April 2008

This post is not exactly about strict “regular” and “reserve” wines but about three wines made from the same three grapes at decidedly different levels of achievement.

Depending on the wine and the region, Italy’s wine regulations sometimes favor 100 percent varietal wines for reds — sangiovese for Brunello di Montalcino, for example, and nebbiolo for Barolo — or permit blending, as in Chianti Classico, where a minimum of 75 percent sangiovese may be supplemented with the traditional red canaiolo grape, the nontraditional cabernet sauvignon, merlot sartori3.jpg and syrah, and two percent white grapes.

Another Italian red wine made from a combination of grapes is Amarone, a rare — it should be more rare — wine produced, in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, from grapes that are dried in special boxes in temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers. (The grapes are no longer dried on straw or wicker pallets.) The drying process deepens the color, the flavor and the tannins of the wine; pressing the grapes and fermentation, which usually occurs in January after the harvest, takes longer than with typical grapes and wines. A great Amarone offers tremendous depth and body and intensity.

Traditionally, the grapes permitted in Amarone are (mainly) corvino, rondinella and (the least amount) molinara, though after 2005 the blend was required to be up to 80 percent corvino and corvinone with rondinella anywhere from 5 to 30 percent.sartori11.jpg Interestingly, the same grapes go into the usually simple and direct Valpolicella as go into Amarone, the difference being the site of the better vineyards in more amenable areas, meaning not on the plains.

So, today we’re looking at three wines from Sartori di Verona, a producer that frankly does not achieve the apotheosis of these wines — we’re not talking about Allegrini or Quintarelli — but that nonetheless makes wines that are thoroughly authentic and enjoyable; Sartori’s single-vineyard Corte Bra’ Amarone attains pretty high levels of quality. Prices for all three of these wines are very attractive.

To begin at the basic station, the Sartori Vigneti di Montegradella Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2004 — 50% corvina, 40% rondinella, 10% molinara — teems with notes of black currants and plums, potpourri and tar; it’s dense and chewy in the mouth, bursting with rollicking spice and vibrant acid, ripe and intense black fruit flavors permeated by black tea, orange zest and dried herbs. The wine ages 15 months in Slavonian oak casks, so the structure is firm without being sodden with woody elements. A terrific wine to drink with hearty red sauce pasta dishes, beef and game. I rate it Very good, and at about $13, it’s a Great Bargain. 1,064 cases imported.

The Sartori Amarone della Valpolicella 2003, which ages two-and-a-half-years in Slavonian oak casks, is deep, rich and spicy, sartori2.jpg dense and earthy and minerally, packed with spice and black currant and plum flavors with a touch of bitter chocolate and dried flowers. The flavors are ripe and roasted, a little raisiny; vivid acid cuts a swath across the palate for an invigorating effect. The wine is, it goes without saying, quite dry, almost formidably so, and the finish is long, spicy, substantial and austere. Drink now with robust fare or wait until 2009 or ’10 to 2012 to ’15. I rate this Very good+. About $34.

The single-vineyard Sartori Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Corte Bra’ 2001 — a great year in northern Italy — is almost port-like in its intensity, vibrancy and smoky, spicy character, though it’s not sweet, only super-ripe and dimensional. Black currant jam and plum marmalade flavors are infused with cinnamon and cloves, sandalwood and orange rind, lavender and licorice. The blend here is slightly different, with 60% corvina, 30% rondinella and the same 10% molinara. The wine ages a staggering four years in Slovenian oak casks and another year in small French barrels, yet the result is not a wine that’s over-oaked and woody but one that has absorbed that wood and remained firm and structured, powerful and dynamic. Start to drink this in 2010 and keep at it through 2015 or ’18. Cases produced: 2,500. I rate this Excellent. About $41.

These wines are imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y. Visit banfi.com.

… but really, wine tends to take a truck or a ship.

A story in The New York Times Business Day section yesterday (Saturday, April 26), headlined “Some Carbon With Your Kiwi?” discusses the carbon-imprint of transporting food-stuffs around the world in an era in which Americans and Europeans consume fruit and vegetables from a variety of far-flung countries; thus, the notion of seasonality becomes obsolete and the carbon song of the open road footprint expands.

For a chart depicting a comparison of carbon dioxide emissions, the story uses a bottle of wine shipped to New York from the Loire Valley in France and a bottle shipped to New York from the Napa Valley in California. Guess which shipment produces the larger carbon footprint?

That’s right, the bottle of wine send to New York from California produces more carbon dioxide.

Here’s the comparison:

At the cultivation level, there’s little difference, 210 grams of carbon dioxide per bottle in the Loire Valley, 214 in the Napa Valley; this involved the energy used in managing the vineyard. The fermentation process, which naturally results in carbon dioxide, is the same for both regions: 109 grams of carbon dioxide per bottle. Also the same is the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the operation of the winery in energy: 132 grams each. In the “Containers” category, however, the Napa Valley pulls ahead, mainly because the barrels that most wineries use to age their wines have to be transported from France; the comparison is Loire Valley 473, Napa Valley 633.

The biggest discrepancy, though, lies in transportation. Shipping one bottle of wine from California to New York produces 1,426 Slow boat to New York grams of carbon dioxide, because the wine is transported by truck. Sending a bottle of wine from the Loire Valley, on the other hand, produces only 447 grams of carbon dioxide, because most of the transportation occurs on a container ship.

The total is 1,371 grams of carbon dioxide to ship a bottle of wine from the Loire Valley to New York, 2,514 grams to send a bottle of wine from California to New York, almost twice as much.

Obviously New Yorkers who are thinking green ought to drink French wine, or European wine generally, and avoid wine from the West Coast. Californians should eschew French wines, not out of patriotism but because those wines have to be shipped from the East Coast by truck. Of course if New Yorkers really want to be green, they would drink the wines of their own state, a possibility that just about everybody in New York finds incomprehensible. You’ll find New York state wines on the lists of restaurants in New York City as often as you might find wines from Ukraine. Part of that problem, aside from snobbery and provincialism, is that the wines of New York state, particularly from the premium wineries on Long Island, which make very good wine indeed, tend to be more expensive than their counterparts from the West Coast, even factoring in the shipping expense.

As for those of us in the great heartland of the United States of America, we’ll just have to pay the price for the diminished dollar and the costs of transportation and the carbon footprints left all over the landscape by bottles of wine and the dismal future of humankind. Not to mention the tomatoes shipped by truck from Mexico.

Images courtesy of kenstrailersandtires.com and paradise.caltech.edu.

Reading about gewurztraminer wines doesn’t prepare you for their utter freshness and exuberance, their titillating rose petal-lychee-lime-grapefruit character, the scintillating, crystalline acid, the startling bitterness of the finish. At least I wasn’t really prepared for those qualities, all of which I had dutifully read about, when I tried my first example, this Clos du Bois Early labels_011.jpg Harvest Gewurztraminer 1979, from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. Of course what I had mainly been reading about were the classic models from Alsace, but I couldn’t find any of those.

We drank this on May 24 and 25, 1983, so the wine was already three-and-a-half years old, but it was completely fresh and vigorous, “fragrant, flowery, a little spicy, refreshing” (quoting from these 25-year-old notes). It went down easily with lunch: grilled sausages, tomato aspic, deviled eggs and cold broccoli with homemade mayonnaise. Notice the price: $7.84.

A few weeks later, around June 17-19, we tried another gewurztraminer with the first part of Father’s Day dinner, the Mirassou Harvest Reserve Gewurztraminer 1981, Monterey County. “Selected for a Limited Bottling” runs the legend on the white banner at the top of the label. This was ripe and robust, full-bodied and full-flavored, “well-balanced with a good finish … but not as spicy as the Clos du Bois,” which seemed, on the other hand, more delicate and fine-boned. Some of this wine accompanied a labels_02.jpg sherry-pea soup followed by filet of flounder with hollandaise sauce. Note the price: $6.89.

Other wines we tried between the last entry in this chronicle (the Grgich Hills Johannisberg Riesling 1979, Napa Valley) and the Mirassou Harvest Reserve Gewurztraminer 1981:

Cuvee Saint Andre Coteaux du Tricastin 1979 ($4.59)
Folonari Valpolicella NV(?) ($3.50)
Chateau La Cardonne 1978, Medoc (7.95)
Chateau Guiraud-Cheval Blanc 1978, Cotes de Bourg ($5.37)
J. Pedroncelli Chenin Blanc 1981, Sonoma County ($5.49)
Nicolas Croze-Hermitage 1977 ($4.58)
Domaine des Sauvignons 1981, Cotes de Blaye ($4.49)
Chateau Malijay Cotes du Rhones 1979 ($4.14)
J. Pedroncelli Gewurztraminer 1981, Sonoma County ($5.99)

I don’t know what the weather is like in your neck o’ the woods, but here in what’s called the Mid-South, the corner where Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas touch — well Tennessee and Arkansas don’t touch because this big-ass river flows between —
the weather is absolutely gorgeous (after inordinate rain), and I wish it would never get hotter, as vain a wish as humankind ever twinvines_family_small.jpg made, because by July here it will be insufferable.

Anyway, since the clime is mild and pleasant and enjoyable, I offer six white wines, ranging from about $9 to about $20, that will serve you well in this transitional season.

Let’s start with Twin Vines Vinho Verde 2007, from the sprawling Vinho Verde (“green wine”) region of northern Portugal, which, oddly, lies to the north (mainly the north) and south of the Douro river and intrudes between the port vineyards and the coastal town of Oporto that is the center of the port trade. So, after that little geography lesson, this Vinho Verde ’07, made by the Jose Maria da Fonseca winery, is exactly what you want in this wine; it’s notably clean and crisp, slightly effervescent, light, delicate and refreshing in its lemon-lime, grapefruit and limestone elements with a hint of talc and gunpowder. Yeah, it sort of tickles the grigio_01.jpg nose. The grape varieties are loureiro 42%, trajadura 39%, pederna 19%. A simple and charming aperitif. Good+. About $9. Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, Florida.

The Vino dei Fratelli Pinot Grigio delle Venezia 2006 is as good as many examples at twice the price. It’s quite dry and crisp, weaving a dominant lemon character with a hint of lemon balm, with cloves, almond and almond blossom and a bit of dried thyme and tarragon. The texture is attractively silky, almost powdery, yet the wine displays crackling acid for backbone and a tide of limestone on the finish. Very Good, and at about $9, a Great Bargain. Imported by Quintessential, Napa, California.

Here’s an unusual blend of white grapes. Pillar Box White 2006, produced by Henry’s Drive in the Padthaway region of South Australia, combines 66% chardonnay with 20% sauvignon blanc and 14% of the Spanish verdelho variety. The result is a wine that feels pale gold and green in every respect, in color, of course, but also (trying to perform a feat of synesthesia by translating color into smell) in its jasmine and honeysuckle scents accented by roasted lemon, lime peel, pink grapefruit and pear. It’s pretty heady stuff. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of almond and almond blossom, yellow plum, damp stone. Incredibly crisp and deftly balanced, the acid chimes like a gong though the wine’s texture is dense, almost lush. This was terrific with grilled swordfish marinated with soy sauce, lime juice and zest, garlic and freshly grated ginger. Very good+, and at about $12, it’s another Great Bargain. Imported by Quintessential, Napa, California.

There’s a hint of coyness about the label of the Clayhouse Adobe White 2007, Central Coast. If you add up the percentages of the blend of grapes listed on the label — chenin blanc 34%, chardonnay 17%, roussanne 16%, viognier 11% — the keen-eyed among you will notice that the figures come only to 78 percent. The missing 22 percent is made of princess grapes, a variety not sanctioned as legal for making wine by the federal TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Will the grape ever be permitted on the roster of “real” wine grapes; one’s reaction could be, “Oh, who cares?” but the princess grape certainly lends this spare, almost elegant wine interesting touches of spice and fresh flowers, a sort of amalgam of cloves, roses and jasmine. The wine also offers orange blossom and pear, a hint of lush peach balanced by the slight astringency of grapefruit and a cool mineral element. A little sweetness comes across as juicy ripeness. The roussanne is given a little oak; the rest of the wine was made in stainless steel. This goes down almost too easily; LL and I drank the bottle standing in the kitchen, eating manchego 07_sauv_blanc_large.jpg cheese and flatbread while trying to decide what to have for dinner after one of those long days at work. Um, I’m not sure what we ever decided. Very Good. About $15.

I’m an unabashed fan of the X Winery ES Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County. For 2007, the wine is tremendously clean, fresh and crisp, boldly spicy and flavorful without resorting to the brash vegetal and herbal excesses with which sauvignon blancs from New Zealand can sometimes assault us. Not that the X Winery ES Sauvignon Blanc 2007 doesn’t just jump from the glass with sprightly notes of pear and melon, lime peel and jasmine, hints of mango and grapefruit, and not that it doesn’t practically vibrate in the glass, it’s so ringingly resonant, but that vibrancy and resonance derive from the purity and intensity of the grape and its minimal treatment in stainless steel, its shimmery luster of minerality. Almost too exciting to use as an aperitif, this would hugel_riesling.jpg be great with grilled shrimp or mussels or with trout served with lemon-butter and capers. Very good+ About $17.

I served the Hugel et fils Riesling “Hugel” 2005, Alsace, with a pick-up pasta of penne with roasted chicken, roasted red pepper, green olives and chopped kale. This venerable firm’s “Hugel” wines are not estate-produced but are made from purchased grapes derived from long-term contracts, and there’s not a thing wrong with that procedure. This riesling is very dry, crisp and clean, and its tasty lemon and lemon balm flavors, infused with lime and grapefruit, are bolstered with bastions of damp limestone and chalk. The wine is quite spicy, and it displays a hint of the grape’s requisite “petrol” character with touches of pear and, less distinctly, peach. Well-made and attractive. Very good+. About $19 or $20 is the usual price, though on the Internet I have seen a range from $16.50 to $22. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

There’s a pretty funny story in The New York Times this morning, in the Business Day section, by writer Harry Hurt III, who attends a class at the New York Bartending School. The instructor, James Bumbery, is described as “tall and lean with round horn-rimmed spectacles and a dark green beret” who has “over a decade of hospitality industry experience.” Over a decade of cartoonbar_01.jpg hospitality industry experience! That’s a confidence booster! I think I would prefer to be instructed by a short guy named Guido who learned his craft in the brothels of Montevideo in the 1950s.

In any case, the article made me wonder what the criteria are for a great bartender, the kind of bartender who keeps you coming back to the same bar.

Of course a great bartender knows the recipes and techniques for preparing many cocktails and highballs, so a meticulous memory is essential, but the same quality applies to any bartender, whether great or ordinary. Any bartender should know the different glasses and garnishes appropriate for the range of cocktails and highballs; any bartender should know that cocktails with fruit juice are shaken, but cocktails without fruit juice are stirred (Are you listening?) No, there’s something more to a great bartender than merely the knowledge of the bright and gratifying panoply of cocktails and other intoxicating drinks. A chemist — or, dear god, a “mixologist” — can turn out a perfect Harvey Wallbanger.

The great bartender, on the other hand, must lightly balance a seemingly paradoxical set of qualities. He — or she, but I’ll get to this issue in a moment — must display tremendous speed and dexterity and power of focus while, at the same time, maintaining an effortless aura of congeniality and engagement that, on the other hand, must never seem too intimate, too confiding or cajoling. A bartender may be conversational, but he must never commit to a topic; a bartender may be sympathetic, but he must also be detached. The bartender is not your shrink, not your college room-mate. And in that sense, the customer must not ask too much of the bartender, must not entice the bartender to step across the line of service into the morass of servitude or, even worse, the skittish realm of Friendship.

The relationship between bartender and patron is cordial but formal; each party knows his duties and the pleasures that attend them. That’s what makes going to an excellent bar with a great bartender such a rewarding part of life.

I mentioned the issue of women bartenders. There’s no reason why women can’t be great bartenders except that most men, being congenital jerks, bounders and cads, won’t let them. Men react to and challenge women bartenders in ways that they don’t react to or challenge male bartenders, and that situation upsets what should be the comfortable dynamics of a bar. It’s rarely the fault of the female bartender; it’s usually the fault of the male patron who tries to impress her. Look, you’re not sitting in a bar to impress someone; you’re sitting in a bar to enjoy a drink, a contemplative moment, a conversation with friends. So no hitting on the bartender!

Guido wouldn’t put up with that shit for an instant.

Cartoon images from topshelfservices.com.

A bulletin recently published by the Office of Champagne and the Center for Wine Origins carries the title — or “hed,” as we call it in the Worshipful Company of Ink-Stain’d Wretches — “Poll Shows Majority of U.S. Wine Purchasers Against Misleading Labels.” korbelnvchardchamp-w.jpg

One would think that this issue would fall into the category of “It Goes Without Mention.” I mean, isn’t this rather like saying “Poll Shows Majority of Major League Baseball Players Against Random Drug Testing” or “Poll Shows Majority of Vegans Against Beating Baby Seals to Death”?

Anyway, according to the report, “79% agree that consumers deserve protection from deceptive claims on food and beverage labels.” Only 63 percent, however, would “support a law prohibiting misleading labels because they believe it is the best way to protect the names of wine regions around the world, including domestic names such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County.” (I love how pollsters word their questions.) You have to wonder who the 21 percent are who do not agree that consumers deserve protection from deceptive claims on food and beverage labels or the 37 percent who would not support a law prohibiting misleading labels because they believe it is the best way to protect the names of wine regions around the world etc etc. What are they feeding their children?

The Center for Wine Origins is based in Washington D.C. Financed by the European Union and the governments of France, Spain and Portugal, the CWO’s purpose is to lobby on behalf of the regions of Champagne, Sherry and Port against misuse of those andre_champagne.jpg widely-known terms, meaning that only products made in those regions should be called Champagne or Port or Sherry. How serious is the problem? Says the CWO: “47% of the U.S. sparkling wine market is dominated by products mislabeled ‘champagne.'” And: “4 out of every 5 bottles of ‘Sherry’ sold in our country are not products of Jerez, Spain.”

Now either the semantics or the logic is a little fuzzy here. If “47% of the U.S. sparkling wine market is dominated by products mislabeled ‘champagne,'” than 53 percent of the products are not mislabeled champagne, right? So actually the U.S. sparkling wine market is not dominated by mislabeled labels. Or am I missing the point?

But let’s get to the real point. Sparkling wine made anywhere in the world other than Champagne should not be labeled as such, and the same principle applies to Port and Sherry, as well as Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja and any other wine named after and associated with a definite place; those place names evoke a sense of history, tradition, technique and style that are inseparable from those places. In 2006, after years of negotiating with the EU, the United States agreed that no new labels of sparkling wine produced within our borders could use the term Champagne. The truth is that reputable producers of traditionally-made (that is in the Champagne manner of second fermentation in the bottle) sparkling wine in California, Oregon, Washington and other states had long ago abandoned the use of the name.

But large producers of bulk sparkling wines, such as E.& J. Gallo, Korbel and Cook’s, were grandfathered into the deal, so that cooksgrandreserve.jpg millions of gallons of sparkling wines made in tanks and often selling for as little as $4 a bottle, as with Gallo’s Andre Champagne — the best-selling brand of sparkling wine in the country — were allowed to use the term.

By the way, urbandictionary.com lists (lower case) “andre champagne” as a verb meaning to pop open a bottle of sparkling wine, hit a girl in the eye with the cork and douse her with the foaming beverage, as in “Hey, dude, let’s andre champagne those babes!” I have simply got to get out more.

All right, let’s go ahead and say that it’s unfair that Gallo and Korbel and Cook’s are allowed to use “champagne” on their labels in defiance of the wishes of the EU and the ancient houses of Champagne. But before the CWO gets too much in a twitter, let’s remember that the person who is suddenly conscience-stricken and decides not to fling down four georges for his Andre Champagne because it is mislabled is not going to turn around and drop 50 big ones on a bottle of Pol Roger. It’s a matter of price and perspective. Pol Roger and Taittinger and Roederer and all the other venerable Champagne houses are just not going to capture the Andre market, no matter how the labels look or how they are worded.

On the other hand, a guy could be so bitter nowadays that even a bottle of Andre might look pretty good.

….. that came from a local wholesale distributor, I found a couple of bottles from the Abbey Saint-Hilaire in Limoux, a producer unknown to me.

You never know what you’re going to get when a friend in the wholesale wine business calls and says, “Hey, I have two or three boxes of wine for you.” Of course most of it will be recent releases, because the wholesalers want to get their new wines some attention. Wholesalers always, however, have cases or two or half a case of older releases, wines maybe one or two years past the current vintage or just stuff that they couldn’t sell; this friend likes to tuck a few bottles like these in with the other wines. Sometimes the result is a treasure that I otherwise would never have encountered, like the August Kesseler Riesling Kabinett 2004 mentioned in the previous post.

These examples from Abbey Saint-Hilaire turned out to be not only interesting but intriguing and quite good.

Limoux, in the foothills of the Pyrennes, is the western-most wine appellation in the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region of The Abbey Saint-Hilaire in Limoux southwest France. The small area is known mainly for sparkling wines, the production of which goes all the way back to 1531 at the Abbey Saint-Hilaire. Known as Blanquette de Limoux, these sparkling wines are made primarily from the local mauzac grape, with the contemporary addition of chardonnay and chenin blanc. In 1993, a revision of the appellation rules was permitted to allow the production of still white wine, of which the dominant grape is chardonnay, though 15 percent of the blend must be mauzac; a small amount of chenin blanc is also allowed. In 2005, red blends once labeled Vins de Pays de la Haute Vallee de l’Aude were elevated to the Limoux appellation; the wines must contain 50 percent merlot and at least 30 percent of a blend of carignan, cot (malbec), syrah and grenache.

The impressive abbey was founded early in the Seventh Century; the first recorded mention is in 825. Saint Hilaire — his feast-day is celebrated by stand-up comics — was the first bishop of Carcassonne, the romantic castle-town that lies about 18 miles to the north of Limoux.

The Abbey Sainte-Hilaire Chardonnay 2005 is identifiably chardonnay, but the presence of the mauzac and chenin blanc grapes lends exotic touches. The color is pale straw-gold with green highlights. The bouquet is clean and fresh, with notes of spiced apple, pear and roasted lemon. The wine is crisp but slightly plush, slightly powdery in texture; scintillating acid and a limestone element that’s like the essence of mineral transparency add up to lovely weight and balance. A few minutes in the glass bring up touches of spiced peaches, dried herbs and flowers, with, on the finish, a hint of grapefruit bitterness. At its peak now, the wine should drink beautifully through the end of 2008 or into the first months of 2009. I rate it Excellent, but I’ll hold off on mentioning the price.

The Abbey Saint-Hilaire Red Table Wine 2004 is a blend of 50 percent merlot, 20 percent each syrah and malbec and 10 percent b289634.jpg cabernet sauvignon; hmmm, that combination doesn’t quite conform to the regulation but whatever. This is a really charming and individual wine, bursting with notes of black cherries, plums, blackberries and mulberries, all steeped in a melange of cinnamon, cloves and dark cocoa powder; a bit of candied rhubarb comes in at the top, over cranberry tart. The wine is quite dry, intense and concentrated yet generous, rather yielding after a few minutes. The finish gathers elements of chewy tannins for a show of power. Drink through 2010. I rate the wine Very Good+

We were tasting these wines in the kitchen as I made the pizza for Saturday Pizza and Movie Night — we watched a very very very depressing French movie called Personal Property, starring Isabelle Huppert at her most wan and sad and dissatisfied — and I said to LL, “You know, these wines are terrific, but they just have the feeling to me of being expensive.” I mean, they have a certain amount of class and character, and they come in heavy bottles with gold stamping instead of paper labels. They look significant.

The truth? Prices on the Internet are $11 to $15. Go for it.

We were putting together dinner Thursday night. I was making a pasta with some leftover pot-roast I had prepared last weekend, but not just any pot-roast. This hunk of beef was slow-cooked with a puree of dried ancho chilies, chipotle peppers with adobo sauce, coffee, lime, garlic and onions. Have mercy! I chopped some of the remaining beef, scrapped what was left of the puree into the pan with it and gradually added a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes. It all made an intensely flavorful sauce for penne pasta. The recipe is in The Best of Gourmet: Sixty-Five Years, Sixty-Five Favorite Recipes (Random House, $40); it was intended for short ribs but certainly worked with the roast.

Anyway, LL brought a carton of kumquats from the grocery store. These curious little orangey-yellow fruits, with their tasty but bracing, bitter citrus tang, originated in China, but their small, shrubby trees are now cultivated there and in Japan, Taiwan, 22969052.jpg Argentina, Brazil, Cyprus and the United States. The kumquat is not a true citrus fruit but belongs in the same Rutaceae family. (This information comes from the invaluable New Oxford Book of Food Plants, Oxford University Press, 1997; no home serious about food and ingredients should be without it.)

We had worked with kumquats years ago, when we prepared Charlie Trotter’s Wok-Smoked Catfish with Sweet-and-Sour Fennel and Kumquat Sauce for a dinner party; this is a great dish! It’s in The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter (Ten Speed Press, 1999), a book with recipes designed for cooking at home. Anyway, this recipe recommends simmering the kumquats in water three separate times to remove some of the bitterness. LL did that, chopped the kumquats, which by now were pretty soft, and whisked them into a lemon and olive oil dressing. I guess I shouldn’t call the dressing a vinaigrette since we rarely use vinegar in salad dressings; using freshly squeezed lemon juice makes salads easier to eat with wine.

The salad consisted of a variety of fresh greens, sliced cucumbers and the kumquat dressing, which had chunks of kumquat in it. images.jpg It was a terrific salad, made even better by the wine we sipped with it, the August Kesseler Riesling Lorcher Schlossberg Kabinett 2004, from Rheingau. At three-and-a-half years old, this riesling was soft, round and blossomy, offering a weaving of pear, peach, lime and lime peel with hints of jasmine and rose petal. In the mouth, the wine is crisp and just off-dry, more ripe and bright and vivacious than sweet; the finish brings in clean but slightly earthy limestone. The primary impression is of lovely subtlety, of a breezy wreathing of delicacies. It was lovely, also, with the salad, the wine matching and even taming the citric vividness of the kumquat-and-lemon dressing, the slight bitterness of the kumquat adding a hint of dimension to the wine. I rate the wine Very Good+. The price is about $25 to $30. The wines of this estate are brought to the U.S. by August Kesseler Import Co. in Chicago.

With the “pot-roast” pasta, we drank the Parson’s Flat Shiraz Cabernet 2004, produced by Henry’s Drive Vignerons in Australia’s parsons.jpg Padthaway region. The blend is 70 percent shiraz, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon. The wine ages 16 to 18 months in large and small barrels, 75 percent American, 24 percent French. This is a very big but well-mannered red wine, very ripe, quite dense and chewy, very spicy, quite vibrant with acid. It delivers mint and eucalyptus, black raspberries covered with bittersweet chocolate and layered with blackberries, plums and a touch of super-ripe boysenberry. This all sounds flamboyant (like an over-the-top zinfandel), but the package, while expressive almost to the point of exuberance, is nicely controlled by dry, slightly gritty tannins that load the finish with austerity. Delicious now with hearty fare, the wine could age a couple of years and drink well through 2012 or ’14. I rate it Excellent. The price is about $40. Henry’s Drive wines are imported by Quintessential in Napa, Ca.

The kumquat picture is from jupiterimages.com.

People collect all sorts of things, from Beanie Babies to books about baseball to Bugattis. Serious collectors employ various methods to take care of their precious objects. If you can afford to collect Bugattis, then you have a special garage and a mechanic to tinker with them constantly. Book collectors enclose their valued volumes in acid-free wrappers and keep them in dust-free bookcases. Collectors of Beanie Babies display their acquisitions inside glass cabinets.

And wine collectors have temperature-controlled cellars, with humidity levels closely monitored, because great wines have to be carefully tended if they are to survive.

I mention these matters because an advertisement in Wednesday’s New York Times “Dining” section touted “The Greatest Collection of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Sotheby’s Has Ever Offered” … “a range of the greatest vintages from 1947-2004.” This auction of 1985romaneeconti60percent.gif “Magnificent Bordeaux and Burgundy from an Important Private Cellar” occurs in New York on April 10.

The wines listed are very impressive. I’m low-balling here; the wines are mind-boggling. Three bottles of Romanee-Conti 1959; six magnums of Romanee-Conti 1971; 4 magnums of La Tache 1971; two magnums of Richebourg 1949 and so on. The Domaine de la Romanee-Conti or DRC, is probably the single best-known and, in some estimations, the single best, wine estate in the world, and Romanee-Conti is that estate’s most esteemed vineyard.

Notice the estimated auction prices: Those three bottles of Romanee-Conti ’59 — $25,000-$35,000. The four magnums of La Tache ’71 — $32,500-$50,000. Higher by far, however, even higher than the most valued and sought after Bordeaux wines, like a case of Chateau Petrus 1961 ($55,000-$85,000), is the estimate for the six magnums (equivalent to a case of wine) of Romanee-Conti 1971:

$110,000 to $170,000.

Even if the bidding reaches only $150,000, that’s $25,000 a bottle.

And here’s what I have to say about that, all considerations of money, thrift, recession, ostentation aside: The wine will die.

Of all the objects that people collect, of all the grail-quest pursuits of fanatics and obsessives, whether pieces of string or books printed between 1485 and 1500 (known by the euphonious term incunabula) or the drawings of Rembrandt or the photographs of William Eggleston or tickets to long-lost vaudeville theaters, only wine is eminently perishable, only wine by degrees will inevitably diminish and lose its powers and its primary raison d’etre by becoming undrinkable, and the collector (or his anticipatory descendants) will be left with bottles of worthless liquid. This fate will occur even to wines that are perfectly cared for in the most meticulously maintained cellars.

Of course we read about the fabulous tastings of (mainly) Bordeaux red wines that include vintages going back to the 1860s and 1870s (or nowadays perhaps the early 20th century) in which the wines retain some body and weight and character or, more miraculously, seem young and vigorous. Wouldn’t we all like to have been invited to those events! I don’t have a great deal of experience with old wines, but I have tasted Beychevelle back to 1893 and Haut-Brion back to sometime in the 1930s; the wines were pretty wonderful, and educational, and I’m glad that I was allowed to participate in those tastings.

Think of the gamble, though. Factors like storage, transportation and bad corks can affect the quality of wine, of course, but the most stringent judgment that faces any bottle of wine, even more stringent than the estimation of critics, is the judgment of time itself. The arc of a great wine’s development, maturity and decline may vary from wine to wine and from vintage to vintage and from bottle to bottle (the other factors taken into account), but that arc cannot be avoided nor its implacability denied. The amount of money spent on a bottle of wine, whether $25 or $25,000, will not protect the wine from the certainty of its fate.

The lesson should be clear: Drink the stuff before it’s too late.