January 2007

I’m in the grocery store, standing at the fish counter, there’s a little sign:

“Fresh Farm-Raised

Atlantic Salmon

$9.99 lb


Wait, I think, wasn’t I taught …? Don’t I seem to remember…? Didn’t I make an A in geography? Or a B? salmon2_01.jpg
Drive home, drag out the atlas, blow off a little dust, find South America, let’s see, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, right, here it is.

Just as I suspected, Chile is on the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic. Well, gosh, that’s a relief.

What madcaps, trying to confuse me that way.

Still bought the salmon, had it for dinner.

On Wednesday, Tom Wark at “Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog” — http://www.fermentation.typepad.com — referred to a recent article in Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar newsletter in which Tanzer, a highly respected and astute wine reviewer and commentator on the wine industry, said that he thought that alcohol levels in California wines were coming down.

It would be good if that tendency were true. High alcohol levels, the result of long hang times for the grapes so they achieve a sort of monster ripeness, have produced a whole generation of hot, sweet, unwieldy and one-dimensional wines. We have seen alcohol levels soar to 14.5 percent, 15 percent, 15.5 percent, not only for zinfandels, many of which have a reputation for hugeness, but for cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah and even pinot noir. Even white wines commonly now top out at 14.5 percent alcohol. The notion that a wine ought to be balanced, that a wine ought to reveal integration of all it essential qualities seems to have been forgotten. The typical alcohol levels of the past — about 11.5 to 13.5 percent — now seem almost naive.

So if Tanzer, who tastes thousands of wines a year, is correct, I would rejoice.

But look at the alcohol levels of these wines that I plucked from my shelves and the refrigerator this morning:

*Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2005, Monterey County: 14.7 percent.

*Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc 2004, Paso Robles: 15.3 percent.

*Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Napa Valley: 14.7 percent.

*St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley: 15.6 percent. (For a cabernet!)

*Mazzocco Stone Ranch Zinfandel 2004, Alexander Valley: 16.9 percent.

Not exactly a representative sample, perhaps, but enough to tell me not to hold my breath until alcohol levels in California wines really start to tumble.

On the other hand, it’s unfair to dismiss these wines merely because of the alcohol content. I’ll try them and post another entry in a few days to tell you how they perform.

Can Montrachet be closed? montrachet.jpg
Here’s what the “Food Stuff” column says in this morning’s New York Times:

This TriBeCa pioneer closed for renovations in early summer but has not reopened. Last week Drew Nieporent, an owner, said he was not ready to discuss his plans for the restaurant, which opened in 1985 with David Bouley in the kitchen and soon received three stars from Bryan Miller in The New York Times. It received two stars in its most recent review, in 2004. It is listed in the 2007 Zagat guide with a note about the renovations, and is on the Zagat Web site with the advisory, “call ahead.” But calls to the restaurant have gone unanswered.

“Temporarily closed,” says gayot.com. “Now closed,” says nymag.com.

Woe is me, for I have a soft spot in my heart for Montrachet. It was the first restaurant I reviewed.

I was in New York in January 1986, my first trip alone to Manhattan. I was teaching college English and writing a weekly wine column, free lance, for The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. I proposed to my editor that the paper should pay for me to go to New York to cover a couple of wine events, and to my surprise, she said yes. Somewhere I had read about this thrilling restaurant in the far reaches of TriBeCa, and I made a reservation.

I was staying at the St. Moritz, a hotel whose glory had faded to a kind of shabby European elegance reflected in most of the people residing there. My room was very small and looked out onto the air shaft.

The night of my appointment at Montrachet, I got a cab at the hotel and told the driver where I was going, 239 West Broadway. I seem to remember that the driver turned and looked at me as if I had asked him to drive me to Bulgaria. And not the nice part of Bulgaria. I, of course, had no idea where we were going, nor did I realize that TriBeCa in those days was a dark, deserted outpost of Manhattan, an industrial moonscape south of Canal. Soon we were driving less than purposefully through dim, narrow lanes past grim warehouses. The system of one-way streets seemed wholly arbitrary. The driver stopped, backed around corners, started up streets we had already driven down, crossed streets we had already crossed. He muttered. He scratched his head. Finally he stopped.

“O.K.,” he said. “I think it’s over there,” and he waved his hand vaguely to the left.

“Where?” I said.

“Over there. I think maybe in one of those buildings. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s it, where those lights are.”

I paid the fare, walked across the wide pavement, heading toward the beacon of a few lit windows. And that’s where Montrachet was.

It was the first restaurant I had been in which the waiters wore all black. I was staggered by the chicness. Montrachet was simple and spare, and so was the David Bouley’s cuisine, yet that simplicity and spareness were infused with flavor and character. And cheap! Appetizers on that menu dated “12/85,” which I have here on the desk, ran from $7 to $15; entrees were $18 to $25, desserts $6 to $8. I suppose at the time that the prices were standard for fine dining, but I had few comparisons. Prices now — at least on the company’s website, where Montrachet is still prominently featured — are $12 to $24 for appetizers and $27 to $38 for entrees.
I remember that I chose an appetizer special, grilled shrimp wrapped in paper-thin strips of cucumber. For entree I bravely selected the pigeon with Savoy cabbage; I had never eaten pigeon. The dessert I don’t remember. The bread was wonderful, each roll bearing a crusty chapeau. I must have had a glass of wine but I don’t recall what that was either. What I do remember, so clearly, was that I had never experienced a restaurant like that, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the newspaper to write about it. My editor said O.K., because plenty of people from Memphis went to New York and would like to know about Montrachet. Though I didn’t take up restaurant reviewing as a permanent beat until January 1988 — after joining the newspaper full-time in August 1986 — Montrachet was the beginning.

Montrachet was also the launch-pad for Nieporent’s ambition, and what was one shining restaurant in the obscurity of TriBeCa became TriBeCa Grill and Nobu and Nobu Next Door and the defunct Layla and the new Centrico and Rubicon in San Francisco and restaurant elsewhere, all under the umbrella of the Myriad Restaurant Group.

Montrachet has seen many chefs steering the stove in 22 years, and dips and rises in quality. We had a splendid dinner there 10 or 12 years ago, but we were in New York for an early birthday in November 2002 and the meal there was, oh, it was fine, but not exceptional, not something you would tell people about with pleasure and glee and awe.

And now this. Is the end coming with a whimper, a few notices on websites, rumors exchanged across other tables, a brief buzz in the papers and magazines, a sorrowful shake of a head. Nobody really knows it seems, perhaps not even Drew Nieporent. But I know one thing. I miss my first great restaurant.

Much sound and fury have been expended recently by respondents on Eric Asimov’s blog “The Pour” — http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com (look at the posts for Jan. 9 & 11) — about whence come the world’s best cheap wines, the consensus being that Spain, Italy and France (Argentina, Chile and Australia receive little credit) produce the best, the most authentic cheap wines and that California, basically, sucks. 05_wrangler_red_label_th.jpg
The idea seems to be that those picturesque European countries are filled with homey, little mom-and-pop wineries where the wines, made from ancient vines nurtured with love and craft passed down through family generations, not only epitomize the acme of terroir but the empyrean of dignity, nobility, honor and sincerity, while in California multinational corporations pump out millions of gallons of anonymous swill and unload it, via dazzling marketing campaigns and goofy critter labels, on an unsuspecting public. 05gewurzlabelsmall.jpg
That’s hardly fair.

I mean, if you have never sat down in some countryside cafe in France or Italy to a carafe of the locally-made vino rosso de la casa or the vin rouge de la maison, took a sip and said, “Whoa, man, I can’t drink this shit,” then you’ve been lucky indeed. Ever try to work your way through a tasting of Muscadet? Soave? Valpolicella? Never had a Cotes-du-Rhone that attacked your tongue like sandpaper? Never had a Rioja that tasted like shellac? Never had a $15 Bordeaux in which oak and tannin held a party but didn’t put fruit on their dance-cards?
Good wine and great wine; bad wine and decent wine; bland, innocuous, serviceable and forgettable wine: Friends, they’re made everywhere.

It’s true that California has not always set the best example, and indeed some of the blame must rest on the largest producers, with their “Founder’s Estate” cheapies that have nothing to do with the winery’s founder or his estate or their “Proprietor’s Reserve” wines that call into question the ludicrous term “reserve” because they make 500,000 cases and the “proprietor” is CEO of a bi-continental conglomerate. Yes, we’re familiar with all these factors, and the quality of a great deal of this wine — bland, innocuous, serviceable and forgettable, as I mentioned above — won’t turn soft-drink-and-iced-tea-guzzling Americans into a nation of thoughtful, considerate wine-drinkers. Perhaps — and here the dark, cynical pessimist in me erupts like Grendel from his loathsome lair — nothing will. campermerlot.jpg
But let’s shake those lurid shadows from our shoulders. I taste tons of $5 to $15 wines from California, and much of it is, sadly and predictably, B.I.S. & F., but how bad can life be when we have cheap wines from Rosenblum, Foppiano, Cline, Bonny Doon, Castle Rock and Bogle to choose from?

To whet your thirst, here are six cheapies from California I tasted and reviewed recently that should satisfy just about any palate: Happy Camper Merlot 2004, California, about $9 (I know, the package is way high-concept slick); Lockwood Chardonnay 2004, Monterey, about $10-$12; Hook & Ladder Gewurztraminer 2005, Russian River Valley, about $12; Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2005, Lake County, about $14 (a limited production blend of cabernet franc, syrah and barbera and Worth a Search); Bennett Family Reserve Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley, about $15; Hess Collection Artezin 2004, California, about $15 (94% zinfandel, 6% petite sirah).

And, to take the opposite tack, here’s a link to the “Refrigerator Door Wines” page on my website — http://www.koeppelonwine.com/Refrigerator_Door_Wines.asp — where yesterday I posted reviews of a dozen wines — five from Argentina, four from France, two from Italy and one from Spain — priced from about $7 to $15. Enjoy.

… and neither can I, not, my friends, because it’s so freaking expensive — about $64 — but because only 56 cases were made. It happens to be the Vina Alicia Syrah 2003, and it is, I promise, one of the best, no, one of the most astonishing syrah wines I have ever encountered, a wine of such piercing purity and intensity, a wine that so impeccably and vinaalicialogo1.jpg effortlessly balances power and elegance that the glass or two I had left me awe-struck and humbled.

“Oh great, F.K., oh thanks, F.K., oh tiddly-winks to you, F.K.,” you’re saying, “for mentioning this fabulous and unattainable wine, which you got to taste and we didn’t.”

Well, yeah, O.K., sorry, but the point is that the Vina Alicia Syrah 2003 came not from France’s northern Rhone Valley or Australia’s Barossa, which we might expect, but from Argentina, from Mendoza’s chilly, arid Lujan de Cuyo region in the Andean foothills. If there was ever any question about the ability of Argentina’s vineyards and wine-makers to produce wines that could compete with the best in the world — and I have thought that the country’s high-priced wines tended to be more ambitious than accomplished — this wine lays all doubts to rest. The best we can do, I suppose, is hope that Vina Alicia, which also produces small quantities of malbec, petit verdot and nebbiolo, finds it in its heart to increase production just a little.

In the meanwhile, enjoy these Argentine wines that also represent the top of their class and price range.

My first note on the Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2003 — also from Lujan de Cuyo — was “Wow!” Made from vines averaging 75 years old and aged in a combination of new and used French oak, this is a wonderfully layered malbec, bosca_01.jpg deeply fitted with dimension and detail, dense and chewy, flush with dusty tannins but so lovely, so seductive, intensely floral and minerally simultaneously and packed with succulent black fruit flavors tamed by a rigorous finish. Bring on a rib-eye steak, please, grilled over hickory coals to rosy-pink medium rare, charred and crusty with salt and black pepper. Yikes! The price: About $23.

And, talk about an over-achiever — and a Bargain of the Decade — the Tittarelli Reserva Torrontes 2006, Tierra de Cuyo, Mendoza, proves that the grape doesn’t have to produce crisp, floral little quaffers, charming though such wines may be. This model sees no oak but spends 45 days in stainless steel resting on the lees — the residue of spent yeast cells — to produce amazing character for the grape. This wine is bone-dry but bursts with jasmine and honeysuckle, titill_01.jpg peach, pear and mango and whole spice-boxes of exotica, all this wrapped in a texture and structure that perfectly balance lushness with chiming acid. Don’t miss this one, and you don’t have to at about $13.

This trio of wines from Mendoza, Argentina, is brought into the United States — and only 17 states, so you may have to use some not-so-gentle persuasion on your local retailers and wholesale distributors — by William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va. Visit http://whimports.com

One reads on various blogs the opinion that may be summarized thus: The top champagne houses make such huge quantities that their products amount to industrial swill and that the real champagnes come from small, hand-craft, artisanal houses.

Well, o.k., there may be some truth to that assessment. Even the best producers of labels known around the world — Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Moet & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Perrier-Jouet, Bollinger — may stumble with their non-vintage bruts, their basic champagnes usually priced under $40. (I will say, however, that the non-vintage Pol Roger Cuvee Reserve, about $50, that we had with the recent Christmas breakfast — fried eggs, grits, country ham, red-eye gravy and biscuits — was as seductive as always.) While these heavily branded houses may dominate the market — and examples of a few tete-de-cuvee champagnes I have tried recently have been superb — hundreds of small independent houses exist whose products we rarely see in the United States.

Some I sampled recently have become my favorite champagnes, at least for the next few months; I bought all the bottles I could carry from a local store that seemed to be the only place in town that stocked them. These are products from “Champagne et Villages,” a negociant firm in Epernay run by Patrick Couvreur, who markets the products of a dozen or so small houses. The ones I tried are Jose Dhondt, Camille Saves and Godme Pere et Fils. Information about these producers and about Champagnes et Villages is difficult to find. I Googled like crazy and came up with very little, and except for camile_01.jpg Godme, nobody seems to have a website. Clive Coates mentions Champagnes et Villages favorably in An Encyclopedia of The Wines and Domaines of France (University of California Press, $60), calling the firm “a prime source for wines of terroir and diversity.”
The back labels tell us that these champagnes are brought into this country by USA Imports for Becky Wasserman Selections and The Miller Collection. Wasserman is a venerable and influential exporter based in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy. The Miller Collection is a company run by Michael Miller in, of all places, the small town of Clarksville, Tennessee.

The champagnes I tried from this group are the Godme Brut Rose Grand Cru, non-vintage, the Jose Dhondt “Mes Vieilles Vignes” Brut Grand Cru, non-vintage, and the Camille Saves Brut 1998. These are champagnes of tremendous character, breeding, grip and power, though woven with, paradoxically, elegance and even delicacy. The ground and subsoil and strata from which the vines draw sustenance seem to resonate throughout these champagnes; they feel connected to the earth, yet they elevate us with balletic surges of tiny bubbles and ethereal nuance.

The rub is cost. Searching the internet brought few references to these products; prices mentioned ranged from about $45 to $60. I paid $60 to $70 — Ouch! — certainly relegating them to the special occasion category.

Are they worth the price? Whaddaya think? If I could get more, I would.
Other small houses whose products I esteem are Egly-Ouriet (try the Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny,” non-vintage, made from pinot meunier grapes, $35-$45); Champagne Fleury (the Brut Millesime 1996 is wonderful, about $75); and, especially, the unfortunately rare Champagne David Leclapart, whose dazzlingly dry Cuvee L’Amateur Blanc de Blancs 2002 is like drinking glaciers composed by Chopin, all steely tinsel and tensile strength, $50-$55.

I’m a great admirer of wine importer and food entrepreneur Dan Philips, whose The Grateful Palate in Oxnard , California — http://www.gratefulpalate.com — is a trove of edible treasures, including the well-known Bacon of the Month Club. Philips is one of the best American importers of Australian wines, specializing in small producers with big aspirations; among several dozen labels he imports are Burge Family, Hazy Blur, Henry’s Drive, Kay Brothers, Lengs & Cooter, Lillypilly, Trevor Jones and The Willows. Philips was also partner with Sparky Marquis in the widely acclaimed Marquis Philips label, an enterprise that broke up last year.

So I was enthusiastic when a clerk in a local retail store recommended the 3 Rings Shiraz 2005 from Australia’s Barossa Valley (about $16 to $20). The label is another Philips partnership, this time with grower David Hickinbotham and 3rings.jpg winemaker Chris Ringland. I assumed that this would be a pretty bold expression of the shiraz grape; I didn’t expect a travesty.

Five or six years ago, I was in Los Angeles for a comprehensive tasting of Penfolds Grange — yes, it was an extraordinary event — and before the tasting began, Australian writer and wine-maker James Halliday rose to his feet to say a few words, and the first sentence he uttered has stayed with me: “The three most important elements of wine are balance, balance and balance.” I think this aphorism should be tattooed on the backs of the hands of every wine-maker and producer in the world as well as hung, in the form of embroidered samplers, in every winery, chai and chateau.

Halliday was not calling for well-mannered, wimpy wines, holding little fingers a-curl as they sip milky tea. He was asserting the fact that the greatest wines, at every price range, should reflect harmony and integration in all their components: fruit, acid, tannin, alcohol and — the most dangerous factor — oak. (Well, alcohol level has become a vital issue too.) Even deep, large-framed young wines intended for aging, Bordeaux classified growths, California cult cabernets, Barolos and so on, however tannic they may be in infancy, should display a sense of innate balance and order; the balance may shift and change over the years, but it’s always there.

Which brings us back to the 3 Rings Shiraz 2005.

This opens with a super-ripe, fleshy, meaty bouquet that teems with scents of macerated and roasted blackberries and blueberries as well as a touch of zinfandel-like boysenberry. In the mouth, the wine is exceedingly plush, velvety and voluptuous and, at 15.5 percent alcohol, offers a considerable amount of that high-alcohol raisiny plumminess and jamminess. The wine is starting to taste, in fact, like something you might rather spread on toast than drink with a meal with the other grown-ups. The spicy factors increase as the wine slides over the tongue, becoming not only dominant but strident and austere, and the wine concludes unpleasantly in a welter of incoherence.

My palate was not grateful.

I single this wine out, because of its origins, as a prominent example of what happens when producers value power, intensity and simple-minded texture over wines that balance feeling good and tasting good. It is not, I assure you, the only example.

Go to Tom Wark’s Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog to nominate your favorite wine blogs for the 2007 awards. A blog image.jpg must have put up at least 52 posts during 2006 and be written in English to be eligible. These are the categories:
Best Overall Wine Blog

Best Writing on a Wine Blog

Best Graphics on a Wine Blog

Best Single Subject Wine Blog

Best Winery Blog

Best Wine Podcast of Videoblog

Best Wine Blog Focused on Wine Reviews

Here’s the link: http://www.fermentation.typepad.com/

The nominating process ends January 18.

Friends, I’m a carnivore.

It’s true that I don’t eat foie gras now, for ethical reasons, and I avoid sweetbreads as too rich and injurious to my digestion, but other than those exceptions, bring on the braised meat, the roasted meat, the seared meat, the rack of lamb, the veal shank, the short ribs, the rib roast, the strip steak. Much of that fare we — or I — partake of in restaurants, while at home we try to eat fish as much as possible. During the Yuletide season, however, we did over-indulgence with lots of meat and lots of red wine, so LL suggested recently that it would be good to try a few vegetarian dishes. Gack! I said within, but agreed to the regimen, even as I thought about tofu, brown rice and seaweed.

LL had something else in mind, though, and an example was the Brussels Sprout and Mushroom Ragout with Herb Dumplings from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway Books, $27.50). Madison was the founding chef of Greens, the revolutionary vegetarian restaurant that opened in San Francisco in 1979, and is author of a roster of award-winning vegetarian cookbooks. Nothing wimpy here, this is an incredibly flavorful dish, filled with wintery, rooty effects of deeply caramelized onions and mushrooms, a rich mushroom broth and the hearty influence of the most tender and flavorful Brussels sprouts I have ever tasted. The dumplings, dotted with parsley and tarragon, compliment the dish wonderfully — and also make it non-vegan, since they contain milk and an egg, though Madison says that substituting wild rice for the dumplings would be fine. A little pancetta would have — no, no, I won’t say it. flowers_pn.jpg
Madison suggests a rich Santa Barbara chardonnay with “a little oak” for the dish, but the heady, autumnal redolence that filled the kitchen put me in mind of pinot noir, so I opened a bottle of the Flowers Pinot Noir 2004, Sonoma Coast (about $45 to $50). Lord have mercy, what a match! The wine is beautiful in every sense, from its intense dusky, ruby hue, like the color of a glass of wine in a Dutch still-life painting, to its bouquet of smoky black cherry, cola and spice, to its lovely harmony and balance, its black fruit flavors permeated by earth and moss and a satiny texture that has some iron and grit to it.

It was a great meal during which we listened to Christmas music for the last time as a reminder of the end of Yuletide and the New Year holiday.

A cheaper wine with much the same effect as the Flowers, but not quite the elegance or resonance, is the Lockwood Block 7 Pinot Noir 2005, Monterey County (about $20).

If music be the food of love, by all means, play on, but in restaurants, when food is paramount, silence is the best sound of all.

In other words, I hate music in restaurants.

This statement is inspired by a piece about music sound tracks in Manhattan restaurants in yesterday’s New York Times written by Peter Meehan, who also writes the “$25 and Under” dining reviews, the point being that the vast majority of restaurant owners and managers don’t even consider not having a musical backdrop in their dining rooms. The main questions are what kind of music to provide and who will compile the selections, the owner or manager, the staff, or an outside company like the famed Muzak or some other company with a younger, hipper focus.

Nobody brought up the crucial issue of how loud, I mean how LOUD the music should be played.

Here’s an example. We went to The Mermaid Inn (96 Second Ave in Manhattan.) not long after it opened and found the food OK — the restaurant was slammed — but not as good as The Red Cat or The Harrison, which are under the same ownership. The chief problem wasn’t the food, however, but the music, downtown alt rock, that was played so loudly that waiters had to shout at diners, diners had to shout back at waiters and nobody at the table could have a conversation or even say “Pass the bread” without bellowing or writing a note. It was like being in a club, not a restaurant. Restaurant owners may think that’s cool, but it ain’t.
In fact, I find this experience not merely irritating or off-putting but deadly. Playing music — any kind of music — in a restaurant so loudly that the sound dominates the room, calls attention to itself and shatters the concentration that should be centered on the food and wine ruins dining out for me, and I would bet that I’m not alone in this reaction. It seems counter-intuitive to me that restaurants would continue, actually aggressively continue, in a practice that can alienate diners. Isn’t the idea in business to cater to customers?

Equally bad is inappropriate music in restaurants. I can’t tell you the times I have sat in a fine-dining establishment, trying to enjoy some splendid dish, while Tony Bennett practically stands next to the table leaving his heart in San Francisco or Frank Sinatra has a very good year or reggae throbs through the dining room. Or hits of the Eighties! Do we have to be reminded?

No, my friends, if there must be music, let it be almost subliminal, a sound that stays so firmly in the background that we perceive it only when there’s a lull in the activity.
Even better, let there be no music at all except for the sounds that should be music to all our ears: The mild clatter of cutlery, the low murmur or conversation, the sigh of enjoyment and pleasure.