Monday, November 30, 2009

Brunello Tribute

If the measure of a man is how he is remembered, then John Demergasso was a man of impeccable good taste and refinement, exactly like the Brunello wines we drank in his honor and memory last month.

True to his Italian genes, John was a Renaissance man. An athlete, a lawyer, and a businessman. An adventurer in the Hemingway tradition: he climbed Kilimanjaro, Whitney, Aconcagua, and Matterhorn, and enjoyed corridas in the bullrings of Spain. I came to know him late in his life. A serene man who enjoyed his drink quietly. The most I saw him excited was over a bottle of 1986 Maison Leroy Meursault two years ago. I thought, being an Italian boy, he was, perhaps, amused that a French white could be that good.

Kevin and Marguerite, longtime friends of John and Bonnie Demergasso, hosted the get-together at their pad in Hillsborough, giving us all the pleasure of their expansive, newly remodeled kitchen, with ample space for the eleven Brunello, a magnum of Champagne, and a bottle of Vin Santo (which I sadly missed as I left early) that we all kicked in for the tribute, including extras from Kevin's cellar. To toast John, we started with the magnum of Franck Bonville Brut Grand Cru "Selection" Blanc de Blancs NV. A rich, penetrating Champagne, with juicy apple and pear skin flavors and crisp minerality. Definitely a bracing start.

I proceeded with the vertical of Brunello from young to old. I've never had Brunello older than fifteen years. The common wisdom is they won't go much beyond twenty years. I mean, Sangiovese, right? That's why modernists (or tainters?) are bent on adding Cabernet and Merlot. Well, this tasting proved that I was dead wrong.

The 1999 Tenuta San Filippo Fanti felt warm, rich, ripe, and forward. Its tannins are velvety and the acidity is soft. I like the charm of this modern-style Brunello.

In contrast, the 1997 Canalicchio di Sopra Le Code di Montosoli showed more precision and focus. Its tannins are firm and well-knitted to the cool, elegant fruit. A wonderful step up, it's clearly headed to an even better future.

The 1997 Conti Constanti was the first dip into classical Brunello territory. Light-ruby color. Sandal and cedar-infused tart cherry flavors with undertones of chestnut. I expected more concentration given the vintage, still it wins by virtue of its purity and substance.

Just when I was warming up to the classical elegance of the Conti Constanti, the 1997 Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Riserva "Ripe al Convento" pulled me back in to the power world of modern Brunello. An explosion of ripe, luscious fruit. Its nose was perfumed with black cherry and barrique. The fruit was dense, velvety, ripe, and milk-chocolatey. Clearly, this has all the extract of the vintage.

The next two Brunello were the 1995 Gaja twins. Steve decided to bring the Sugarille when he found out that I'll show up with the Rennina. A brilliant counter! I've never had the two side-by-side, and what more from the same vintage.

Convinced that Case Basse possessed the best terroir in Montalcino, Angelo Gaja tried to acquire it but his offer was spurned. So he settled for the next best thing by moving next door at the historic estate Pieve Santa Restituta. 1995 was the vintage when Gaja took complete control of the winemaking and operation of the estate. And the year also marked the first solid vintage since Gaja's involvement in the estate. The 1995 Pieve Santa Restituta "Renina" is the feminine of the two. Dark, structured, with a rich, sinewy fruit hinting of roast and game. Not a forceful Brunello, but ample and shapely.

In contrast the 1995 Pieve Santa Restituta "Sugarille" was muscular and fleshy with superb depth of fruit and firmer tannins. Its menthol and resin aromas were uniquely intense. While the Rennina appears to be hitting its best, this has more to offer in years to come.

More resin, mixed with saddle and fresh cranberries surfaced in the 1982 Pertimali of Livio Sassetti. Gorgeous round, velvety fruit punctuated by rich tannins. Nearing thirty years, it seems like this is just hitting its stride. Every time I open a bottle of Livio Sassetti's Brunello I'm blown away by its depth and seamless, spherical beauty.

I was fortunate to taste two vintages of Brunello's founding producer, Biondi-Santi, this night. The 1978 Biondi-Santi "Il Greppo" offered classic Brunello understatement. Lean, delicate, and graceful. It has subdued aromas of dried red fruits and tea leaf. Not much flesh clung to the wine so it danced freely on my palate with nice gusto.

Sandwiched between the two Il Greppos, the 1975 Col d'Orcia was most beautiful. A revelation in aged Brunello, as anyone who drinks this wine would fall in love with it. Rose petals, tea leaf, and sweet red fruits in the nose. Really focused sumptuous ripe fruit, fresh and accompanied by enough good tannins to make one yearn for a bite of something rich and savory, like a Florentine steak.

Finally, the 1968 Biondi-Santi "Il Greppo". Were it not for Ben's Glamis Castle-like cellar I don't think this annata would be so alive. This was as ethereal as an old DRC RSV Delicate, elegant bright red fruits hinting of mushrooms and black tea. Fresh-tasting and with a mouthwatering spiciness. I was already late, but It was hard to let go as it kept evolving in the glass.

Kevin, John's close friend and our generous host, offers his notes on the wines and some parting words:

Magnum—Franck Bonnville Gran Cru Blanc de Blanc (Avize).

Rich, frothy, nice magnum cream (1 year since purchase), excellent balance, some call it baby Krug, lemon curd, citrus, brioche, aged in old oak, champ vines are an astonishing 80 years old. Nice way to get started. With the Great Ben pouring, how could we go wrong.

1999 Fanti San Fillipo—Very dark saturated, rich, coffee expresso flavours, more of an international style, but also loads of cassis and glycerin,spice and oak, not traditional, but didn’t genuflect to Rolland either. Despite the rich style, not overripe, well balanced. One of the biggest mouthfuls of the evening. Want this with a steak.

1997 Conti Constanti—cherry and leather notes, seemed more about potential, despite an hour of decant, on repour, classic old school, dry tannins, ends nice, seemed more mature than the other 97’s, which was ok. Classic sangiovese—it was better but could have been a chianti high end riserva if tasted blind, for me. Which is not bad!

1997 Canalicchio di Sopra---traditonal style, well done, menthol and licorice, tight, good acidity, not much texture and depth at this point, falls short of wowing, but plenty of upside. The most traditional, correct Brunello so far for me. (18.0).

1997 Castelgiocondo Riserva—oh my, oh my oh my, lock the doors and keep the young ens and women folk in the house where it is safe, this was spectacular, not necessarily traditional, but traditional producer to be sure, powerfully extracted, dark violet, damp earth, deep rich like no Brunello I have had, stunning in that sense, the monster has been tamed so to speak someone said, delicious, not traditional, would like to see if this will improve or if it is all about the power game. (17.5—19.0?)

1995 Gaja Sugarille—beautiful nose, aromatic, spice and more spice, well integrated, pine resin also on the nose, full bodied, elegant, lovely wine, maybe the prettiest wine so far. (18.0).

1995 Gaja Rennina—juniper, aromatic underbrush exotic leathery notes, cool, menthol, silky tannins, another wonderful drink. Kind of reminds me of his barbaresco, that silky wonderful seemless style. (18.0).

1982 Livio Sassetti Pertimali—very small producer, hard to get in this country, very rich, high octane, but alchohol present but in check, deep leather,
Parker said if he had one Brunello to drink on a desert island, it would be this one, tons of fruit, soft tannins, but strong tannins, this will age and improve forever. One of Wassermans favorites also. Super concentration of fruit on retaste next morning. My favorite of the evening.

1978 Biondi-Santi—tobacco, leather against a good background of fruit, this was and today, still showing very nicely, solid but maybe on the beginning of its slow apogee downward. Has the classic roasted chestnuts, dried flowers, that the aged brunello beauties get at about 30 years.

1975 Col d Orcia—Great producer from a great vintage—most developed wine so far, has all the old world traditional school notes, I remember giving this very high marks, but now can’t quite remember why. It was the one bottle that had the least left at the end of the evening if that says something. I remember saying it was 18.5 but again, lost track on this one. Alex, help. Tell me what I thought…

1968 Biondi—Santi---thought it was tired, lost its fruit, gave it a 15.0. Last night, this morning, on retaste, jumped to 17.5, amazing. What is more amazing is that Ben gave it the 7 decant workout last night. It improved the most overnight, which given its age and how it showed, I would have thought it the last of the wines to benefit from more time. Lots of leather, tar, resin, lovely finish. The fruit of course not the strength of the wine at this point.


1975 “ Annata” Avignonesi Vin Santo---The Saint wine—this had special connotations for John. John researched every wine we drank, as Bonnie knows, and John told me Vin Santo was so named, because in the 15th century, during the council of Florence, the Armenian or Greek Patriarch of the Eastern edge of the empire used the word xantos which means yellow in both Greek and Armenian, The Florentines mistakenly thought he had said santo or saint. Ha! Before that, it was known as vin pretto or “pure wine”. The Florentines liked vin santo better. The grape variety that goes into Vin Santo are Malvasia, Trebbiano and something else. It is of course dried like raisin on mats and then when almost raisin, pressed, resulting in very concentrated juice.
Avignonesi is the Y Quem of Vin Santo.

Dark amber, rich, viscous, very dense, mouth filling, dried flowers, nuts, raisiny, completely dry, this was perfect Vin Santo. Alex, saving a taste for you in a split. (19.0).


I want to thank all for contributions of wine and spirit and remembrance of a super person, great father, husband, and best friend.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Kermit's Temptations

I listened to Kermit Lynch's debut CD, Man's Temptation, while blasting to Sacramento on I-80 in my wife's WRX last weekend. The wind whistled in the background joining Kermit in a chorus. This surprising album is delicious road music, indeed!

Yes, Kermit Lynch--the Berkeley wine merchant known for introducing Vieux Télégraphe, Robert Chevillon, François Raveneau, Marcel Lapierre, Charles Joguet, Domaine Tempier, and other great wine producers to the US--is also an accomplished musician. He sang all thirteen songs and composed five of them--country essentially, with folk, blues, and boogie-woogie inflections. He raspily croons the uptempo numbers in a lively, swinging beat and delivers the heartbreak ballads with a pained, lazy voice.

Listening to the CD I get the feeling that Kermit has long dreamed of recording his music. He described himself as a "starving musician" in the streets of Berkeley during the 70s long before a wine shop was even a thought. Rock-and-roll was his ambition. "Still I think to myself, if I'd had musicians like Keith Richards and Charlie Watts backing me up, I mighta been a contender."

Well, after a long detour on the wine route, Kermit boldly changed course and headed to Nashville to cut a CD on an indie label. With a Nashville back-up band worthy of the Stones--equipped with folk instruments like upright bass, mandolin, accordion, pedal steel guitar, fiddle, bouzouki (?), and slide guitar--Kermit produced a rich texture of sound and a flawless beat; his vocals sailed through effortlessly.

And of course, what's Kermit Lynch without his notes? The CD's liner notes are vintage Kermit. He writes the propaganda piece for each song the same way he persuades you to drink Tempier's La Migoua, gets you excited on Bernard Maume's Mazis, or makes you try a half-case of the Gramenon.

The songs in this new CD, like the wines, are stories of Kermit's temptations. Who doesn't like to be tempted?

Kermit Lynch
"Man's Temptation"
(Dualtone Music Group)
CD $14.00 at Vineyard Gate

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Suppers at Il Cane Rosso

I'm confused. Il Cane Rosso is a tasty new eatery in the foodie chic Ferry Building, fronting the wharf with an unobstructed view of the Bay and Treasure Island. It started just four months ago, a brainchild of Daniel Patterson of Coi and on-site chef, Lauren Kiino, formerly of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass.

A highly praised chef and literate commentator on food trends, Daniel Patterson has decried the lack of creativity among trendy Bay Area restaurants, describing the sameness of Bay Area cuisine as nothing more than glorifying purveyor-driven dishes. Ouch!

Patterson is not alone with this complaint. A few weeks ago, Momofuku chef David Chang's dismissive "figs on a plate" comment with Anthony Bourdain was an instant cause célèbre among San Francisco foodies.

Yet, this kind of fare is exactly what Patterson dishes out at Cane Rosso. Not that I'm complaining, far from it, as I've enjoyed a number of meals there already. I guess if you can't beat them, then join them. But to Patterson's credit, he's made this kind of Bay Area cooking, first championed by Chez Panisse, accessible to the masses and definitely more affordable.

The restaurant's patio is the wharf deck where one can enjoy alfresco dining (where's Amy?)...

...basking in the magnificent view of San Francisco Bay.

A Fentiman's Orange Jigger soda ($4.50) is pricey but a refreshing way to start

Long and Bailey Farms Porchetta Sandwich with Bell Pepperonata, Mustard Greens and Aioli ($9)

Dirty Girl Beet and Farro Salad with Kale and Ricotta salada ($7.50). Farro appears to be the current grain du jour. No?

The 3-course menu is just $25 and started off with this heartwarming Butternut and Cannellini Bean Minestrone with Garlic Crostino. It paired well with the 2007 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare. Rosés are great with soup!

Braised Marin Sun Farms Lamb Shoulder with Umbrian Lentils and Mirepoix. 19-year-old Châteauneuf du Pape was the perfect match for this fall dish.

Chocolate Crumb "Tiramisu". Tiramisu is so '90s but, hey, this is imaginative!

And to end the meal, a Gibraltar from Blue Bottle Coffee next door.

Small carafe of 2007 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare. A Provençal-like rosé blend of mainly Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah with a dollop of white wines--Grenache Blanc and Roussanne--mixed in. The red blends are bled from Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant. Brilliant!

1990 Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf du Pape Rouge, perfect with the braised lamb shoulder

I cellared this at 54-55 degrees F since release. At 19 years it's drinking very well, though there's noticeable baby fat. A few months ago, a friend opened a 1957 Domaine de Mont-Redon Châteaueuf du Pape Rouge, now that's mature Châteauneuf!

Late in 2000, Vineyard Gate hosted a 1998 Châteauneuf du Pape wine dinner. 1998 is a great, classic vintage in Châteauneuf and my admiration grows each time I get a chance to taste one. I remembered someone asking me at the dinner, "how would these wines age?" He couldn't believe that a wine that's so fruity and lush could go beyond a few years. But I've always said, Châteauneuf has the widest window of drinkability of any wine that I know of.

Last weekend, Vineyard Gate featured a small tasting of 2007 Châteauneufs, another highly acclaimed and classic year. I love many of the wines in this vintage. But I do find it amusing to read comments saying the top wines of the vintage could go up to twenty years. As if that's news!

Il Cane Rosso
One Ferry Building, # 41
San Francisco, CA 94111
Open daily for lunch, starting this week supper served nightly