection just below goldkapsel level for the estate, but you would almost think you're there! Excellent concentration, perfectly balanced. Very tight, but tremendous richness of fruit, with layers of sweet peaches and pineapples infused with minerals. Lovely ripeness all around. Vivid and fresh. A spectacular hedonistic experience. You have to be patient on this one, but it is definitely worth the wait.

Nahe Riesling Auslese** Monzinger Halenberg, Emrich-Schönleber 2006

A special selection from the Halenberg vineyard. This is even tighter than the Frühlingsplätzchen special selection, yet the incredible hedonistic richness is so perceivable. Very sweet. Very rich. Very concentrated. But so fresh and elegant as well. A powerful Riesling, with an energetic lengthy finish. Wow! Worth cellaring for many years.

Weingut Emrich-Schönleber
Soonwaldstraße 10a
D-55569 Monzingen
Tel.: (0 67 51) 27 33
Fax: (0 67 51) 48 64

Check vineyardgate.com for availability of Emrich-Schönleber Rieslings

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tasting Bitouzet-Prieur

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I must apologize to Mr. François Bitouzet for my poor shot of him in the photo above. Nevertheless, I was lucky to get one shot before my camera’s battery died. I want people to see how young and confident he looks.

François and I met last Tuesday at the store. He immediately impressed me. Just twenty-five years of age and already in charge of his family’s domaine, which is based in Volnay, but with good holdings in Meursault, as well. In fact, François lives in Meursaul near Dominique Lafon's house. François mentioned that this is his first trip to the US. His father, Vincent, who recently ceded winemaking to his son, had never been to the US at all, despite sending their wines to the US for the past thirty years.

Domaine Bitouzet-Prieur makes a splendid range of Volnays and Meursaults that are not, for the most part, in the vin de garde style—I mean this in the best sense. Sure, the Meursault-Perrieres made here needs time, like fifteen years minimum on a great year. At a get-together dinner last summer, Neal Rosenthal, the domaine’s US importer, opened a magnum of the 1996 Meursault-Perrieres. The wine was still tight, with maybe another decade to go before blossoming.

Yet, the domaine’s other wines are usually ready to drink within a few years from release. The style is relaxed, not so forceful, but lively and gorgeously balanced. Take the 2004 Meursault Les Corbins that François poured—a joy to bask in its youthful fragrance, freshness, delicacy, and openness.

François ages the wine in barrel on its fine less for 12 months, then racks and ages it for another 6 months before racking another time and bottling. The oak regimen is 25% new, 25% one year, 25% two year, and 25% mix of older barrels.

I love the freshness and purity of his wines in their youth, which resonate even in the pair of 2003s we tasted: the Meursault Clos du Cromin and the Volnay village from a parcel below Champans.

With age, the delicacy and freshness remain, but the wine takes on a more meaty flavor like in the very lovely, beautifully concentrated 2001 Volnay les Aussy 1er Cru (2001 is proving to be such a fine vintage) and in the more fragile 2000 Volnay Pitures 1er Cru, from a parcel next to Pommard and near Clos des Ducs.

Aging Burgundy can be overvalued. François showed me that young is great. I see little reason to tamper any further with the deliciousness of the young wines we tasted. Before we parted, François quoted me one of his father’s favorite sayings: “better to live with memory rather than regrets.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Porchetta Wine Luncheon

Lechon, as whole roast pig is called in the Philippines, is roasted traditionally in a long bamboo spit over coals for several hours.

I've been eating whole roast pig for as long as I can remember. It's primal dining at its best. The sight of a 100-lb (80-100 lbs is best for a full size roaster and about 35 lbs for a suckling) greasy, glistening, orange/red pig roasted in its entirety from head to tail (often garnished with an apple in its mouth) resting on a chopping table immediately sends my gastric juices into action.

When I was growing up in the Philippines, my father would order a side of roast pig for Sunday lunch after church. Lechon, as it is called there, is chopped up and eaten with gravy sauce (made with fat drippings and liver) over rice. The crispy, crackly skin-the ultimate pork fat-is the first thing that everyone attacks.

In the US, the most accessible source of whole roast pig is the takeout deli in a Chinese restaurant or store. The Cantonese roast pig is flavored with five-spice, but it's essentially the same as lechon, though in the Philippines, the lechoneros strive to make every square inch of the pig's skin as crispy as possible-that's where the money is.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where many food trends start, Chinese cuisine isn't as gourmet chic as Italian, at least to folks who seriously follow food trends, so Cantonese whole roast pig has never caught on among foodies. Instead, lately, I've been hearing a lot about porchetta, the Italian-style whole roast pig that's deboned and flavored with herbs and garlic. It's becoming the latest food rave. While I'm definitely a whole roast pig aficionado, I confess I've never tasted porchetta, until last week, when I was invited to a porchetta luncheon.

Lorenzo Scarpone, one of my wine importers, is a native of Abruzzo, where porchetta is indigenous cuisine. At his warehouse in South San Francisco he brought in Salvatore Denaro, the renowned chef/prorietor of Il Bacco Felice in Foligno, one of Umbria's top restaurants, to prepare a whole porchetta, plus a side dish of polenta e salsicce. Chef Denaro spread slices of the roast pig on long loaves of ciabatta bread and cut up the loaves into small paninis. It was ridiculously delicious! The pork was tender and flavorful, with just a hint of rosemary.

I easily devoured four or five of those paninis, washing them down with various wines, including Ruggeri's Extra Dry Prosecco (I never expected extra dry Prosecco to be fantastic pairing with porchetta), Fornacina's 2003 Brunello and 2005 Rosso, Fonti's 2004 Chianti Classico Riserva and 2003 Fontissimo super-Tuscan, Sassotondo's 2007 Maremma and 2005 San Lorenzo Riserva, and, of course, Caprai's 2005 Poggio Belvedere, 2005 Montefalco Rosso Riserva (wow!), 2003 Sagrantino Collepiano, and 2003 and 2004 Sagrantino Riserva 25 Anni.

I have eaten countless roast pigs in my life, but porchetta is the most enjoyable roast pig dish I've ever had. I left the luncheon three hours later, satiated and staggering from all the wine and food. Since then, I dream of porchetta everyday.

Chef Denaro slices porchetta for the ciabatta bread panini

Just a few of the dozens of Italian wines we gulped down during the luncheon

Ah, the perfect ending, a selection of tasty dolci after the meal. Quick, find the mini canoli, it's heavenly!

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Chef Salvatore Denaro, renowned Umbrian chef, on the left holding what remains of the pig and our generous host, Lorenzo Scarpone, on the right. On the foreground is the tasty polenta, perfect with the porchetta

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Italy's version of a smart car, right-hand drive, with painted sign saying "Italian Culinary Toy"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reybier Backs Out of Montelena Deal

I blogged about the Chateau Montelena sale to Chateau Cos d’Estournel back in July saying that it was the biggest news in winedom at that time. Well, last week Chateau Montelena announced that the deal collapsed, making this by logic the other biggest news in winedom.

Wine blogs and wine forums immediately picked up the news. I tried to look for more info and Yahooed (I happen to use Yahoo not Google) the news, typing in “Cos”, “Montelena”, etc., and I was amazed at the dozens of search results all saying the same thing. Wrapping the history of Montelena—including, of course, its winning the “Judgment of Paris” tasting, the Barrett family story, blah, blah, blah—around the single press release from Montelena, which said: ‘Reybier Investments has been unable to meet its obligations under its contract with the Barrett family, who will retain ownership and not offer the winery for sale. The process that just ended did not result in the outcome we or Mr. Reybier desired.”

That’s it. There is no further news or explanation for this nixed deal. No statement from Jean-Guillaume Prats, Cos d’Estournel’s GM, or from Michel Reybier himself, the owner of Cos and the buyer. It’s not even clear if any news organization tried to reach them. I found myself asking the question, like a lot of people reading the news, I'm sure, why didn't the sale go through? And who is this shadowy-like figure, Michel Reybier?

Jean-Guillaume Prats has been the only French face in this deal. Many know him, of course, as the son of Bruno Prats, the long-time, former patriarch of Cos, who was forced to sell his family’s property due to French tax laws. An investment company purchased Cos from the Prats in 1998, then in 2001 sold it to Michel Reybier. Reybier was a processed-meat tycoon from Lyon, who created some of the most well-known deli meat brands in Europe. Reybier successfully sold his deli meat empire to the US company, Sara Lee, in 1996. His wealth is currently estimated at $650-800 million. Among his other interests are a luxury hotel group based in Geneva and Paris, an investment stake in an oil exploration company, and properties in the south of France.

Reybier is one of many French tycoons who own high-profile estates in Bordeaux. Others are Bernard Arnault, François Pinault, Albert Frere, Jean-Claude Beton, Gerard Perse, Cathiard family, Bich family, and Wertheimer family, just to name a few.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Two Classics Meet: Porsche and R. López de Heredia

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A most unlikely pairing with Rioja's most classic Rioja, Viña Tondonia, is the classic sportscar 911 Porsche. An exhibition of 11 models of 911 Porsche will be shown at Bodega R. López de Heredia on November 7-22.

On hand will be the following 911 Porsche models gathered from private owners in Spain:
Porsche 911 2.0 (1965)
Porsche 911 2.4 Targa (1972)
Porsche 911 ST (1972)
Porsche 911 3.0 RSR (1974)
Porsche 911 3.0 Carrera (1976)
Porsche 911 3.3 Turbo (1982)
Porsche 911 3.2 (1984)
Porsche 911 3.2 Speedster (1989)
Porsche 911 (964) (1992)
Porsche 911 (964) Cabriolet (1992)
Porsche 911 (993) (1995)

Ms. María José López de Heredia sent us a note to relay her gracious invitation to this extraordinary event:
"For anyone who is a Porsche lover and want to come and visit our bodega during the time of the exhibition we would love to share a glass of Viña Tondonia with them. The showing of these 11 porsches model 911 will be open Monday to Saturday, from 7th of November to the 22nd, inclusive, from 10 am. to 2 p.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m."

Bodega R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
Pabellon de Exposiciónes
Avenida de Vizcaya, 3
26200 Haro. La Rioja
Phone: 941.310.244

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ramblings on New Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

Recent thoughts and conversations with Napa folks about Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vintages somehow left me with an urge to write these rambling notes.

Mark Grassi sauntered in to the store Friday to introduce himself and to thank me for my support. Great guy. He's a construction man by profession, his Napa construction company builds wineries for Napa's cult wine producers like Screaming Eagle and Ovid, as well as houses for their owners, like Tim Mondavi and Jayson Pahlmeyer.

But Mark seems proudest of all of his latest achievement, releasing the debut 2005 vintage of the Cabernet Sauvignon from his 4-acre estate and residence in Soda Canyon. He believes timing couldn't be better for the debut release as the quality of his 2005 is high. He was happy to point out that his Cabernet, at $60 a pop, is about half the price of the top California Cabernets that the Wine Spectator listed in its current issue on California Cabernets that scored at least 90 points (his scored 91). And to top it off, he was profiled in a piece in that issue regarding eight newcomer producers of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to watch out for. Hey, everything's going his way right now! Check out the 2005 Grassi Cabernet before it sells out.

The 2005 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon vintage offers the best wines since the 2001. However, James Laube of the Wine Spectator expressed "surprise" at the high quality of the vintage, as he sort of panned it previously. I thought he screwed up, yet again, when he first wrote up about the vintage two years ago. When I also tasted many of the wines from barrel around that time, I thought they already showed wonderful promise. Moreover, Napa Cabernet producers believed that, too, and they were upbeat about the vintage.

For the record here is what Laube wrote after barrel-sampling the 2005 vintage over two years ago: "If 2005 is to end up being a sensational year for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as so many producers insist it will, the wines will have to make a stronger impression than they did in my preliminary blind tasting in Napa this week... The 2005s do not show as much depth, plushness, concentration or range of flavor as past vintages have displayed at a similar stage of development. This may be both a function of the vintage and the result of a deliberate attempt by winemakers to ease off on superripe wine and soaring alcohol levels." Laube and his poor readers were the only ones surprised.

So the Wine Spectator rates the 2005 Napa Cabernet vintage 93 points, on par with 2002 and 2001. I'd score 2001 and 2005 even higher. But why is 1997 rated 99 points? It is now known, even by Laube's published ten years on tastings, that many of the top-scoring Cabernets from this vintage have had problems lasting a decade, not to mention that so many are showing elevated VA now. I expect the top 2005 Cabernets will both age and taste better than these 1997s after ten years. Let's wait and see.

Tasting some barrel samples of 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons earlier this year at the Cabernet Society tasting in Napa showed the wonderful potential of this vintage. Very much like 2005 in quality. Good vivid flavors, balanced ripeness, and rich tannins. Always the three things I look for when tasting Napa Cabernets, especially from barrel.

But honestly, I'm still at a loss at why vintages can vary so much in quality in Napa. I mean, it never really rains between May and November, and the majority of days are very warm and sunny. It ought to be a slam-dunk each vintage. One has to conclude that it's basically two things why there's inconsistent quality: too many wrong vineyard sites and too many producers not really knowing how to grow good wine.

2005 is a bumper crop in Napa, and the timing for producers couldn't be better considering the current economic downturn. Even at reduced prices they should be able to make it up with sales volume. But guess what, prices are up! The Wine Spectator issue notes that the average price of "outstanding" Napa Cabernets (those they score at least 90 points) is $119/bottle in the 2005 vintage, which is about double what it was a decade ago. I bet you, most, if not all, producers can slash their prices by half to $60/bottle and still make money. Napa producers, you gotta start lowering your prices, like almost everyone seems to be doing these days. Don't let the market force you to do so.

2008 crops are now in and it is clear the harvest is down by as much as 30-40% in Napa. How the heck did that happen? We haven't seen rain in a long time. And though the weather was relatively cool for long stretches, there was no problem getting enough warm, sunny days to ripen fruit in Napa. We are talking of a cool-climate grape here, Cabernet Sauvignon, native to Bordeaux, where the weather is much cooler. Again, I go back to my comment above: too many wrong vineyard sites in Napa and too many Napa producers who don't know how to grow good wine.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Are They Both Mahvelous or What?

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New York Times wine writer and wine blogger, Eric Asimov, noted in his latest post that Barbaresco King, Angelo Gaja, and comedian, Billy Crystal, have a "striking resemblance".

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

GREEN—for Lack of a Better Word—is Good


No one wants green in their wine, with the possible exception of this diesel/electric hybrid truck, the first of its kind.

Built by Peterbilt, the first two trucks off the assembly line were purchased by VinLux, a Napa wine delivery company co-owned by Kendall Jackson Wine Estates. The trucks started service last month and have been making regular stops at the store since then.

The truck switches to electric power automatically, according to the driver. A 110-pound lithium ion battery pack installed on the side of the truck powers the electric motor. Its sticker price is said to be 40% more than a regular diesel truck, but the savings come in its fuel efficiency.

I sure hope these hybrid trucks put a stop on the fuel surcharges being tacked on to our wine orders!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Get Yourself Some Good Old Howell Mountain Stuff!


The Howell Mountain Vintners & Growers Association put together a 28-bottle collection of members' flagship Howell Mountain wines for a cool $2,500 per collection. Only 100 sets are being made available.

If you love Howell Mountain wines it's actually a pretty good deal than purchasing all the wines individually. The money raised will go to the coffers of the non-profit association.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Didier Dagueneau

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Didier Dagueneau died this morning in a plane crash in Cognac, France. My guess is that he was just in his mid-50s.

I had met the man and tasted with him and I can tell you that he was as kind and generous as he was flamboyant. He put Pouilly-Fumé on the same map as the aristocratic wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. He first made news as a young winegrower when he publicized his labor costs and bill of materials to prove that he was not cutting corners like his neighbors. And aside from his wine passion he was also a champion Iditarod racer.

BenjaminDidier.JPGThe one positive thing that comes to my mind at this time is that he was all over his son Benjamin to get him up to speed to run the estate. Benjamin was apprenticing with François Chidaine, another brilliant Loire winegrower, when I visited at Saint-Andelain a year ago. I remember feeling surprised by how Didier was already pushing his young son to take the lead. He had Benjamin preside over the tasting, while hovering in the background to assist him, and he asked me and my companions to speak to his son only in English so he can get used to speaking the language.

Didier's concern for Benjamin to take responsibility in running the estate proved to be prescient. But he seemed to be at peace that his son could handle the job as the photo I snapped of him below, while he quietly watched over his son do his job, appears to convey. I’m optimistic that Benjamin would be up to the challenge now.

But Didier Dagueneau will be missed dearly. He shone briefly but brightly like an Asteroide, the name of his ultra-rare and seldom seen wine. His rabid ambition, imagination, almost carefree risk-taking, and wild energy brought us some of the most singular wines on the face of the earth.


Monday, September 8, 2008

James Laube's Market Theory

I read a bizarre blog posted on 3rd September by the Wine Spectator’s California wine critic, James Laube. In it he makes the point that it is the consumers’ buying power that decides which style of wine dominates. He seems to be vague in elaborating which wine style happens to be popular right now, but then slips in his narrative something about “riper, fuller-bodied wines became en vogue in the 1990s”. And, if I may add, is still going strong. Thanks to him and his magazine for doling out big points to wines of this style.

So what I do find bizarre in the blog post is not the revelation that the popularity of a wine style may be consumer-driven, but that there was no accounting at all of the influential role he and his magazine play in the market. Like Pilate, it almost seems like he was washing his hands off the popularity of wines that are “superripe” or “overripe” or however this style of wine is referred to in the blog, explaining that this is completely the work of consumers. That consumers vote with their dollars, and that “as long as winemakers are selling out their wines and people are endorsing those styles with their dollars, there isn’t any incentive to change.”

Geez, I’ve been fooled all along then. I suppose if Laube scores Kosta Browne 80 points the Pinot would still sell out at ever-rising prices. And come time the Wine Spectator announces its Top 100 Wines of the Year it would just be plain coincidence that our phones would be ringing off the hook with consumers asking us about buying cases of wines in the list that they’ve never even tasted.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Toasting a Friend at Archipelago

I had dinner with friends recently to cheer up one of them who will be married very soon. We decided to check out Archipelago, a new restaurant near my neighborhood that features a deliciously eclectic menu of French, Asian, and American inspired dishes that has become a hot trend in restaurant cuisine these days. Check out places like Coi, Poleng Lounge, Unicorn, Ame, O Chame, Junnoon, Pres a Vi, and Va de Vi. It’s no surprise that these restaurants are favorite haunts of wine guys as their creative dishes lend themselves to exciting wine pairings.

2004 Ostertag Muscat.jpgWe started with a brilliant bottle of André Ostertag’s 2004 Alsace Muscat Fronholz. Very lovely. It smelled of sweet gardenia and tasted of lychees and ripe pears, yet, tasted dry and quite crisp. I love how all these exotic flavors blend harmoniously, and also how they made my mouth water for food.

The Cava Brut “Selección Millennium”, Ondarre NV purchased from Bar Basseri in Pamplona during a recent trip to northern Spain was even better than I remembered it. A big Cava, rich, mouthfilling creamy goodness with lime peel freshness, crisp minerality, and classy elegance.

Richter’s 1995 Mosel Riesling Auslese Graacher Domprobst tasted and smelled of minerally slate and juicy ripe red apples and pear with herbal notes. Medium sweetness for an Auslese and well-balanced by crisp acidity. Vibrant and lengthy in the finish.

All of these whites went perfectly with plates of fresh, briny oysters; fried, crispy-skinned rolls of Philippines lumpia; Philippines ceviché-style kinilaw of raw tuna; and seared foie gras with sweet, tangy cranberry chutney.93 Latricieres Remoissenet.jpg

For our first red, there was the perfectly drinking and still youthful 1996 Meursault Premier Cru Blagny Rouge “La Pièce sous le Bois”, Domaine Joseph Matrot. One of my favorite Burgundies. Fragrant earthy sous bois with red fruit scents. Elegant, soft black cherry, cinnamon flavors with notes of pepper and tea leaf. Juicy and fresh.

Next up was the 1993 Latricières-Chambertin, Maison Remoissenet Pere et Fils. Still a youthful wine, endowed with good concentration and rich tannins. Whiffs of asphalt and stones amidst the spicy red fruit scents. Earthy, black cherry flavors. Not profound, but sleek and powerful.

90 Cote-Rotie Gallet.jpg Burgundy lovers describe Côte-Rôtie as being somewhat Burgundian in character, so it was not a bad idea to follow up the Burgundies with the 1990 Côte-Rôtie, Domaine Gallet. The bouquet of this wine was intense and surreal, conjuring scents of lavender, tar, leather, roast beef, and crushed berries. Ripe, fleshy, and soft on the palate; not so profound but seductive, and definitely charming.

I enjoyed all these reds with a large plate of roasted rack of lamb that was fatty, juicy, and tender, done with an indeterminable sweet, spicy, earthy sauce that worked with the wines.

And to refresh the palate at the end we popped a bottle of 2000 Champagne Brut “Cuvée Angeline”, J. Lassalle that made me feel like starting dinner all over again. Toasty fresh-baked bread aromas. Creamy and mouthfilling, with well-focused, elegant fruity and minerally flavors that are as crisp as a thin sheet of ice.

I can’t think of any other Asian-themed restaurant with a full-time pastry chef, especially a brilliant one like Lourie Tatad who prepared for us a dazzling array of desserts and obliged us with a few special requests, including sugared churros accompanied by a dark liquid chocolate dip; slices of caramelized apples with a choice of sprinkles of marshmallows, spiced peanuts, and chocolate; and tiny nuggets of pure chocolate truffles.

During all the excitement we nearly forgot the bottle of 2000 Blanc Fumé de Pouilly “Silex”, Didier Dagueneau. Thank goodness, this was supposed to be the highlight bottle of the evening! Well, it didn’t disappoint, especially after an exciting array of wines. Rich, pungent flavors of stone fruits infused with fresh herbs, green vegetables, and minerals. The palate is persistent and crystalline, tasting of the rocks and minerals where the fruit came from.

All wines.jpg

1107 Howard Avenue
Burlingame, CA 94010

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Take a Load Off Fanny!

The Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) is mulling changing to lighter bottles to save on production and transportation costs, reported the FT yesterday.

If satisfied by the trials with lighter Champagne bottles now underway at G.H. Mumm the CIVC would approve use of them by producers.

I can't wait. Lighter Champagne bottles would reduce their shipping costs to our customers, but frankly it would be most beneficial to my aging back!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chateau Montelena Sold to Cos: Would this Trigger More Euro Buying in CA?


The biggest news in winedom that broke out yesterday is the sale of the venerable Napa winery, Chateau Montelena, to top Bordeaux classed-growth estate Château Cos d’Estournel.

There is no announced sum for the transaction, but the credible rumor is $110 million—a whopping price even discounting the weak dollar versus the euro. In this regard, Chateau Montelena has pulled off its biggest shocker since winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976. But more significantly, I think, it is an indication that top Napa wine estates could have values almost as high, if not as high, as some of the great chateaux in Bordeaux.

Would this sale prompt more European winery acquisitions in Napa or in other points in California for that matter? Taken together with other high-profile European takeovers of US companies of late, there could be a rush of buying while the dollar remains cheap for the euro. Prime candidates could be long-established wineries with proven vineyards but in need of cash to refurbish aging facilities and vineyards.

But what’s in it for European buyers like Cos? Simply put, it is the still untapped potential in California wines, both in terms of quality and marketing. Thirty years after Judgment in Paris, the French are finally acknowledging that California wines are worthy to stand next to French wines, provided, of course, they are in charge.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Terry Theise Vintage 2007 Germany and Austria Tasting

TerryTheise.jpgI try to go annually to my local Terry Theise tastings, though I must say these usually crowded, elbow-to-elbow, hurried sip-and-spit affairs are a bit distressing. Still, I go. How can you not? Theise’s German and Austrian selections are impressive. How he assembled a thick portfolio of the regions’ great producers speaks about his insights.

Theise—if you’ve ever met the man, heard him talk, or read his off-beat wine catalogs that look more like ‘70s mimeographed anti-establishment handouts sprinkled with slogans and inspirational philosophical quotes (it’s probably what he wrote in his formative years)—is a charismatic dude. In fact this kind of off-beat, left-wing attitude has proven to be very effective in selling wines to the wine masses. Note the successes of Randall Grahm, Kermit Lynch, and Neal Rosenthal. Even savvy wine marketers as Jon Rimmerman of the popular Garagiste, as well as yours truly I confess also tries it, and a host of wine bloggers have styled themselves after this kind of radical chic wine talk. What exactly they (or we) are railing against I’m not sure. But, hey, this ‘tude sells wines!

I know I wouldn’t have time, and it’s ludicrous anyway, to systematically taste every wine being poured so I decided, as I often do in big tastings like this, to narrow it down to a few producers that I’m fond of and intend to buy, as well as other notable ones, to get an overall perspective of the vintage performance.

My quick overall impression is 2007 is an outstanding vintage for Austria and Germany. There many very good wines to like.

2007 Gruner Veltliner “Steinsetz”, Schloss Gobelsburg

Sweet, ripe, vibrant fruity flavors complemented by good spiciness, making the wine harmonious and delicious.
2007 Gruner Veltliner “Renner”, Schloss Gobelsburg
Intense, spicy citrus and pear flavors with very good minerality. Vibrant and long on the palate. Terrific!
2007 Gruner Veltliner “Lamm”, Schloss Gobelsburg
Creamy lemon tart flavors, well balanced, maybe a bit too understated, especially after the Renner.
(Poured in person by Ms. Maria Angeles Hiedler)
Ms. Hiedler contrasted the 2007 from the 2006 by saying that the former has greater acidity and minerality and drinks more easily, while the latter is creamier, sweeter, and has more alcohol.

2007 Grüner Veltliner “Löss”, Hiedler

One of my favorites in the tasting—its dry, elegant qualities; its well-perfumed, apricot flavors; and its unpretentiously modest price make it a wine to seek out.
2007 Gruner Veltliner Thal, Hiedler
Pure, fresh, and transparent flavors, with delicious, spicy, mint, ginger notes. Relaxed. Feels cool on the finish.
2007 Gruner Veltliner “November”, Hiedler
From 55-60 year-old vines in the Thal vineyard. Fermented long and slow for 5 weeks at 19 degrees C. 3.5 grams RS. Creamy mixed tropical fruit, mango flavors with hints of spice. The crisp acidity breaks the off-dry sweetness making it dry and vivid in the mouth. Very nice length. Full of surprise!
2007 Riesling “Urgestein”, Hiedler
Grown on slate. Exotic, tropical fruit scents. Honeyed fruit, with well-balanced acidity and very good minerality. Dry and deliciously textured.
2007 Riesling Steinhaus, Hiedler
Very vibrant, dry, elegant flavors with delicious notes of mint. Very nice intensity and length.
2007 Riesling Gaisberg, Hiedler
Floral scented. Creamy, round citrusy flavors with nice penetrating intensity.
(Poured in person by Mr. Christoph Schaefer)

2007 Mosel Riesling Kabinett Graacher Himmelreich #2, Willi Schaefer

Rich, sweet, a bit on the ripe side. Lacks definition for now.
2007 Mosel Riesling Kabinett Graacher Domprobst #16, Willi Schaefer
Perfumy, ripe, and expressively sweet, with lively freshness and transparency. Minerally. Long. A definite winner for me.
2007 Mosel Riesling Kabinett Graacher Himmelreich #9, Willi Schaefer
Tightest of the three Kabinetts. Sharp and firm, but still tasting rich, with good minerality. Long. Good, but not terribly exciting.
2007 Mosel Riesling Spätlese Graacher Domprobst #12, Willi Schaefer
Lovely floral perfume. Firm, intense ripe fruit concentration. Full of potential.
2007 Mosel Riesling Spätlese Graacher Himmelreich, Willi Schaefer
Very rich. Mineral. Brilliant acid balance. Intense, harmonious flavors. Lovely, lovely length and intensity.
2007 Mosel Riesling Auslese Graacher Domprobst #17, Willi Schaefer
Honeyed fruit bouquet accompanied by fleeting floral scents. Crunchy and mineral, and seductively unctuous. Vibrant, very good acidity. Unloads a lot of sweetness in the finish.
2007 Mosel Riesling Beerenauslese Graacher Domprobst, Willi Schaefer
Not on the list and pulled from under the table by Christoph Schaefer just for the pleasure, so to speak. Honeyed, peach jam flavors; dense, unctuous; very rich, very sweet and concentrated. More honey, more peach, some pear and apricot. Very long and intense. Vivid and not cloying, as the acidity is not lost in all the richness. A wine to cellar for many years.
(Poured in person by Mr. Cornelius Dönnhoff)

2007 Nahe Riesling Kabinett Kreuznacher Kahlenberg, Dönnhoff

Grown mainly in loam. Light, delicate, good balance, drinking well even now, with a nice, lingering finish.
2007 Nahe Riesling Kabinett Oberhäuser Leistenberg, Dönnhoff
Grown in grey slate. Rich, mineral, vibrant, high acid, and vivid. A bit too edgy.
2007 Nahe Riesling Spätlese Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl, Dönnhoff
Planted in loamy soils. Good tension, rich, sweet, and graceful with very good acid balance.
2007 Nahe Riesling Spätlese Felsentürmchen, Dönnhoff
Planted in volcanic soils. Tight nose. Citrus, mineral, vibrant, ripe fruit. Intense in the mouth. Very long. Terrific!
2007 Nahe Riesling Spätlese Oberhäuser Brücke, Dönnhoff
From a mix of slate and loam soils. Very tight yet palpably very rich. Excellent ripeness matched with excellent acid balance. Outstanding but not as good as the Felsentürmchen.
2007 Nahe Riesling Auslese Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle, Dönnhoff
From grey slate soils. Rich, very sweet, very ripe, and well concentrated. Tight and compact right now but loaded with powerful extract.
(Poured in person by Ms. Eva Fricke)
2007 Eins Swei Dry “3”, Josef Leitz
The number “3”, drei in German, is a word play for dry. A dry, crisp, simple Riesling that’s light and quite delicious.
2007 Rheingau Riesling Rudesheimer Berg Kaisersteinfels trocken “Alte Reben”, Josef Leitz
Up to 70-year-old vines. Intense and creamy with citrus and mineral flavors. Very good length.
2007 Rheingau Riesling Rudesheimer Drachenstein “Dragonstone”, Josef Leitz
The beauty of this Riesling has always been its intensity and charming simplicity, altogether irresistible for the price. Sweet, juicy, vibrant fruit with very good acidity. Simple and delicious.
2007 Rheingau Riesling Kabinett Rudesheimer Klosterlay, Josef Leitz
Very good purity, rich and sweet, but good acid balance. Again, very nice length.
2007 Rheingau Riesling Spätlese Rudesheimer Magdalenenkreuz, Josef Leitz
Beautiful purity and balance. Flowing, graceful, sweet, vivid fruit. Harmonious. Long. Bullseye!
2007 Rheingau Riesling Spatlese Rudesheimer Berg Roseneck, Josef Leitz
Ms. Fricke offered this to taste first before the Schlossberg. Richer and sweeter than the Maggie, yet elegant and well-balanced, helped by its nice minerality.
2007 Rheingau Riesling Spätlese Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg, Josef Leitz
Opulent, very ripe, sweet citrus flavors with good minerality showing in the finish. Showing very rich and not much else, yet if it could be really interesting if it opens up to more things.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rioja or Beer?

Euro 2008 Finals




The exciting finals of Euro 2008 get underway on Sunday pitting Germany against Spain. Two great football teams. Who will win? I'm torn. I would probably be more elated to see Spain win, which won the championship once back in 1964. Germany has won the tournament three times, the last time in 1996.

If Spain wins I'll be cooking paella for dinner that night, to be washed down by a nice Rioja. And if Germany wins, I'll be grilling sausages and drinking beer.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

François Blanchard’s Brilliant Touraine

photo courtesy by François Blanchard

Last Friday night was another fun dinner at Day Break. Patrick made a delicious puréed cauliflower soup that was refreshing on that very warm night. I chose the entrée of pork roulade stuffed with raisins, wilted greens, and apple sauce, and afterwards finished off with a nectarine Melba with vanilla ice cream. Yumm! I could have gone for seconds.

The wines we drank were a mix of California, except for one—I’ll talk about this in a moment. Helen Turley’s 2000 Marcassin Alexander Mountain Chardonnay Upper Barn was fat and smoky, overripe with fading orangey flavors. The 2000 Pride Claret Reserve was in that opulent Napa style; sweet, chocolaty, and redolent of oak. The 1986 Johnson-Turnbull Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was drying out a bit, though still elegant and heavily infused with spearmint. Much better was the 1986 Laurel Glen Sonona Cabernet Sauvignon, which lacked bouquet but surprised us with its youthful concentration and grace. And finally for dessert, the 2004 Sine Qua Non Mr. K Straw Man Vin de Paille, a Semillon concentrate that must have contained a ton of sugar; unctuous and thick, with honey and fruity botrytised scents and lots of apricot flavors.

I really enjoyed the variety of these California wines, but the surprise wine of the night and one I have never tasted before was the Vin de Table de France, François Blanchard, a 2004 Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley made by François Blanchard of Château du Perron. Relegated to the lowest of the low, Vin de Table wines are not permitted to have any identity—no vintage, no varietal name, not even the region of origin on the label. It is practically death to any wine to receive such an ignoble designation. Yet, by force of personality this wine sparkled, figuratively and literally. Its ethereal fizz tickled the lips and popped on contact, leaving the palate with an almost off-dry, intense taste of cidered pear and apples with a tip of white pepper. Underneath the fruit was a layer of minerals that lingered solo in the long finish. I felt happy to have enjoyed this unique wine for the first time.

François Blanchard, Loire’s latest enfant terrible since Didier Daguneau, is a thirty-something local jazz musician in Tours. Just over five years ago he decided to resuscitate his family’s long-neglected tiny wine estate. He did little to modernize the winery, except to install electricity. The main improvement were the two manual vertical basket presses be brought in!

In the vineyard, farming has been organic from the outset (AB certified), though Blanchard doesn’t plow, and allow weeds to run almost amok in the vineyard and around the winery. His winemaking is totally artisanal and as natural as possible. He almost never uses SO2 and certainly never touches industrial yeasts or bacteria. He ferments in ambient cellar temperature without any temperature control in the vat. The cellar itself is maintained in ambient temperature with perhaps some adjustment if necessary. Blanchard believes that vinification should proceed with the season. Soutirage or racking is kept at the most minimum to preserve the carbonic gas created by the fermentation, hence minimizing the use of sulphites. I can tell you that after opening the bottle, the gas is intact and the wine is fresh and lively. The bottle, by the way, is enclosed in crown cap and sealed with a wax capsule.

Alas, François Blanchard’s wines are not exported. I would have to visit him soon, maybe next March and pick up a few bottles.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Burgundy's So-called “Off-Years”

Like a lot of wine enthusiasts these days I and my friends at the BNO (boys’ night out) have been troubled by the escalating prices of our favorite beverage. Call it the euro strengthening, the failing dollar, the Chinese and Russian buying spree, the sub-prime collapse, etc. etc. as factors for the price inflation. But one thing is clear we’re not gonna take it lying down. Solution? Buy “off-years”.

If nothing else it's clear that the BNO has contributed immensely in us becoming experts on finding gems overlooked by the score pimps (to quote Matt) allowing us to buy even more wine even in these inflated times. This night of the Burgundy Off-Years is Exhibit A.

Kudos and thank you to Steve for the hospitality and the great food. I swear you can't eat better beef in the Peninsula than at Steve's. It was simplicity itself—prime rib from Pape’s grilled in the outdoor rotisserie for about an hour—yet brilliant. With the crunchy salad, his signature potato fritters, and the slow-cooked croutons Steve yet again proves he's the master of the yummy, no foo foo kinda food that Kevin always clamors for.

As for the wines, there were 6 of us vs. 9 bottles opened. An equitable and democratic ratio. A couple of bottles barely escaped sentencing. The 69 Chambolle and the 97 Clinet Pomerol.

So here are my impressions. Another refreshing Prosseco starter, with the Drusian Prosecco NV, on another warm evening. Nice call. Its fruitiness went well with salty Marcona almonds.

The 1989 Jadot Corton-Charlemagne was the color of young Sauternes, and started out with marzipan, fino sherry, and roasted nuts; then exploded with citrus and pear, buttered corn and minerals. Wow! Comments: "great with the sushi" (I totally agree) "regal" (Kevin) "opulent and sporty" (Steve) We score it 4

2000 Groffier Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Les Hautes-Doix. Loads of ripe cherries, earthy spice, cola nut. Great energy. Seductive as one might expect from Chambolle. And though deceptively soft-flavored I expect it to evolve for many more years. My only knock is it lacks a bit of grace for a premier cru. Comments: "just beginning to enter peak" "big surprise upside" "expecting green (for 2000) but very approachable" "won't get any better". (Kevin). “I felt the 2000 Groffier is that fine blond 18-year-old lass by Steve's river (a creek actually) who will be giving us her tender side for the next 15 years.” (Matt) We score it 3+

2003 Clos des Lambrays Morey St. Denis Les Loups. Fleshy, meaty, lush concentrated stewed fruits with noticeable oak and seems to lack enough grip. But way too young and may yet surprise. Comments: "California wine" (Lenny)". Group score 2+

1982 Henri Jayer Echezeaux. Super elegant and amazing focus and length. Well-evolved mature flavors of tart cherries, mushroom, game, soil, and beets. Fantastic sustained flavors, freshness and grip that never let up or faded throughout the evening. It may lack flesh but not intensity and spirit. "Wine of the night" (Lenny) and I concur. And this is an off year for Jayer 4+

1972 Bernard Grivelet Chambertin Clos de Beze. Impressive concentration and power for a wine approaching 40 years from an off year! Its why Chambertin gets the big bucks. Fleshy, flavorful, and great with the beef. Comments: "Mister Ed horse draft going on" (Matt, who else?) 3

1973 Louis Latour Corton Grancy. For bouquet this was hands down the most pleasurable. A combination of cherries, balsamic, cedar, peppercorn. The fruit is drying somewhat and the tartness is starting to dominate. "Better 10 years ago" (Kevin), but there is still ample flavors and the elegance is nice. 3

1983 Santenay Leroy. Darkly colored, muscular, lean, sinewy, and firm. What it lacks in charm is made up for by its energy and graceful flavors. I score it 3

1978 Martin Ray California Pinot Noir. This was darkly colored and still appeared strong but it was showing hints of TCA and the VA was starting to take over.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

An Eclectic Mix of Wines

After much delay, warmer weather finally arrived in the Bay Area, hence the outdoor patio was the perfect setting for barbecued steaks and this eclectic mix of wines at Steve's last Saturday June 8th.

1983 Pauillac Premier Cru, Château Mouton-Rothschild: dark, fleshy, soft, good fruity and cedary perfume. Not intense but fresh and meaty, earthy and somewhat spicy dark berry fruits with soft tannins. A pleasure to drink and I would not hesitate to declare it very open for business at this point. 4 Stars

1994 Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain: High-toned red currant, even a bit of cranberry fruits with spice. Fresh fruity, herbal nose. Nice elegance. Very good balance. Expanse in the mouth with a good, long finish. Drinking very nicely and will age further. 3 Stars

1998 St-Emilion, Peby-Faugeres : Very darkly colored. Earthy jammy fruit scents. Densely, fleshy textured blackberry and blueberry fruits with cedar, earth tones. Rich, lively tannins. Powerful, mouthfilling palate. Good finish, though not extraordinary in length. Opulent, but harmonious overall. This is evolving very well. Can’t wait for another ten years. 3 Stars

1985 Ridge Zinfandel Geyserville, Sonoma
: Perfumy currant, herbal Cabernet nose. Good savory red berry fruits and bright herbal notes with good concentration and acid balance. Still very fresh with very soft tannins. Good length on the finish. The surprise wine of the night. 3 Stars

2004 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir “Southing”, Santa Rita Hills (Santa Barbara)
: This nearly escaped being opened, but some of us insisted we needed to have a dessert wine. Candied cherries and caramel flavors accented by oak vanilla. Juicy, softly textured intense forward ripe flavors, with good brightness. Warm on the palate and a touch alcoholic. Pleasurable and simple. 2 Stars

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Emperor on Burgundy

OMG! The Emperor has turned into a Burgundy curmudgeon! Read.

While I would never give up a DRC for any of the California Pinor Noirs Robert Parker cites, he does list some of my favorite names like Calera's Selleck (many vintages from the late '80s to mid-'90s along with those of Williams Selyem's were my California Pinot Noir epiphanies), Williams Selyem Hirsch, and Rochioli Russian River.

Why, just last week I drank a 2000 Rochioli Russian River. It was fresh, powerful, and deliciously spicy. Would I trade a DRC for it or a de Montille Volnay Taillepieds or a Barthod Bourgogne Rouge Bons Batons? Not a chance. But I did love that Rochioli and I still have a few bottles I'm looking forward to opening.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Robert Mondavi Passes Away

Iconic Napa wine producer, pioneer of modern California wineries, unrivaled promoter of California wines, and staunch champion of European-style Napa winemaking, Robert Mondavi, passed away today at age 94.

I regard Mr. Mondavi as one of my wine heroes early on. He made wines with constent quality and class. For a novice drinker of California wines back in the early 1980s, I found his wines to be always reliable, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Fume Blanc.

Mondavi's absence in the California wine scene for many years now has left a void that has never been filled as he was the one powerful figure to openly defend the classic California wine style of the 1970s and 1980s against heavy criticism by wine critics Robert Parker and James Laube who favored overripe wines with gobs of fruit and alcohol.

I will be posting obituaries as they pour in. Jancis Robinson of Purple Pages. The San Francisco Chronicle. The Los Angeles Times. Eric Asimov's The Pour. The New York Times obituary by Frank J. Prial. Decanter news. Decanter obituary by Linda Murphy. Eric Asimov of The New York Times on Mondavi's Legacy. Eric Asimov on Remi Krug on Mondavi.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bordeaux Eats

I passed through the Bordeaux region briefly last month, as I’ve been long overdue there for a visit. I spent one day visiting producers you’d probably never find written about in any wine publication and another day with some of the region’s famous châteaux. I’ll write about my impressions of these visits very soon, I promise.

Meanwhile, what immediately caught my attention the other day is this delicious report on leading edge restaurants in and around Bordeaux in the New York Times (don't miss the slide show). As much as I obsess with wine, food is even more primal to my heart, or perhaps more accurately, to my stomach.

It never even occurred to me that the Bordeaux region can be a gastronomic place, but in the few short days I was there I was enlightened about the potentials of the local cuisine. Suddenly my attention was divided. I ate a tender and juicy roasted leg of Pauillac lamb at an inn. I had a taste of Arachon oysters at a wine bar. I saw the highly prized Bazadaise cattle grazing in the fields of Sauternes.

I know I’ll be back in Bordeaux soon. But it won’t just be for the wine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

BNO: One Man’s California Retrospective

The K-man is disgusted with California wines post-‘80s, yet he has the best collection of California wines that I know of. In fact, Kevin is that increasingly rare breed of wine collector who has bought wine based on his taste not on scores.

Kevin has collected wine for decades, not overnight like some of these young gazillionaires who buy out Christie’s and John Kapon—a caveman with a huge trust fund can do that. His “old bitch cellar” as his friends have nicknamed it is amazing, not so much for sheer size, but for its discriminating personal selections. Kevin can pull out First Growths from all great vintages of the past half century, that's easy enough to do. What really amazes me is that he also collected other classed growths from off-vintages that have turned out to be overlooked gems—we refer to them endearingly as “glasscoaters” in our BNO (boys’ night out) group. This kind of collecting is brilliant connoisseurship.

And it’s not only the major wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Port, and Barolo that Kevin has pursued. He has old vintages of Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine Tempier. Score-monkeys today wouldn’t even know who those producers are.

So one fine day in March I received a surprise email notice from Kevin about the next BNO. It was something like a call to arms—“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

I don’t know if it was the Ides of March or he just got tired of reading James Laube’s tasting notes, but he issued an invite, which read more like a challenge, that the next BNO will be at his place and that the theme is pre-1987 California Cabernet Sauvignon. No one should even think of bringing any overripe, tannin-challenged Napa Cabernet from the 1990s or 2000s. In fact, Kevin had all the wines lined up in his head and they’re all coming from his cellar. It will be the first one-man retrospective for the BNO. I said to myself, bring it on!

Good dolmas like these with bits of lamb inside are the best pairing with aged California Cabernets...

And nothing like char-grilled steak with old Cabernets

The evening started with a magnum of Prosecco, A.G. Ferrari, very cool; it’s the perfect aperitif in the warm afternoon. I will not score this one, suffice it to say that it is very good and it surprised me that it came from Ferrari Foods.


Steve brought dolmas and patés which were terrific with the old Cabernets to follow.

The first flight consisted of a contrasting pair of perfectly cellared wines. Louis Martini’s1970 California Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “Special Selection” from Ben’s cellar, the only wine in the evening not from the K-man, was amazing for its freshness and youth. Bright ruby red with a slight bricking around the rim, it gave a perfumy leafy and Bordeaux vegetal bouquet. Many agreed it is still “unyielding” and “tight”; after all, Ben’s cellar is like the arctic, wines age there at a glacial pace. Ben explained that Louis Martini aged 50% of the wine in wood and the other 50% in stainless steel and then afterwards blended the two together for the final wine. Martini was the first winemaker in Napa to perform this élevage. I thought it was wonderfully balanced (“12 ½ % Alcohol” read the label) opening up with delicious plum and cassis flavors as well as licorice and tea. Well-concentrated and elegant, I would like to sit down with this wine again when it has been sufficiently decanted as Ben recommends. 3+? (90+?).


The other wine in the flight needed no long decanting as it was jumping out of the gates. 1968 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve Georges de la Tour”, Beaulieu Vineyard made by the greatest California winemaker, André Tchelitscheff, was darker than the Martini and seduced with intoxicating aromatics of blackberry, tea leaf, mint and tobacco. Opulent, velvety, and utterly juicy, this powerful wine swept me off my feet. 4 (95).


The next flight was epic. It was a shootout of Iliad proportions. Joe Heitz’s 1974 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvigon “Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary Vintage” was the most opulent version of this wine that I’ve tasted. Its famed eucalyptus signature was almost masked by a density of fruit that grew on the palate, tasting ripe and sweet and holding sway for a long time before releasing a dollop of tea leaf and eucalyptus and secondary flavors of licorice, oreo cookies, and gravel. This brought the house down. I’ve always thought that the greatness of the ’74 Heitz Martha’s was in its power and longevity, but it lacked sophistication. Yet, this bottle showed surprising expressiveness. 5 (100)


A worthy challenger to the Heitz was the 1974 Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Mayacamas Vineyards. Initially tight, with some coaxing the wine opened up to a decadent range of aromas that were earthy and floral. Violets were redolent. What a contrast to valley floor Cabernets! A powerful Cabernet that glided on the palate and spoke in low, sweet tones of lush blackberries and gentle, spicy riffs of tobacco and tea. 4 (95)


The first bottle of 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve” Robert Mondavi was unfortunately tainted. My heart sank. I was dying to drink this wine again as it was nearly ten years ago the last time I had it and it surprised me with its remarkable depth. Kevin casually asked, “Should I open another bottle?” No one replied. I may never get another chance and I sat next to Kevin, so I boldly told him, yes, please, let’s open another bottle. So a second bottle of this ’74 Mondavi Reserve was opened. After rinsing my glass I helped myself to a good pour of this fresh bottle. I smiled. Oh yes, this was it, all that I hoped for. This was a complete wine. The aromatics were profound, classic Cabernet currants with underlying earth and menthol, rust and leather. Gorgeous ripe flavors brimming with blackberry fruit, iron, eucalyptus, and dark chocolate. Generous but moved with grace and finished with sweet, dusty tannins. I’m in awe of this bottle. It was half-jokingly suggested that we open another bottle of this and the Heitz Martha’s and go mano-a-mano. Wouldn’t that be something? 5 (100)


Almost everything seemed anticlimactic after those monumental 1974s. Maybe the ‘74s should have been placed last. The 1975 Sterling Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, while possessing some savory fruit, tasted harsh, a bit tart, and somewhat medicinal. 2 (85). The 1975 Joseph Phelps Insignia made of 86% Merlot was more interesting for its ripe character. Matt and Steve agreed that it was like Pebble on the 18th hole by the fire, cozy and warm, chocolates and cream. A typical Insignia—simple, comfort wine that lavishes good fruit. 3 (90)



But it’s not over until it’s over. The next two wines that came up rival the ‘74s in every way. The 1979 “Volcanic Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Creek is right up my alley delivering mature, classic Napa Cabernet flavors in heaping portions: ripe black currants, mint, tea leaf, and earthy spice. Sweet and elegant, very well poised, very cool. 4 (95).


What followed next is a wine that blew me away and, perhaps, another reason for drinking the ‘74s last. The 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”, Robert Mondavi is a most singular wine and in many ways an atypical Napa wine because the style is Médoc-like. Unfiltered and the first vintage for this “reserve” bottling, it is a single-vineyard wine and a true blended wine, with a high proportion of Cabernet Franc, as much as 30% or more it is said, and aged in 100% French oak. The aromas soared magnificently—a clear, precise, penetrating, yet indescribable scent of heavenly euphoria. I guarantee, you won't smell anything like this from any California wine. Eucalyptus, sweet cassis, earth, spices, violets, Havana leaf, and lots of cola. The powerful bouquet never faded, but seemed to even increase in intensity as the wine opened up. On the palate it was balanced and well-proportioned, and content to allow the bouquet to lead. Ripe, rich in tannins, and virtually seamless. 5 (100)


Finally, the 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon “Eisele Vineyard”, Joseph Phelps Vineyards to wrap up the ’79 flight. Simple and uncomplicated, it mesmerized with its rich, soft, plump black and cherry fruit flavors that remain bright and fresh as the wine approached its fourth decade. 3 (90).


The 1979 vintage is a wonderful finalé for the greatest decade in California Cabernets. What a glorious evening! My greatest California wine night. How awesome for all the wines to taste fresh without any signs of fading soon: proof not only of the wines’ longevity, but also of their impeccable provenance. An inspired tasting courtesy of a most inspiring collector. Thank you, Kevin.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Clos Puy Arnaud

“Influenced by the spirit of Burgundy—looking for minerality, for fruit; looking for barrels, for fruit that balances the wine.” So explains Thierry Valette his vision for the wines of Clos Puy Arnaud as we walked through his vineyards on the morning of Easter Monday.

Thierry Valette holding a piece of calcaire from his vineyard

Clos Puy Arnaud (eagle’s view) is perched high on the plateau of Belves de Castillon in Côtes de Castillon. This is a small and magnificent estate. I can easily see why Thierry Valette, the proprietor, was excited to purchase the property upon discovering it soon after his family sold Château Pavie. Even on a cloudy day it was very bright here, as well as airy, with plenty of open skies looking down on the vineyards. The 7-hectare vineyard surrounding the winery and residence (another 2 hectares are located in another area of Belves) is on the plateau, with topsoils so shallow that the calcaire bedrock protrudes to the surface on some portions.

The special terroir is farmed following organic and biodynamic principles. A team of just five persons work in the estate year-round, including Thierry and Anne Caldéroni, who is the oenologist. Stephane Derenoncourt, the top consulting winemaker in Côtes de Castillon, was Thierry’s mentor between 2001 and 2004.

The vineyards are planted mostly to Merlot, with Cabernet Franc making up most of the difference and both Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere accounting for a tiny portion. I find it interesting that Carmenere, a varietal that has almost disappeared in Bordeaux, is given expression here. The average age of the vines is 35-years-old, almost entirely accounted for by the Merlot which are planted on the best site, on the plateau, as it makes the most interesting wine in this terroir. Replanting is going on, mostly Cabernet Franc and some Merlot.

In the cellar, a sorting table could be found next to the destemmer, but I’m not entirely sure how useful it is. Thierry says they purposely leave 1%-2% green grapes to the mix that go in the vats, and that there is a measure of overripe and underripe grapes that account for part of the blend. Yields are by no means high, but not very low either, 32-35 hl/ha.

Thierry on pigeage.jpg
Thierry Valette showing pigeage

I was starting to have a clearer understanding of Thierry Valette’s vision for this estate. Great terroir, organic and biodynamic farming, and a conscious effort to maintain a sense of balance in the winemaker’s inevitable intervention. My curiosity rose at how all these translate into the wine.

Thierry opened the valve of the cement vat that stores the 2006 vintage to draw a sample. The blend is 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 70% Merlot aged in one-third new oak. 2006 was a brutal harvest in Côtes de Castillon because of the rains, and Clos Puy Arnaud lost 35% of its crops. It smelled of oak and fresh blueberry aromas. Dark and flavorful, the wine is well-structured with good acidity and rich tannins. How it would integrate over the next several months until it is bottled and released I have no idea, but it will be very interesting. 2006 is not a vintage I find very promising in the right bank, yet I’m always on the lookout for exceptions.

Cement vats in Clos Puy Arnaud's cellar

We went into the chai where the 2007s are resting in barrels. Thierry has an instructive and enlightening approach to tasting young wines from barrel based on barrel elevage, rather on blocks, varietals, or clones. You see the influence of the barrels on the development of the wines. From the winemaker’s standpoint, I can see how this approach makes sense.

So, first a 2007 Merlot in Tronçais oak: dark, ripe, fruity but a bit green;
Next, 20007 Merlot in Taransaud oak: more open, rounded, fruity, good midpalate, good fullness in the mouth, one gets the sense that this is a complete wine;
2007 Merlot in Taransaud oak with more toast: spicy, Grenache-like nose, more vanilla, rough finish;
2007 Merlot without oak from stainless steel barrel: fresh, fruity, pure Merlot taste;
2007 Merlot in Berthomieu barrel: sweet, fruity aromas, powerful, rich, good tannins, toasty;
Finally, 2007 40% Cabernet Franc, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Carmenere in Taransaud oak: fruity, spicy, licorice, minty flavors, rich tannins.

My clear favorite was the second barrel.

Thierry got increasingly absorbed with the wines as we tasted, as he has to decide soon the representative blend for next week’s en primeur. I thought he has some very good raw material to work with. Having tasted the components, I’m surprised at how promising this 2007 vintage is for Clos Puy Arnaud and, perhaps, for the right bank as well.

I had a fantastic time with Thierry, and I’m thankful for him for the experience and the opportunity to learn something about this special but little-known estate. As I was leaving, I grew excited about dinner later that night at L’Envers du Décor in St.-Emilion, where Thierry will bring the 2001 and 2005 Clos Puy Arnaud. All these tastings simply teased me, and I’m dying to drink and savor his wines!


Sunday, March 2, 2008

BNO Bordeaux Off-Vintages: Why Off-Vintages are the Best

There is a great quote from Christian Moueix by writer Andrew Jefford: “I’m a traditionalist, even if I’m not very old yet. Which is to say that I respect terroir. I respect the weather. I’m against those new technologies, which I think have the big danger of losing the finesse and the elegance and the subtlety which for me make Bordeaux unique. And the easiness of drinking a great Bordeaux when, as a couple, you can easily drink a bottle without becoming tired. These new technological wines are so thick that you really have trouble swallowing them. We are entering the competition of the muscles rather than the brain. So, for me, that new approach in Bordeaux is a big mistake. Which does not mean that the new school will not win. I fear that they will win. Which will be to Bordeaux’s disadvantage.”

“I respect the weather.” Indeed, this is the key quote for me, which is to say, loving the surprise and the variety of expression of each vintage. As big, ripe vintages have become the norm consumers obsessed with high scores appreciate ONLY those years, while producers pandering to this market strive to emulate such vintages each year, succeeding in producing lots of artificial-tasting wines.

Our BNO (boys’ night out) group went “off-tangent” recently and opened some delightful, eye-opening Bordeaux from vintages that wine critics find mainly useful for unloading their 80 points. We found that Bordeaux’s unsung white wines do very well in these off-vintages, while the reds are leaner and more focused. This is my kind of Bordeaux. For all the times we’ve done Bordeaux, some of us felt, I included, this was both the most eye-opening and enjoyable of all.

Lenny: “My favorite tasting of the year! Seriously, I was thinking same as Alex: What a great learning experience. Not only going in-depth on the vintage but across regions."

Kevin: “I am done being so damn pushy on White Bordeaux. You guys deserve better than to let me push a varietal agenda I happen to prefer. Who do I think I am! What nerve! I will not push the call for diversity White Bordeaux agenda any further. Nuff said.”

Eric (on the slew of personal items left behind his place after the dinner): “Any thoughts on a correlation between number of items left behind and what a good time everyone had?”

We struck gold pairing a great selection of white Bordeaux and Steve’s grilled oysters on the half-shell that were doused with his magic sauce. Bordeaux’s coast, particularly around Cap Ferret, teems with oyster farms, so the region’s wines are a natural accompaniment to these tasty bivalves. I’ve enjoyed washing down oysters with various Chablis, Sancerre, Muscadet, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, but hands down this is my ultimate white Bordeaux/oyster experience.

Steve's grilled oysters, yummy!

The 2000 Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux had an oily, almost “bacon fat” mouthfeel, with luscious flavors of almond, pear, grapefruit, and minerals. Rich, bone dry, and very exquisite. The ripeness of the vintage translates not into excess fruitiness, but in a fullness in the mouth. This is a big Pavillon Blanc that is remarkably thirst-quenching.

The wine was focused, my camera was not

I also loved the 2001 Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc. A classic Graves and a fine vintage for this wine. Lively floral, citrus blossom scents, followed by crunchy Sauvignon Blanc freshness and charming, fruity energy. Irresistible now.


Another Graves, the exalted 2002 Laville Haut-Brion, the white of La Mission Haut-Brion, came next. As can be expected, this was regal, divine, fabulously complex and structured to age for a long time. Consisting mostly of Semillon, with a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, it is unique among white Bordeaux for this reverse cepages. Intense citrus, lime oil aromas. Beautiful concentration of fruit, mineral, and even spice. Elegantly dry and impeccably balanced, with glorious length on the finish. It just gets better and better in the glass.


All the reds were served at table with the delicious warmth of Eric’s comfort dish—a hodgepodge of “left-over” prime-rib, mushrooms, and root vegetables. I must say this pairing really worked, as it matched with the earthy flavors of the Bordeaux.

Eric's "hodgepodge" comfort food

1999 Leoville-Las-Cases was terrific, displaying classic Las-Cases sinewy masculinity. Lovely cassis. Brooding, muscular, and reminds me a lot of the '88 but this could be better. Someone said “fruit is lacking”, but I disagree as this is the underlying character of Las-Cases. More “fruity” vintages like 1990 and 2000 simply need time to mature and show that underneath the fat there is this lean, powerful athlete.

As I see it, the 1999 Palmer is the consensus great success of this vintage as it’s the first wine one thinks of when you utter 1999 Bordeaux, much in the same way as ’61 Lafite, ’45 Mouton, or ’59 Margaux. Palmer is not opulent or dense, and this is why some drinkers may never get it. I’ve had the ‘99 Palmer twice before—this is the tightest I’ve experienced it, which may suggest the state of the 1999s right now. But this is definitely deeply fruited and simply refined and classy. All the Margaux goodness is there, plus a firmness that may well prove that it’s another '83 in the making.


I would say the most pleasant surprise for me was how much better than expected the 1999 Montrose is. On the surface, a surprisingly tame Montrose. Sweet, dense, and smoky fruit, but the underlying tannins showed up later in the glass. Nicely balanced. This should mature very well.


The 1999 Clinet is what you’d expect an outstanding Pomerol should be—a dense, sweet, fleshy wine. I think here we see how fitting Michel Rolland's method is when applied to his hometown of Pomerol and to the Merlot. Beautiful concentration. Packed with extracts—coffee, blueberry, blackberry, herbal tones, and clay—that offer immediate pleasure.


Though Palmer’s success is not duplicated in the 1999 Pavillon Rouge, this a sumptuous wine, forward and lush with soft, juicy blackberry, and minerally flavors. It slips down very easily. Enjoy the moment. Its overall freshness and perfume make it a fleeting beauty.


I must say that after drinking these wonderful 1999s I was not too thrilled with the 2002 Cos d’Estournel. But then again only a handful of Cos has impressed me. I usually find it a bit sweet and lacking grace. This ‘02 shows concentration, but is muddled and unrefined. It lacks the cleanness, purity and unforced, relaxed extraction of the '99s. It may be a sign of how things are changing in Bordeaux, as much of the Bordelais seem to be mimicking a vintage of the century each year.


Finally, the 1985 Quinta do Noval. Not a terribly complex or powerful vintage, but Noval’s seductive fruit is there in this forward-drinking Port. Crushed red fruits, raspberry coulis with leather, cedar, and pepper. Perfect with the cigars.