May 2008


LL no longer eats lamb or veal, so when she is traveling, on one night I’ll often buy lamb or veal chops and sit down with a phalanx of red wines to try with some of my favorite meats. She was out of town recently, so I got three small but thick loin lamb chops, sauteed them simply with rosemary, salt and pepper in a dab of olive oil (in the good old iron skillet), roasted a couple of potatoes and dutifully steamed a handful of green beans, which I actually ate, I promise.

Looking through the wine shelves and boxes at home, I grabbed six bottles, not really thinking about place or origin; I just wanted predominantly cabernet sauvignon wines. Turns out that two were from the Columbia Valley in Washington State, one from matthews_022.jpg Australia’s Padthaway region and three were from the Napa Valley. Or without thinking about prices, which turned out to range from fairly expensive to outright expensive. On the other hand, the wines were excellent. While with one exception the alcohol levels were all above 14 percent (and what’s not nowadays), the wines were balanced and integrated, with none of the flamboyant toasty oak or excessive ripeness that render so many contemporary red wines questionable.

What is it about lamb and cabernet/merlot-based wines that makes them so amenable, so fated, as it were, to a marriage made in culinary heaven? Lamb is fatty, ripe itself in the way that good fresh meat can be ripe, a little earthy and gamy (it’s “wilder” than beef or pork) and, in the way that great beef has, it possesses a mineral quality that the heat of the flame brings out. Wines composed solely or mainly of cabernet sauvignon or merlot offer, in their own vinous ways, very similar qualities: the richness and ripeness, the “fat,” the mineral elements. Sometimes I like pinot noir with lamb, but most of the time, give me cabernet or merlot.

These wines are mentioned in the order of tasting.

*The blend of the Matthews Cellars Claret 2004, Columbia Valley, is 55% cabernet sauvignon, 22% merlot, 18% cabernet franc, 4% malbec and 1% syrah. The color is dusky ruby-purple; the bouquet wafts a seductive strain of lavender and licorice, ripe, fleshy, meaty and dusty black currant and black raspberry. The wine is dense and chewy, smooth and mellow, packed with smoke and spice and minerals; after a few minutes in the glass, it opens earthy layers of underbrush and forest floor, polished oak and fairly gritty tannins. It’s a lovely red wine, accessible and delicious yet capable of aging through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About matthews_01.jpg $32.

*Notice how the combination of grapes on the Matthews Red Wine 2003, Columbia Valley, is similar to the blend of the previous wine but without the malbec and syrah; this is 53% cabernet sauvignon, 26% cabernet franc and 21% merlot. The first impression is of an incredible and heady smoldering heap of bitter chocolate, mint and eucalyptus, cedar and smoke, potpourri, lavender and sandalwood. Then the fruit comes up in a welter of macerated and roasted black currants, black cherries and plums. It’s a high-strung wine, taut with acid, energized by minerals, but still dense and cushiony, lavish with firm oak and grainy tannins that gain power and substance as moments pass. Try from 2009 through 2012 to ’15. 823 cases. Excellent. About $60.

*Made from 100% cabernet grapes, Henry’s Drive Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Padthaway, delivers the towering heft and darkness henry.jpg of a softly cloaked monument. This is a wine of piercing purity and intensity, huge and vibrant, deeply imbued with dusty oak and grainy tannins and seething with earthy, mossy, forest floor qualities and a resonant mineral element that lends the wine tremendous dynamism. Fruit falls into the realm of rich, ripe and fleshy black currants and black raspberries with touches of mint and eucalyptus and toasted Asian spices channeling licorice and lavender. For all its size and complexity, the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated. Try now, served with barbecue brisket or chili-rubbed pork chops and such fare, from 2010 to 2015 or ’16. Case production was 1,150. Excellent. About $37. Great stuff.
The wines of Henry’s Drive Vignerons, which include Henry’s Drive, Parson’s Flat, Pillar Box and Dead Letter Office, are imported by Quintessential, Napa, California.

*Merryvale Vineyards no longer offers a “reserve” designation, under which this wine would previously have fallen. The level is now the “Signature Tier,” though that term does not occur on the label. In any case, the Signature Tier wines find a niche between the less expensive “Starmont” line and the top-of-the-line Profile and Silhouette.
The Merryvale Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 is composed largely of grapes that would have gone into the Profile, had Profile been made in 2005. Produced from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and aged 18 months in French oak, 32% new barrels, this feels like classic Napa Valley cabernet. It’s deep, rich and lush, dark as the night that covers us from pole to pole, a serious, intense and concentrated wine. The bouquet is woven from walnut shell and wheatmeal, mocha, cedar and tobacco and — give it a few minutes — aromas of tightly wound black currant and black cherry. The wine is huge in the mouth, notably tannic , earthy and minerally, bursting with spice, and yet for its size, it delivers a remarkable degree of finesee; it’s almost light on its feet. Of this group of wines, it’s the one that cried “Rib-eye steak, please, hot and crusty from the grill!” Drink 2010 through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $50.

*My first note on the Bourassa Vineyards Symphony3 Proprietors Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley, is “Wow, what a mouthful of wine.” This producer believes in strenuous oak treatment, as in three years in French barrels (no indication as to symphony.jpg the proportion of new to used), yet the wine is immaculately bright, vivid and vibrant, deliciously smooth and mellow. Notes of ripe, meaty and fleshy black currants, black raspberries and cherries teem in the glass, well-laced with smoke, spice and potpourri. Earthy, minerally tannins feel finely milled, as if they had been ground between giant rollers of iron-flecked velvet, while oak is powerful and polished and a tad debonair. This is, in other words, a wine of lively contrasts and happy resolutions. Best from about 2010 to 2015 to ’18. Cases produced: 500. Excellent. About $60.

*Three years in French oak is also the regimen for the Bourassa Harmony3 Red Wine 2003, Napa Valley. The blend is 56% cabernet sauvignon, 23% malbec and 21% cabernet franc; the alcohol level is a mild-mannered 13.5 percent. What an absolutely lovely, vigorous, palate-pleasing red wine, pure pleasure! It offers wonderful balance and integration, great breeding and character, classic equilibrium of power and elegance, each element essential and inevitable. Yes, it does get pretty smacky, minerally and foresty on the finish, just as it should. I won’t say that I would choose this wine over the others on this page, because they’re all tremendously enticing, filled with depth and detail, yet this one seems special. Cases production: 450. Excellent. About $48.

The weather has been quite balmy, so we’ve been sitting out on the screened porch a lot, gazing at the backyard, watching the dogs gambol about, enjoying the paeans of birdsong and, after it gets dark, the thrumming of the tree-frogs. Until it gets unbearably hot, sometime in June, we’ll eat dinner out here.

Under the influence of such bucolic strains, what could I do at twilight this past Sunday but open a bottle of rosé, the first so far this year. This was the Forest Glen Magenta Rosé 2007, California, a well-known label from Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co. The bonnydoon_011.jpg wine is made from syrah grapes.

The color is indeed a brilliant ruby-magenta-dark melon hue, with a slight blue cast at the center. It’s simple and tasty stuff, very strawberryish, with hints of cherry-berry, orange rind, candied melon and that ineffable element of Bazooka Bubble Gum. It’s zesty, a little sweet — more like soft ripeness than sweetness — and it finishes in classic style with touches of dried herbs and wet stones.

A great rosé? No, but a decent, satisfying rosé, yes, and we were happy to quaff it on our porch, while nibbling on flatbread, manchego cheese and almonds. I rate the wine Very good. And at about $8, it’s Good Value.

The label of the Clayhouse Vineyard Adobe Red 2006, Central Coast, tells us that the wine is intended for “that rebellious, hedonistic red wine lover inside of you.” Well, yeah, I guess that’s me all over, always the rebel, though while I don’t detect adobe-red-05.jpg anything exactly rebellious about the wine, it is absolutely drinkable and delicious. You wouldn’t find a blend of grapes like this anywhere in the world except in California — 58% zinfandel, 17% syrah, 13% petite sirah and 12% malbec; the inspiration seems to be half southern Rhone Valley, half southern Golden State.

Smooth and drinkable, indeed, but with spice and sass, the wine features pungent aromas of ripe and intense black currant and black raspberry with wild plum, all permeated by smoke, tar, bitter chocolate and cloves. These qualities segue seamlessly into the mouth, where are added hints of cranberry and rhubarb, black tea, cedar and black olive. Tannins provide a firm structure, burgeoning on the finish with notes of moss, bark and underbrush. Now through 2010 or ’11 should do the trick. I rate the wine Very Good+. At about $15, it ranks as a Good Value.

We drank this with pizza made at home for Movie Night. Toppings on the pizza were chorizo sausage, fresh tomatoes, chopped green pepper and radicchio with a few slices of roasted red pepper, a scattering of thyme, rosemary and oregano, and then mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Movie Night was disappointing. We were watching In the Valley of Elah, which was quite engrossing, when at minute 57 the DVD began stuttering and pausing and simply would not proceed. Very annoying. It goes back to Netflix for a replacement tomorrow.

The label shown here is for the version of the Adobe Red 2005, from Paso Robles; can’t wineries keep their websites up to date? Come on, it’s all about my needs.

Visit clayhousewines.com.

Randall Grahm, founder, owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard, likes to stay ahead of the curve. He was one of the first winemakers in California to take up seriously the principles of biodynamic farming, in 2003. He now finishes all of his products, not just the inexpensive ones, with screw-caps. He actually sold part of his brands and vineyards in June 2006 so he could focus on the biodynamic Ca’ del Solo vineyard, reducing his production from 425,000 cases to 35,000.

The latest innovation from this dedicated, outspoken and sometimes eccentric producer can be found on the back labels on two recently released white wines from vintage 2007: a list of ingredients. That’s right, beginning with the whites from 2007 and the reds from 2006, all wines from Bonny Doon will indicate the ingredients therein. The wines so marked presently are the Bonny bonnydoon_01.jpg Doon Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Albarino 2007 (about $20) and the Ca’ del Solo Muscat 2007 (about $17), both from Monterey County, and both lovely, artfully-made wines, floral- and mineral-laced, swooning with soft, macerated citrus and stone-fruit flavors. The Muscat offers a touch of sweetness.

The principal ingredient in wine — at the risk of creating a “Big Duh” moment — is grapes. Well, one might think, there it is.

Grahm, however, in the interests of disclosure and consumer awareness and as a move toward “internal discipline,” includes on the ingredients list sulfur dioxide, indigenous yeast and organic yeast hulls, bentonite and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate).

Now we already now that wine producers use tiny amounts of sulfur dioxide in white wines to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. The federal government requires on every bottle of wine sold in the United States the words “Contains Sulfites,” because a small (or minuscule) portion of the population is allergic to sulfur. Yeast, well that’s a given, but is yeast actually an ingredient? Isn’t that rather like listing “heat” as an ingredient on loaves of bread? I mean, the point of fermentation is that yeast turns the grape sugars into alcohol (and carbon dioxide) and in the process largely disappears. The amount of alcohol in a wine is also mandated by federal law to be enumerated on labels (of all alcoholic beverages). Any yeast cells left in the wine would be removed by a light filtering.

Even more curious is the inclusion of bentonite, a clay, used to stabilize white and rose wines and remove proteins, and cream of tartar, used to remove tartrate crystals from wine. Racking wines and subtly filtering them remove the bentonite and the cream of tartar and the crystals from the finished wine, so none of these materials are left. So, they’re not ingredients, are bonnydoon_02.jpg they? The word “ingredient” derives from the present participle of the Latin ingredi, “to enter,” but after the bentonite and cream of tartare enter the wine, they, well, you know, they exit.

I don’t mean to make merry at the expense of Bonny Doon and Randall Grahm — well, I do a little — but what the labels on these wines really indicate aren’t ingredients but techniques, and not innovative techniques but long-established traditions in wine-making; historically, winemakers have used all sorts of natural substances, including egg whites and isinglass, to clarify wines. Grahm says in a Bonny Doon press release: “We hope other winemakers will be encouraged to also adopt less interventionist practices and rely less upon an alphabet soup of additives to ‘improve’ their wines.”

Bentonite and cream of tartar, however, aren’t “additives” and they’re not “interventionist”; they are purely natural elements that do their simple work and disappear from or are eliminated from the finished wine. Read the ingredients list on a package of Twinkies; there are some additives, and they’re all right there in the Twinkie. There are plenty of contemporary interventionist methods in winemaking to get hot and bothered about — micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, oak powder and so on — but dropping a handful of cream of tartar into a tank of white wine is not one of them.

No, of course, Grahm knows that bentonite is not an additive and what he’s really after is for winemakers to join in employing the most basic and natural methods in winemaking, but I think on these issues consumers need either a bit more or even a tad less information.

On the other hand — and there’s always an other hand — Grahm, while typically a fanatic (if not a fun-loving fantasist), is working today at an extraordinarily high level of purity and intensity in his wines. I am and will remain a complete skeptic about the efficacy or the necessity of the extreme forms of biodynamic farming methods, but I’ll put those caveats out of my mind while sipping Bonny Doon’s Albarino 2007, a supremely seductive (yet spare and slightly austere) wine that I rate Excellent and my favorite of this pair.

The strange objects on these labels, which look like condoms wearing little fur coats, depict the “sensitive crysallization” of the individual wines. The press materials don’t reveal how these “sensitive crystallizations” occur, but when Grahm writes, of the Muscat 2007, “well-defined vacuoles reflect the powerful aromatic potential” and “finely textured crystals reach out to the end of the periphery reflecting the vine’s connection to the soil,” I cannot help thinking that “sensitive crystallization” is a synonym for “smoke and mirrors.”

Visit bonnydoonvineyard.com.

You read that right.

KoeppelOnWine.com, which I launched on Dec. 12, 2004, is going inactive. The demands of constantly keeping reviews and commentaries going in six categories on that website plus keeping an ongoing stream of chatter, commentary, rudeness and header_green.gif reviews going on this blog, BiggerThanYourHead (as well as attending to a real full-time job at the newspaper), has for many months been producing pressure, stress, guilt and a tendency toward voluminous martini consumption.

I started KoeppelOnWine with high hopes, as if anyone inaugurates a project with low hopes, but despite the brilliant design (by Lucas Bond and Katherine Carr in Denver: bondcarr.com & boardpusher.com) and my efforts, readership never took off. And the site’s small subscription component never attracted many subscribers, though the few I had were very loyal, and I thank you for that, and I’ll be pro-rating your membership fees. On the other hand, PayPal, through some technical glitch, was bad about not letting people renew their memberships.

At this point, and for the past few months, hits on KoeppelOnWine have averaged about 1,100 a month; hits on BTYH average about 21,000 a month. (No, it ain’t YouTube.) It doesn’t take my high school math teacher, Miss Bridger — could she have had a first name? we didn’t think so — to figure out where my attention should focus. Since considering the demise of KoeppelOnWine, I have consulted with friends, relatives and colleagues, with marketing and PR people, asking their advice, and the answer has consistently been the same: “Go with the numbers.” So that’s what I’m going to do.

I’ll be moving the “Wine of the Week” from KoeppelOnWine to BTYH. I’ll be doing more reviews and commentary on the blog, offering more information and opinion (perhaps even wisdom) about wine and spirits, eating and drinking.

Regrets? Hell, yeah. KoeppelOnWine was a great site, a beautiful site, and it made me proud and happy every time I looked at it, but we have to grow and adapt and embrace change, right, at least that’s what everybody says.

Ruth, that’s what is was. Miss Bridger’s first name was Ruth.

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