December 2006


So, it’s New Year’s Eve. Time for a few resolutions:

1. I resolve, as I hope I have on this blog (officially launched three weeks ago!), to be snarky, nitpicking, argumentative and critical in every sense in the service of good food and wine and our experiences of eating and drinking and to battle cluelessness in the many guises in which it occurs.

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2. I also resolve to proclaim as loudly and as eloquently and as exhaustively as possible my love for great food and wine whenever and wherever they may appear.

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3. And I resolve to drink as much great wine and eat as much great food as I can in 2007. And to walk a lot. And work-out. Do a few crunches. Practice the piano every day. Come to grips with the categorical imperative. saprum_wehlenerauslese_smal.jpg

And, with all those elements in mind, allow me to direct your attention to this page on my website, where yesterday I posted the “50 Best Wines of 2006 and 25 Unbeatable Bargains.” Something for every taste and pocketbook. Please enjoy. But safely, O.K.?

Here’s the link: http://www.koeppelonwine.com/Featured_Article.asp

I was reading a piece in the Gourmet magazine for January about the restaurant Gambero Rosso, run by self-taught chef Fulvio Pierangelini, in the Tuscan coastal town of San Vicenzo, the thrust being whether it’s the best restaurant in Italy. Well, that’s not really the point writer Colman Andrews sensibly implies. It’s just all about the food, which Andrews describes as “straightforward” and “guileless” and “surprisingly simple and pure.” moreoatmeal_01.jpg
Those remarks impelled me to consider the two types of chefs that seem to dominate the culinary world: Those who are straightforward and guileless and produce simple pure food, embodied by Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and her many disciples; and the impresarios of ingredients, the grand-standing magicians, manifest in Ferran Adria, of El Bulli outside Barcelona, frequently described as the world’s most important chef, and his proliferating emulators who have unleashed a tide of asparagus foam and spherification upon the land.

I have known people, even chefs, who dined at Chez Panisse and came back to report their disappointment, saying , “There’s nothing to it. Anybody could do that.” There is, actually and deceptively, a great deal to the cuisine at Chez Panisse and just anybody can’t do it, which is what makes eating at the restaurant such a pleasure. Waters’ doctrine of fresh, local ingredients treated with respect and minimal manipulation — but always impeccable technique in the kitchen — produces cuisine of jewel-like flavors and quiet integrity.

I have not eaten at El Bulli — there are 300,000 requests a year for the 8,000 seats available during the season — but in the summer of 2004 I dined at the restaurant La Alqueria, part of a fabulously beautiful and romantic 10th Century Moorish estate in Sanlucar La Mayor, outside Seville. The chef, Rafael Morales, trained at El Bulli and subscribes to Adria’s doctrine that a restaurant kitchen is an extension of the chemistry and physics laboratories and that a chef’s business is to astonish diners by yoking wildly disparate ingredients in startling forms.
The succession of 20 small courses, improbable and extravagant, brought on spoons or little plates, cunningly presented, led to responses that distilled to “Well, that worked” or “Well, that didn’t work,” notions that don’t have much to do with the satisfaction of one’s appetites. Not that the experience wasn’t interesting, intriguing and sometimes fun, but eating at a carnival can also be interesting, intriguing and sometimes fun. Whatever the case, I think that astonishment is not as important as gratification when it comes to fine dining.

Anyway, apropos of simplicity, a few days ago, LL said, “You haven’t made macaroni and cheese in a long time. I think not since we moved to the house,” which was about a year ago. Might as well say it: we love macaroni and cheese. My family ate the dish frequently when my brother and I were growing up, but it came out of a box named Kraft. My model is the macaroni and cheese at the Zabar family’s E.A.T.S. restaurant on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. An order brings a monumental slab of dense baked macaroni permeated by sharp, tangy, creamy cheeses and surmounted by a thick breadcrumb crust also thick with cheese.
So, my procedure is to make a bechamel sauce (good ol’ Fanny Farmer!) and stir into it in the last moments about a cup and a half of shredded cheeses, on this occasion sharp cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack. I combine that with the cooked macaroni in a buttered casserole, sprinkle on some quartered cherry tomatoes and diced country ham and then shovel on a mixture of breadcrumbs and more cheese: Parmesan, Gruyere and cheddar. Japanese panko breadcrumbs are available at many groceries nowadays; I use those because they create a crisp crust and they last forever if you store them tightly sealed. Then bake the casserole for 35 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees. Lord have mercy, it was good. macagain_01.jpg

I dithered about trying to decide what wine to serve with the mac and cheese, and finally LL said, “How about something basic and simple.” So I popped the cork on this Da Vinci Chianti 2005 (about $16) and it was indeed, basic and simple and fruity, just the thing, though for the life of me I don’t understand why the Italians, of all people, wouldn’t call the label “Leonardo.” I mean, fer gawd’s sake, the wine in made in the hometown of the great artist, engineer and the worlds’ smartest person ever; how about a little respect?

And then yesterday, which was chilly and rainy, I said, “How about some oatmeal?” because some hot oatmeal would really hit the spot. Now you will accuse me of being excessively purist when I tell you that we use only McCann’s Irish Oatmeal, but truly I have tried every oatmeal I can find and this is actually the best. Yes, you have to stand at the stove and stir the stuff for 35 or 40 minutes, as if you were making risotto, but the result is so rich and nutty, so oaty, so hearty in flavor and texture that it beats all other contenders. LL takes hers with butter and salt; I use brown sugar. Just a bit of milk to stir in. Pure goodness. Wonderful. Satisfying.

I was searching the Internet trying to find label art for the Hess Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 — and never did find any, even on the winery website, which is irritating as hell — and landed on the wine-selling site, WineChateau.com, the motto for which is “Your Low Price Guide to Good Taste.” What I found left a bad taste in my mouth.

WineChateau.com is having a sale on the Hess Allomi 2004. Regular price, $34.79; sale price, $25.39.

Lucky buyer, right?

Except that the suggested retail price of the wine is — ta-dah! — $25.

I thought you would like to know.

The site is found at http://www.WineChateau.com

In the 20 years that I wrote a weekly newspaper column about wine, the single piece that elicited the most response was one I produced five years ago in which I advocated putting all wines under $15 in screw-caps. You would have thought that I had recommended serving pot roast, borsht and haggis at Thanksgiving dinner. bottles_01.jpg
Certainly many correspondents agreed that it was time to end the tyranny of the cork, especially for inexpensive wines, but I was amazed at how many people left telephone messages or sent emails saying that screw-caps would destroy the “mystique” and the “romance” of wine. Well, how much mystique and romance does wine possess when you’re on a picnic and discover that someone — you, of course — left the corkscrew at home, or you’re carefully extracting the cork and it breaks, sending a flurry of little cork crumbs into the wine, or you open a fine bottle to accompany dinner and realize, when the bouquet smells like old socks and damp cardboard, that the cork was tainted by trichloroanisole (TCA) and the wine was spoiled, “corked” as we say? Huh? How romantic is that?

What also amazes me is that for all the discussion there was a few years ago about how corks really did have to be replaced, at least for inexpensive wines, how few bottles under $15 today actually are closed with screw-caps. I taste plenty of wines in this price category, and I would say, roughly, that 90 percent of them are closed with corks. I would say that the producers of those wines are missing an opportunity to endear themselves with the wine-drinking public. Current pioneers in, uh, screw-capping, in California include Bonny Doon, Shannon Ridge and Two Angels wineries, all of which now put all of their wines in screw-caps.
Expensive wines intended for aging finished with screw-caps is another story. Despite the fact that Plumpjack bottles half of its production of top-line cabernet sauvignon in screw-caps, and has no trouble selling them in two-bottle pairs (one of plump.jpg each) for $325 a set, no one really knows how wines intended for aging are affected by screw-caps. Decades of patient study would be required to make comparisons and come to viable conclusions, if there are any. It would be interesting if some of the high-profile producers in Bordeaux and California would belly up to the bar and agree to bottle part of their production with screw-caps and then leave designated cases of screw-cap and cork-finished wines for comparison in the future.

In the meantime, I — and probably every other wine consumer in the country — will be happy to be able to open more bottles of wine without searching for the corkscrew or ending up with a contaminated bottle. How often does that happen, exactly? I don’t know. Three percent of the time? Five percent? Some writers say as much as eight to 10 percent, though those figures seem extreme to me.

Whatever the case, once is too much.

The image of the pair of Plumpjack wines by Steven Rothfield for Glodow Mead Communications.

Dear friends, it’s Christmas Eve, and I want to tell you a story. dickens.jpeg
In the early 1990s, we met Jack Mayer. He was originally from Memphis but had long been away, operating art galleries, first in Paris and then New York. Elderly and ill, he had returned to Memphis, where he now lived alone in a garden apartment filled with books and art; a few relatives lived in the city and took care of his needs. He no longer drove and led essentially a solitary existence.
We visited Jack a few times. He was intelligent, witty, self-deprecating, lonely, a little irascible and largely, as far as we could tell, stoic about his fate, because he knew or suspected that he did not have long to live. Though his doctors had put him on a limited diet and he was forbidden alcohol, Jack clearly appreciated fine food and wine. We decided to have a small dinner party, with Jack, the two of us and two friends who had also gotten to know him.

Because of Jack’s strict regimen, we planned a simple menu: roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes, a salad. For those who could partake of wine, I had a bottle of Leroy Bourgogne 1989 on the table. Our friends picked Jack up and brought him to our second-floor apartment, helping him slowly up the stairs.

As usual, Jack regaled us with tales of the art business in Paris and New York, artists he had know and worked with, meals he had eaten. He was a gifted raconteur. He kept glancing at the bottle of Bourgogne, and finally, about halfway through the meal, he said, “Let me have a sip of that wine. Just an inch or two.” LL and I looked at each other and she nodded and I said, “Of course, Jack, I’m sure that a sip of wine wouldn’t hurt.”

I poured what he had requested, an inch or two of deep ruby wine that glinted in the candlelight. Jack held up the glass and gazed at it for a moment, sniffed deeply of the bouquet as a seasoned imbiber would, and drank the wine in a single, throbbing swallow.

There was a long silence, and then he said, “God in heaven, that’s good. Bless you.”

Jack Mayer died not long after that dinner, to which he brought us, as his hosts, the funny bottle of Armagnac you see pictured here. Does anyone make such an eccentric product as this anymore? Rustic, individual, earthy, old-fashioned, brandy_01.jpg endowed with jollity and savoir-faire and history? I mean, I can see Moliere pouring himself a swig of brandy from just such a bottle in a tavern in Paris.
We have had this Armagnac for 12 or 13 years. I forget about it for stretches of time, it has moved with us to a second apartment and then a house and now another house, and occasionally I will discover it again in the liquor cabinet, usually when I’m looking for something else, as happened recently. The bottle is dusty and holds about an inch of brandy.
LL and I are having Christmas Eve dinner tonight. Beef rib roast and Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts with a bottle of Chateau Leoville-Barton 1996 and, with the cheeses, the Quinto do Vesuvio Porto 1990. Yes, the whole Merry Old England thing.
I think we’ll finish things off by finally emptying this funny old bottle of its last remains of Armagnac, toasting to a man who knew how to live and how to die.

And that’s why we drink wine.

A few minutes ago I posted on KoeppelOnWine.com a “Featured Article” page that reviews 20 sparkling wines and champagnes, priced from cheap to mind-boggling and designed to fulfill every need you might have for those delightful and profound products. I mean, Christmas is right around the corner! New Year’s is right around godme.jpg the bend! Let our motto be: “We must have bubbles!”
Here’s the link to that page: http://www.koeppelonwine.com/Featured_Article.asp

We were having dinner last night — cod, potato and chorizo stew — and drinking a bottle of the Silverado Vineyards “Vineburg” Chardonnay 2005, Carneros (about $30), an absolutely lovely, pure and eloquent expression of the grape. As we often do when we spend an hour or so with a bottle of wine, we talked about it, how it evolved in the glass, its virtues and defects (this had no defects) and about, in this case, how the chardonnays we love — balancing spicy fruity richness with minerally and acidic elegance — aren’t the ones that win top scores and prizes.

Then LL said, “As far as I’m concerned, this is white wine. This is what white wine should be. Chardonnay is the stake in the ground.”

I was stunned, not only because I wished I had thought of that phrase but because of the boldness of the assertion. Chardonnay is the stake in the ground! chard_01.jpg
“But what,” I said, “about riesling and sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc? They can make great wines.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know that. But there’s a greatness in the best chardonnays that’s better than anything else in other white wines. And it’s the same thing for cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet is the stake in the ground for red wine.”

“But — pinot noir! Isn’t pinot noir the Holy Grail of red wines? We love pinot noir!”

“How many pinots do we try that are really great, I mean, intense and pure and classic? Maybe one out of 20. And two out of three of those come from Burgundy. And they’re still pretty light. Why should we celebrate pinot noir just because it’s so finicky that making a great wine from it is some sort of miracle. Wait, I know, you’re going to mention syrah and merlot, yes, those are capable of being made into great wine. But the most consistently great red wine, the most dependably great red wines are based on cabernet sauvignon. It’s the — ”

“Right, I know, the stake in the ground.” cab_01.jpg
I thought all day about what LL said last night. Could it be true that chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes possess a deeper, more dimensional quality of power and potential than other grapes? When I think of the greatest white and red wines I have tasted in my career as a wine-writer, I have to admit that most of them have been chardonnays and cabernets, or at least blends that contain cabernet sauvignon.

Yes, of course I can think of instances of wines made from other grapes that were sublime:a barrel-sample of Chateau Petrus 1998 (which will be immortal) in December 1999; it’s 100 percent merlot, the greatest merlot wine in the world. And on that same trip to France, in Burgundy now, standing in the cold damp cellar at Domaine Roumier tasting Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses” 1998 out of the barrel, a pinot noir that seemed lifted directly from the dirt and soil and sub-strata of the vineyard. A Barbaresco 1961 made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted at 30 years old. The Savennnieres-Coulee de Serrant 2000 of Nicholas Joly. A Hermitage La Chapelle 1949 tasted in 1989. But those are special instances and special wines.
So, I wonder, is there not dignity and nobility about the greatest wines made from chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes, not merely dignity and nobility but consistent dignity and nobility, a consistently historical living up to potential that other grapes and wines, however fine they may frequently (or rarely) be, cannot match with such an awe-inspiring combination of insouciance and confidence?
Perhaps so. Perhaps I’m waffling on this issue.
Let me know about where you would drive that stake in the ground.

The image of chardonnay grapes is copyright Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo, Italy.

The image of cabernet sauvignon grapes is from http://www.winegeeks.com.

The waiter swoops down and says, smirking, “Is everything wonderful?”

Or, even worse, “Is everything perfect?” waiter1.jpg
Well, not much is perfect in this imperfect world, but could we diners please be afforded the courtesy of making our own judgments about the food and the restaurant and the service without these blatant elbows in our ribs? Asking “Is everything wonderful?” isn’t an expression of concern for your dining welfare, it’s a form of coercion. The courteous response is a simple, “Everything is fine, thank you,” not, “Hey, it’s a bowl of onion soup, how wonderful can it be?”

Though that’s the whole point.
This actually happened a couple of days ago at lunch in a really nice restaurant, you know, white table clothes, menus printed on heavy paper, a certain air of casual solemnity. The place serves French bistro-style food but with an edge of creativity and interest. I was eating an onion and black olive tart with smoked salmon and fresh greens and having a glass of the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris 2004. Everything was good.
The young waiter veered toward the table, loomed and leaned over, beamed and said, with an interrogatory lilt: “Yummy?”

Yummy!

“You got it, Ace,” I said, “and my right foot in your tummy!”

Ha-ha, no, I didn’t. I said, of course, “Everything is fine, thank you,” but I mean, really, a restaurant isn’t nursery school. Could we please be treated like grown-ups?

The Wine Spectator for December 15 reported that at Christie’s inaugural wine auction in Los Angeles on September 28, an anonymous telephone bidder paid $290,000 for a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and capped that by paying $345,000 for a case of six magnums of the same wine. Talk about cornering the market. Ha-ha, that’s not the point of course, the point is that this gentleman paid $635,000 for two cases of wine. That’s an average of $26,458 for a standard 750-milliliter bottle.

Will he pop the cork on a few with the Christmas standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding? mouton_01.jpg
Ha-ha, well, that’s not the point either, is it, because one does pay one’s money and one does take one’s choice, doesn’t one, and if Mr. Anonymous Telephone Bidder wants to pour his Mouton ’45 at the next office party, he has every right to do so, though some of us would spurn to cast pearls before swine. I vividly remember attending a party, in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, about 10 years ago, at which a young doctor was pouring magnums of Chateau Margaux 1981 as house wine, and people were lining up for it, glasses raised, saying things like “Damn good shit, whaddya say this was again?” And my reaction was to bloody the keyboard on his grand piano and kick off a couple of ivories, but that’s another story.
Anyway, what is Mr. Anonymous Telephone Bidder getting for his $635,000? Twelve bottles and six magnums of the wine that Robert M. Parker Jr. , in the fourth edition of Bordeaux: A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines (Simon & Schuster, 2003), calls “truly one of the immortal wines of the century” and asks the (seeming rhetorical) question: “Will it last another 50 years?”

Michael Broadbent, in Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wines (Harcourt, 2002). describes Mouton ’45 as “immediately recognisable, complex, endlessly fascinating, unforgettable … inimitable, incomparable … Seemingly tireless — indeed another half century anticipated.”

No need to go on; Mouton ’45 is obviously one of the best and most long-lived wines made not merely in Bordeaux or France but in the world. Its reputation is not hurt by the fact that Bordeaux suffered from mediocre vintages throughout the 1930s and into the war-torn 1940s, but that the year of the end of World War II was the triumphant 1945. That was also the first vintage for which Baron Philippe de Rothschild commissioned an artist-designed label for the wine, a tradition that continues today.

Rarity is also a factor. Mouton made about 12,645 cases of the 1945 and 2,091 magnums. After 60 years, how much could be left? Broadbent and Parker themselves must had consumed a goodly portion.

So history, heritage, rarity and supreme quality make Mouton ’45 perhaps the most sought-after wine for the world’s collectors.

But, you know, for $26,458 you could buy, well, what? One hundred, even 200 bottles of very fine wine indeed, getting your cellar off to a splendid start. A pretty damned stunning diamond bracelet. Half-interest in a Hummer. On the other hand, in many parts of the United States, $635,000 barely buys a decent house. On the other hand, again, $635,000 would probably feed and house and buy medical supplies and build a school and pay the teachers for the population of a village in Darfur for several generations, if there are any villages left in Darfur.

Again, what’s the point of all this?

I want a glass of that wine!

Sorry.

Occasionally in the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly rounds of tasting wine and making notes, one longs for something different, a wine that possesses a sort of odd authenticity and character that goes beyond the usual run of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling, merlot, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Not that there’s a damned thing wrong with those grapes and the sometimes wonderful wines made from them. I fully realize, and so does every other wine-writer in the world, that we occupy a privileged position: People send us fabulous wines! They invite us to tastings of fabulous wines! They want to know our opinions about their fabulous wines!

They also send us — naively? cluelessly? — crummy wines, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the week before Thanksgiving, I was in a retail store looking at the vast array of white wines from California and there on a shelf were three or four bottles of sauvignon blanc from Kalin Cellars in Marin County. Now if you’ve been around the block a few times in the Golden State, you know that the mad-caps at Kalin hold their wine before release an extraordinary length of time. In fact, this label said Kalin Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 1995, Potter Valley. That’s right, an kalin2_01.jpg 11-year-old sauvignon blanc. The wine manager at the store said, “No joke,” though later I checked on the winery’s website (http://www.kalincellars.com) and found that the current release for Kalin’s Potter Valley Sauvignon Blanc is 1996.

So, I bought the wine (about $22); I mean curiosity alone would have impelled me.

After Thanksgiving, in the first blush of abstemiousness that comes after the annual feast, I used the ravaged carcass of the turkey, resembling a cathedral after bombardment, to make broth, simmering it for eight or 10 hours with carrots, celery, parsley and an onion. I strained the mass through a colander and three times through the chinois — yes, we are a household that owns a conical, three-layers-of-fine-mesh “Chinese hat” strainer — to achieve a broth with as much clarity as possible. A motivation in making the broth, in addition to wanting something clean and pure, was that my wife was recovering from a bad cold; there’s nothing like a hot flavorful broth to soothe the throat and provide nourishment
She suggesting opening the Kalin Sauvignon Blanc 1996, and I promise that it was a revelation. This was a fully mature wine, possibly leaning over the edge a bit. The color was mild golden-yellow, and the bouquet, which was not oxidized, offered a weaving of lemon curd and orange rind with undertones of caramel and butterscotch and a touch of sherry; an unpleasant earthy quality quickly blew off. In the mouth, the wine balanced liveliness with a moderately lush texture, delivering flavors of lemon curd, roasted pears and ginger, bolstered by a hint of dried herbs and a gentle limestone element. Taking a bit of getting used to, the wine turned out to be not just intriguing but delicious, and it was striking how appropriate it was with the turkey broth.

While I would be highly suspicious of 10-year-old sauvignon blanc wines and chardonnays and pinot noirs from the majority of wineries in California, it’s clear that the proprietors of Kalin Cellars operate by a different philosophy than immediate gratification. It’s worth the risk to try their wonderfully eccentric wines.

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