June 2007

First story: We go to a little Greek restaurant, oops, there’s no wine, so back into the car we get and drive about a mile to a good wine store where I shop frequently and know the people and they know me.
Clerks: Hey, Fredric!
Me: Hey, guys!
Clerks: Whaddaya looking for?
Me: Something to go with Greek food. That little restaurant doesn’t have a license.
Clerks: Hey, we love that place! But right, no wine. So, we’re thinking Rhone grapes, maybe grenache, we have this great Spanish grenache, maybe the best grenache in the store, but it’s like $24.
Me: No problem, I’ll take it.
The wine is the Alto Moncayo Veraton 2004, from Spain’s Campo de Borja region. Heavy bottle, deep punt, fancy label, obviously 90340l1.jpgintended as a wine to be taken seriously.
Back to the restaurant, waiter opens the bottle, pours the wine, out comes this stuff that looks like motor oil. The wine is incredibly oaky and toasty and spicy, with super, over-the-top ripe black fruit, strident smoky, spicy and vanilla qualities. It’s like a late-harvest zinfandel channeling an Amarone, with the hotness and faux sweetness of high alcohol. I look at the alcohol content; 16 percent. What the hell does this have to do with grenache? And who in their right mind would make a wine like this monster in Spain?
What’s interesting, or dismaying, or discouraging, is that this model of exaggeration and lack of balance received rave reviews all over the place. Please, ladies and gentlemen, let’s stop the madness.
Second story: I’m in a wine store near my house, everybody there knows me well and knows that I like odd and out-of-the-way wines, I’ll try almost anything. So the clerk, a longtime wine acquaintance, picks up this Battely Sojourn 2003, 126_thumb_lp.jpgfrom Victoria, South Australia and says, “Whoa, now this is really interesting,” which could mean, “Whoa, this is fantastic” or “Whoa, this is weird.” It’s $35, but I take the plunge.
The blend on this wine is 60 percent syrah — ok, shiraz — and 40 percent durif, a hybrid grape created in France in the 1880s by crossing syrah with the obscure peloursin. In the South of France, the grape, while resistant to disease, produced wines of no distinction whatever, though in California, most of what’s called petite sirah is actually durif; in the Golden State, the grape makes wines of rusticity, robustness and exuberance.
Anyway, the Battely Sojourn ’03 sits around the house for a few weeks, and one day I pick it up and check the alcohol. Get this: 17.5 percent. This is really close to the alcohol content of port. One would open such a table wine with trepidation, but I wait a few weeks and finally pop the cork.
Whoa, like, no joke, this wine takes hyperbolic ripeness and the heat and sweetness of soaring alcohol to ludicrous extension and stridency, though, once again, here’s an Incredible Hulk of a wine, which I found overdone and unbalanced and actually unpleasant, that received all sorts of rave reviews for its “bigness.” Ladies and gentlemen, please, let’s stop the madness.

One of the most startling recent developments in the California wine industry occurred in July 2006, when Randall Grahm, the outspoken owner and chief winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards, sold two of the company’s best-known labels, Big House and Cardinal Zin. Then Grahm reconfigured his Pacific Rim line as a separate entity and moved its production to Washington. Finally, in a radical move that strikes against the expansionist tendency that motivates many large producers in California, Grahm reduced Bonny Doon’s production in its base at Santa Cruz from 425,000 cases in 2006 to 35,000 in 2007. In addition to the enormous impact of these changes, Grahm culminated several years of efforts and, this year, had the Ca’ del Solo vineyard certified biodynamic.

Randall Grahm has long been one of California’s most madcap and eloquent winemakers, a man capable of writing a newsletter in the terza rima of Dante’s Inferno and of filling back labels on his wines with wild puns and double bonnydoon_randallgrahm.gifentendres. He is also a highly imaginative, thoughtful and dedicated producer, one of the first, for example, to understand the utility and potential of Rhone Valley grape varieties in the Golden State.

From the time that I first heard of and started reading about biodynamism and listening to people rhapsodize about it, I have been wary and suspicious of its extreme methods and quasi-mystical philosophy, suspicions I expressed in a Featured Article last year on my website. You may read it here. At the same time, many winemakers that I respect have become passionate advocates of biodynamism and its techniques. I thought that it would be fair and interesting, then, to allow Randall Grahm space on this blog to explain his feelings about the changes underway at Bonny Doon and his zealous involvement in biodynamism. I have reproduced without editing our email exchange:

Q: How does it feel personally to have reduced the wholesale “footprint” of Bonny Doon by divesting brands and labels and by lowering production to less than 10 percent of what it was?

A: It feels absolutely great. I can’t think of a precise analogy, but the removal of a large albatross from around one’s neck will do. While on some weird level it was fun to have a large brand — I was well known and could very often get into otherwise totally booked restaurants — it was mostly not fun. I didn’t really enjoy working with large distributors for whom wine was essentially a commodity. More to the point, I was making wines that I did not entirely believe in. Being a lover and defender of vins de terroir, I was not personally making wines that expressed my own deepest values. It was absolutely necessary to make such a radical cut to even begin to bring my practice into congruence with my beliefs.

Q: Why go biodynamic? Aren’t the rigorous methods of organic practices good enough to produce “great wines of finesse, subtlety, specificity and terroir,” as a recent letter from your office stated? Many wineries alternate row crops, utilize birds and insects and so on in the search for organic integrity; what do the extreme methods of biodynamism actually contribute beyond that?

A: I think that organic methods are perfectly well suited to helping bring health and balance back into the vineyard, essentially by enriching the microflora of the soil, which helps the vine fight disease as well as helping the vine to extract minerals, enhancing the structure and longevity of the wine itself. But organic practice is not nearly as effective in helping a grower discover the originality of his site. The use of animals on the farm as well as the essentially homeopathic aspects of the biodynamic preparations brings the land into the kind of balance that is not possible merely through the efforts of a human being, as intelligent and well-intentioned as he or she may be. Biodynamics works on a much more subtle level than organics (maybe so subtle that it appears to be rubbish to skeptics.) But the practice is intended to transform the grower as much as that which is grown, and only until that happens can the vineyard or farm develop a distinctive identity.

Q: Biodynamic methods purport to produce healthier vineyards and healthier grapes. Healthier in what manner? Is there a quantifiable measurement that tells us that biodynamic wines are “better,” better for us, superior to non-biodynamic wines?

A: Better is definitely a tricky one. Biodynamic practice will not enable a grower to turn grapes from a crappy vineyard into brilliant wine, or certainly if other aspects of his practice are not skillful, he is also SOL. Apart from the somewhat subjective effects that I and others have personally observed — healthy vines don’t need as much water, appear to be more resistant to disease, i.e. mildew pressure, etc., produce grapes that are themselves more uniform in maturity (It is quite striking to observe a biodynamic vineyard in stark contrast to a conventionally farmed vyd.as far as the overall aspect of the vines — the vines look far, far less stressed) — there is in fact one well-known scientific study performed by an agronomist in Washington state where he did side-by-side trials of biodynamic, organic and conventional and found that biodynamic practice produced by higher numbers of microflora in the soil, both in diversity as well as absolute numbers. It is a general consensus that these sort of data correlate to quality.

Q: Randall, I don’t mean for these questions to sound hostile but I am on record as being skeptical about biodynamic philosophy and practice, so I would like to hear from a winemaker I respect about what exactly the advantages of biody are and why they might be worth the trouble.

A: At the end of the day, the biodynamic practice may likely seem a lot like voodoo to someone who is scientifically minded. By the way that we typically imagine things to work, it is hard to imagine that the spraying of a few ounces of material/acre is likely to change things one way or another. (Is one observing a placebo effect?) The only real way to appreciate the value of biodynamics on one’s own site is to observe its effects side by side w/ respect to other practice, conventional, organic, whatever, and to see if it produces dramatically different results. Myself, I am absolutely persuaded that biodynamics produces very significant changes in the vineyard and the resulting wine. If one is absolutely serious about producing a true vin de terroir, I think that (along w/ enlightened site selection, no mean feat), biodynamic practice is perhaps the most efficient means to attain that end. The reality is that biodynamic practice is not so very different from really old-fashioned farming, done 100 years ago. For me, it is a sort of heuristic that brings the farmer back into touch with his farm — developing a much more acute, anticipatory sense of what is needed — an almost instinctual facility that many farmers have largely lost.

Grahm was at his most eloquent on the subject of earth, soil, vineyard and biodynamism in April 2006, in a paper he gave to a meeting of Appellation America. You may read “The Phenomenology of Terroir” here.

This question remains, for me, Do supposedly healthier grapes grown biodynamically make better wine, and how is better to be defined? Does healthier wheat make better bread? Do healthier eggs make better pancakes? If so, what’s “better” about them?

If it were possible, the most valuable course would be for producers to make the same style of wines from conventionally farmed vines, organically farmed vines and biodynamically farmed vines, lay them aside for several years and then conduct blind tastings as well as chemical analysis. Until that process, or a similar and completely detached and objective process occurs, our conclusions about the effects and benefits of biodynamism on vineyards, grapes and wines will continue to be based on passion, romantic notions and hearsay.

Photograph of Randall Grahm by Alex Krause.

We’ve been going downtown to the farmer’s market at the old railroad station every Saturday morning since it opened for the vegetables_01.jpgsummer, trying to get there about 9, later than the stalwarts, of course, but there’s still plenty to choose from. Eating locally has limitations in any region — try finding local olive oil outside of California — but it’s immensely satisfying to cook whole meals or even parts of meals using ingredients produced in-state or right over the line in Mississippi.

Pictured here is our haul from yesterday: fingerling potatoes, tomatoes of various sorts, purple cabbage sprouts, carrots, onions, squash, rosemary, garlic, bell peppers, bok choy, opal basil, peaches and blackberries. I used a green pepper, tomatoes, an onion, rosemary and basil and garlic AND local feta cheese we bought the previous week at the market on last night’s pizza.

The market also draws, every other week from east Tennessee, a purveyor of organic, grass-fed beef. Here’s a picture of our New steak2_01.jpgYork strip steak dinner with local potatoes, bok choy and tomatoes. You have to be careful cooking grass-fed beef because it’s so lean, but, boy, does it have a lot of flavor.

The dynamic at the market is interesting. One booth, for example, is run by two young men from across the state line in Mississippi, not far southeast of Memphis. Their produce, herbs and flowers are artfully packaged and presented; they offer recipes; they’re obviously aiming at the young foodie audience. Prices are $3.50 for this, $4.50 for that, not really expensive, after all, and it’s all good stuff. Across the aisle, however, is an older couple, just farmers, from the next county. Their wide variety of produce is offered in small basket sizes. They don’t talk much; they don’t provide recipes or advice; they don’t have flowers. But they charge from a dollar to two dollars per basket for their vegetables. As with everything in life, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

This just in: According to The New York Times, the European Parliament decided that “traditional vodka can be made only from potato2_01.jpggrain or potatoes.” Countries with a heritage of vodka-producing, including Sweden, Finland and Poland, “had pushed for rules that would have included molasses among the ingredients allowed.” The parliament reached a compromise — which only Poland voted against — that vodka may be made from other ingredients than grain or potatoes “if their composition and origin are clearly indicated on the label,” the implication being that vodka producers in Poland want to use molasses in vodka without indicating it on labels. grain_01.jpg

Molasses! Think of it. If you ferment molasses and distill it, what do you get? Bad rum! The best rums are made directly from pure cane juice, not cane juice rendered into molasses. Why does Poland want to get into that business? And how are molasses_01.jpgvodka aficionados going to feel when they pick up a highly hyped new vodka named something like “Iconic Snow” or “Icy Freeze” and the label states: “Made from Molasses in Krakow”?

One feels similarly funny about Ciroc, the French vodka made from grapes, and not just grapes but “fine French grapes” (they’re from Gaillac) and not just “fine French grapes” but “snap frost” grapes picked, we are told, just after the first “snap frost.” (What?) But think of it. Vodka made from distilled grapes? Isn’t that, like, you know, grappa? (A highly refined grappa, to be sure.)

Technically speaking, vodka is defined as an odorless, flavorless white spirit. You could make it from rutabagas, but traditionally and practically and now by law in Europe, vodka must be made from potatoes or grain, unless stated otherwise on the label. What’s next for those accommodating madcaps in the EU? A ruling that says that sherry can only be made from real grapes in Jerez unless stated otherwise on the label? That Calvados can be made only from apples in Normandy unless stated otherwise on the label?

Ironically, the EU recently honored the Napa Valley as the only protected American appellation in Europe, unless, I suppose, otherwise indicated on the label.

The picture of grain is a Getty image taken from nattierosewrites.com. The molasses label is from clendening.kumc.edu.

This was mentioned in The New York Times food section last week, a “carpaccio of tomatoes.” carpaccio2_01.jpg

Now friends, you may slice a tomato thick or you may slice it thin, but no matter how thin you slice it, it’s still just a sliced tomato. And a sliced grapefruit — not an easy matter anyway — is not a “carpaccio of grapefruit,” which I have seen on menus; it’s just a sliced grapefruit.

Most people who love food, especially Italian food, know that beef Carpaccio is a dish that consists of paper-thin slices of raw beef served with olive oil, arugula and Parmesan cheese. It was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice and named after the great Venetian artist Vittori Carpaccio (1460?-1525/6). The point is, I mean my point is, that “carpaccio” is not a technique; it’s a dish, which could (one grants) have some acceptable range of variation — one pictured here has truffles, carpaccio1_01.jpgwhich seems like over-kill — but still must necessarily operate within its proper sphere. I could see lamb Carpaccio, for example, treated in the regular manner, but I have also been served shrimp Carpaccio and octopus Carpaccio, and I would say that those concepts are beyond the pale.

Today, you see, carpaccio has become the new napoleon. What I mean is that 10 to 15 or more years ago, witty (or desperate) chefs expanded the notion of the luxurious dessert called a napoleon — layers of puff pastry alternating with pastry cream, whipped cream or jam and topped with fondant icing, traditionally with combed brown and white stripes — to mean any group of napoleon1_01.jpgingredients stacked in layers. Hence, lobster napoleons, hence sweetbread and foie gras napoleons. The limit, for me, was reached at La Maison Blanche, in Paris, in March 1990, where I was served a “napoleon” that stacked, carefully, eel with eggplant and zucchini. Sorry, but that sounds like vertical ratatouille to me.

(What I chiefly remember about the restaurant is that a large white German shepherd-like dog was sleeping right inside the front door, blocking the way in or out. Nobody paid attention; they just stepped over the dog. The French are sort of lovable after all.)

The connection between the dessert and the short Corsican conqueror seems to be the remarkable resemblance that the pastry napoleon bears to Napoleon’s Tomb at Les Invalides. Ha-ha, no, I made that up, it’s probably an association with tomb2_01.jpgnapolitain, the French adjective for Naples.

All right, F.K., you’re saying, you’re on one of your tears again.

Well, hell, yes, of course, because words have meanings and they matter, and the names of things, the names by which we know them — napoleons and carpaccio — have meanings and they matter. When those words and names are blurred and forgotten, we have lost something irreplaceable. When some master chef of the “Slicing and Dicing” class at the Culinary Institute of America blithely says, “O.K., apprentices, carpaccio those tomatoes for me and napoleon them on the plates,” we have doomed ourselves a little.

I’m just trying to keep that from happening quite so soon.

The image of the beef carpaccio at top is from abc.net.au; the second carpaccio (with truffles) is from atmospherebistro.com. The napoleon is from grahamdavies.net; Napoelon’s tomb is from sagarmatha.com. Thanks to all.

“I don’t like the French barrique,” said Enrico Dellapiana, making a round motion with his hands to indicate the shape of the famous 59-gallon oak barrels that play such an important part in the world’s winemaking. “They have no place with the logo.GIFnebbiolo grape or in Barbaresco.”

While producers all around him in Piedmont are turning to barriques to pump up the spice, vanilla and toastiness of their Barolos, Barbarescos and Barberas, at Dellapiana’s Cantina Rizzi estate in Treiso (cantinarizzi) you will find only large casks of Slavonian oak, once the traditional vehicle across much of northern Italian for aging red wine but now disappearing. By “large,” we mean 25 or 50 hectoliters or 660 or 1,320 gallons. The effect is to give the wine shape and maturity — Barbaresco is required to age two years in wood and two in bottle — without blatantly influencing flavor.

Dellapiana is in the eastern U.S. to promote the family’s Barbaresco wines. Cantina Rizzi, a young estate, founded in 1973, makes Barbera d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba, a chardonnay, two dessert wines and a grappa, but “Barbaresco is what we are about,” vini1.jpgDellapiana said. We’re having lunch at Cafe Society in Memphis, and I’ve ordered veal to go with the red wines. He’s showing three examples of his craft: The Barbaresco Riserva, a blend of several vineyards, and two single-vineyard wines, the Barbaresco Fondetta and the Barbaresco Boito, all from the terrific 2001 vintage. The wines are imported by Opici, in Glen Rock, N.J.

The immediately noticeable factor is that these Barbarescos are not dark purple but are a lovely, radiant deep garnet color. “This is the true color of the nebbiolo grape,” said Dellapiana, “which you don’t see much anymore. Barbaresco should not be heavily extracted or concentrated.”

The Rizzi Barbaresco Riserva 2001 offers aromas of cloves, dried raspberries and black cherries and macerated and roasted black fruit. Layers of subtlety and nuance provide a mouthful of dried spices, dried flowers and dried fruit that after a few moments in the glass expand into blueberry, rhubarb and Orange Pekoe tea. It’s a meditative wine, quiet, elegant yet powerful and vibrant, and it will drink beautifully from now through 2010 to ’12. About $32. Excellent.

The Rizzi Barbaresco Fondetta 2001 quickly escalates and intensifies every element. The color is slightly darker, more ruby/garnet, and tannins are dense, chewy, a little grainy, but the wine is still heady and seductive, utterly smooth and harmonious, revealing depths of complex spiciness and black fruit flavors and a substantial presence that forgoes some of the previous wine’s elegance for the sake of power and seriousness. Now through 2012 or ’13. 400 cases. About $42. Excellent. rizzi3_01.jpg

Third of the trio, the Rizzi Barbaresco Boito 2001 is riper, meatier and fleshier than the Fondetta, with lots of tobacco and lead pencil, a touch of black olive and fathoms of dark, spicy black currant and black cherry flavors. The wine is vibrant and resonant and hefty yet displays, paradoxically, beautiful balance and a sense of delicacy. Now through 2010 to ’14. 400 cases. About $42. Excellent.

These Barbarescos are perfect for roasted veal or lamb, game birds and hearty stews.

We all have dreams, right? Some people dream of success in politics or sports; others dream of winning Nobel Prizes in literature or medicine. Some people dream of reaching the pinnacles of romance and love and desire or of starring in films and becoming cirrus2.jpghousehold names. And then there are the people who dream of being famous for no discernible reasons.

Paul McCann’s dream was to make potato vodka in Richmond, Virginia.

And why not? If Pritchard can make rum in rural East Tennessee and Anchor can make gin in San Francisco, why shouldn’t Paul McCann be able to make vodka in Virginia. And so he did.

His company is called Parched Group and the vodka is Cirrus.

Now I will be the first to admit that I have never seen the point of vodka, except as a chaser to caviar, and there a thimbleful of ice-cold vodka is far superior to even the finest Champagne. But vodka, originally distilled from potatoes but legally made of any sort of grain or combination of grains, was for centuries the bath-tub gin of spirits, the fiery stuff distilled in the backyard or the back room or the barracks to satisfy the alcoholic needs of desperate hordes. How vodka became the iconic symbol of sophistication and the main prop of the Cocktail Nation is beyond the comprehension of one who prizes the infinite nuances of gin and the fathomless depths of scotch. Vodka’s advocates tout its mixability, a trait others may call mindlessness.

Still, vodka cannot be ignored, as new labels seem to be introduced every week, each one rigorously emphasizing aspects of frigidity, purity and perfect transparency. The texts on the bottles frequently boast that the vodka inside was distilled five times and filtered five times, sometimes through such materials as diamond dust or virgins’ blood. (I made that one up.) The idea is that cirrus1.jpgthe best, the most expensive, the so-called “super-premium” vodkas should have no nature whatever except for smoothness.

Cirrus, I’m happy to say, actually displays character. Rather than being made in a continuous still, the process by which most vodkas, even so-called super-premiums, are made, Cirrus is made in a traditional copper pot still, in which it is distilled three times. I don’t know how to describe its scent other than to say that it smells like snow; if you live in the North (I spent the first 10 years of my life in Rochester, N.Y.,) you’ll know what I mean. Then there’s a touch of citrus, a whiff of black pepper, a hint of some astringent white flower. In the mouth, the texture is smooth, to be sure, but almost cloud-like in softness and volume. The main thing is that Cirrus neither smells nor tastes like a doctor’s office, which is the flaw of many vodkas.

Suggested retail price for Cirrus Vodka is about $22, but inevitably production and distribution are limited. Check the company’s website — Cirrus — and ask Paul McCann when Cirrus will be available in your state.

Perhaps you remember the television commercials of the 1980s for Riunite and Cella Lambruscos, fizzy, grapey soda-pop wines from the western Emilia part of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. “Chill a Cella” and “Riunite on Ice — Very Nice” were the unforgettable lambrusco1_01.jpgslogans of those ads, which depicted the wines as mindless, fun babe-magnets. Americans drank millions of cases a year.

The Fontana dei Boschi Lambrusco 2004, produced by Vittorio Graziano in Modena, is not one of those wines, though it could be a magnet for babes who really like interesting wines. I got a bottle of this intriguing, serious effort from Gabrio Tosti’s De Vino store (de-vino) on Clinton Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Drink it with pork or lamb,” he said. I was skeptical, though the dignified, straightforward label certainly did not imply that it was anything like Cella or Riunite.

Last night, LL made a pasta of farfalle with cipollini onions, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli rabe and leftover grilled chicken. (It was great.) The bottle’s back label informed us that the wine is aged six to nine months in stainless steel tanks, put into bottles for a second fermentation (as in the classic Champagne manner) and then disgorged to clean bottles. Few Lambruscos — that’s also the name of the grape — today are made in this traditional manner, more typically being produced in the bulk method. When I opened the wine, it emitted a “POP” and a spew of lavender foam, and in the glass the effervescence persisted for several minutes before it subsided. The bottle is not closed with a Champagne-style cork and wire enclosure but with a regular cork that’s fatter at the bottom.

The Fontana dei Boschi Lambrusco 2004 is a rich, deep purple color with a dark ruby rim (see the picture above). It bursts with pure black raspberry and black cherry scents and flavors with a spicy black plum undertone and a touch of wild berry. The wine displays surprising tannin and structure; this is not a sweet, simple-minded little quaffer in any sense but a forthright and individual wine intended for hearty fare. It was delicious with the grilled chicken pasta and also at lunch today with tacos made of leftover grilled pork chops (we’re big into recycling, and I’ve been grilling outdoors a lot) with white bean puree and tomatilla salsa.

Fontana dei Boschi Lambrusco 2004 is brought into the U.S. by Lambrusco Imports, Spring Valley N.Y. At about $22, it’s definitely Worth a Search.

We’ve left Memorial Day behind and the Fourth of July looms ahead. Surely this month marks one of the most active grilling periods of the year. Whether its hamburgers or steaks, lamb chops (pictured here) or pork chops or the humble yet essential hot dog, red newchops_011.jpgmeat grilled outdoors over glowing coals requires red wine to go with it. And while it’s tempting sometimes to pull out a Big Gun of a wine — and I have succumbed to that temptation on many occasions — usually it’s best, most appropriate and most satisfying to serve a simple quaffer of a wine, something delicious and robust that we don’t have to worry our pretty little heads about.

So, here are notices about five of those wines. More complete reviews (and a couple of quaffable whites) are at koeppelonwine.com/Refrigerator_Door_Wines.asp.

1. Oak Grove Reserve Wines Petite Sirah 2005, California. Boldly-flavored with black fruit, hearty, full-bodied and spicy. About $8 or $9. red-red.jpg

2. Red Truck Red Wine 2005, California. Syrah, petite syrah, cabernet franc with dollops of mourvedre, grenache and merlot. A smorgasbord of grapes, yes, but a fruitful combination that’s ripe, fleshy, berry-like with well-shaped details. About $10

3. Castello di Gabbiano Chianti 2005, Tuscany. 90% sangiovese with touches of canaiolo and colorino. Simple, direct, lively, tasty chianti.jpgand an enviably pure and spicy expression of the sangiovese grape. Good with grilled meats of course but also with pizza and red sauce pastas that need an acidic wine to balance the tomatoes. About $10.

4. Robert Mondavi Private Selection Vinette 2005, California. I’ve never been a fan of Mondavi’s “Private Selection” line, but this blend of the five grapes that may go into red Bordeaux wines is an instant classic, a “little wine” with a big heart and an amazing bargain for the price, about $11. This has the tannic structure to take steak or leg of lamb.

5. Hey Mambo Sultry Red 2005, California. Another fruit-basket turn-over of red grapes, Hey Mambo seems to draw from Italian and southern French traditions for its lively and straightforward personality, its ripe dark berry flavors and plush texture and its shameless accessibility. This is from the madcaps at Don Sebastiani and Sons. About $12.

I will, by the way, be grilling pork chops tonight. What will we drink? Ah, now you’ve caught Mr. Glib in the act. I’m going to open Martini di Cigala’s San Giusto a Rentennano “La Ricolma” Merlot di Toscana 2003. Why? Because it’s there.

Here’s a test. What kind of wines do these descriptions, from the June 15, 2007, issue of The Wine Spectator, refer to? winespectatorlogo.gif

1. “Superripe and exotic, with layers of rich tropical fruit and hints of apple, melon and pineapple.”
2. “Unctuous and nectarlike, with layers of ripe apricot, peach, vanilla and butterscotch flavors.”
3. “Rich and concentrated, with a mix of buttery pear, fig and melon flavors.”
4. “Intense, spicy … with lush flavors of butterscotch, ripe peach, honey and golden raisin.”
5. “Ultrarich … with lots of depth and concentration to the fig, toasty oak, hazelnut and melon flavors.”
6. “Spicy and rich, with loads of ripe apricot, candied orange and pineapple flavors.”
7. “Rich, creamy … with vanilla, pear and fig flavors.”
8. “Very elegant … with lots of ripe peach, pear, baked apple and spice flavors.”
9. “A rich … core of pear, apple and spicy fruit, … roasted marshmallow taste on the finish.”
10. “Very spicy … with dried fig, baked pineapple and ripe apple flavors … flanked by floral and creamy notes.”

Ready? The answer is that 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 describe highly-rated chardonnays from California; 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 refer to top-rated dessert wines from Austria. That’s right, dry table wines meant to be consumed with food like salmon or tuna and luxurious sweet wines meant to be savored at the end of a meal with dessert (or by themselves) are reviewed in much the same terms.

Perplexed? Puzzled? Nonplussed?

Don’t be. The tasters at WS have always preferred their California chardonnays to be so over-oaked, so super-rich and creamy, so tropical and toasty, so filled with pies and cakes and roasted fruit that to sensible folk they’re undrinkable travesties of what chardonnay should be. But WS gives the high scores; winemakers pay attention; people who like wines that pay homage to the grapes they’re made from lose.

Whew, I’m getting bored with California chardonnay. I’ll stay off this topic for a bit.

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