July 2008

So, we all know that the film Bottle Shock will be released in about a week, and while it concerns the famous Paris Tasting of 1976 in which a chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine cellars out-scored a bevy of well-known French wines, the main focus is on Chateau Montelena itself. (Which, coincidentally, was just purchased by the company that owns Chateau Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux.)

Anyway, on July 28, two days ago, at 2:50 p.m., I posted an entry to this blog titled “But Here Are 10 Chardonnays from California That I Like (Really).” And one of the responses I received, on July 28, at 7:34 p.m.. from someone named Karen, was this:

“I noticed that you left off Chateau Montelena….an oversight or are you not a fan of their Chardonnay? I know they’ve had a few issues of late, but I hear those are a thing of the past. I just saw a movie about them called Bottle Shock about how they beat the French in a blind taste test in the 70s, and I can’t imagine a california Chardonnay list without them! Btw…I highly recommend checking out the movie…a must see for wine lovers.”

I responded to that message, saying that I had not intended those 10 chardonnays to be the only chardonnays that I liked, that they were among the chardonnays from California I had tasted recently, that Chateau Montelena is indeed one of the great and legendary producers of chardonnay in California and so forth.

So, o.k.

Then I noticed today that an entry I posted on July 26, at 1:30 p.m., titled “Oak in California Chardonnay Is not Going, Going, Gone,” had a new response, posted this morning at 3:38., also from Karen, or “Karen.” Here it is:

“Can someone tell me where Chateau Montelena chrdonnay fits in here? I recently saw a movie called Bottle Shock about how the Montelena Chaardonnay won against the French wines in the 70s…so I assume it’s pretty good? I haven’t picked up a bottle yet (just saw the movie the other day) but watching the movie made me want some! Are they still considered a good vinyard? Btw, this movie is a must see for all chardonnay lovers….check out the trailer at www.bottleshockthemovie.com.”

Geeze, I thought, this is starting to sound suspicious. I looked at “Karen’s” email address: capricornmiller@gmail.com.

A quick Google search revealed that capricornmiller seems to be an entity created solely to respond to forums that mention Bottle Shock and, in addition, seems to be trip-wired to respond to any blog or website that uses the term “California chardonnay,” sending a slightly different response about Chateau Montelena and the soon-to-be-released film.

I urge all you bloggers to put up posts that mention either California chardonnay or Chateau Montelena and see what happens.

Talk about stealth marketing! Talk about insanely fucking annoying!

The Internet is a wonderful and terrible thing.

Santi’s Solane Valpolicella Classico Superiore, made by the ripasso method, is one of the world’s great wine bargains. The blend of grapes is traditional for this area of Italy’s Veneto region: 65 percent corvina, 30 percent rondinella and 5 percent santi_solane.jpg molinara; not a hint of cabernet or merlot! Ripasso means that the wine is re-fermented on the skins of grapes that made Amarone wines, a process unique to Valpolicella and one that contributes depth and power to the wines.

Solane 2005, which ages a year in Slavonian oak and “a short period” in new French oak, sports the requisite deep purple, like-unto-black, color of a ripasso wine. It’s deep and rich and warm, spicy, robust, bursting with scents and flavors of black currants and plums etched with orange rind and a backnote of fruitcake. It grows more intense in the glass, opening to reveal touches of lavender, smoke, potpourri, and it grows earthier and takes on more minerality too. The texture is seductively dense and chewy, almost viscous.

We drank this last night with a pasta that had spicy Italian sausage, tomatoes, arugula and caramelized onions. That’s the kind of robust and flavorful dish this wine calls for.

Very good+. About $15.

Please don’t take the impression from the previous post that I dislike all chardonnays made in California. What I dislike are badly-made wines — that is, thoughtlessly-made and overmanipulated wines — of any grape, genre and geographical origin. The truth is that I like California chardonnays quite a lot, especially when they capture the essence of what I think of as classic California-ness, a variety of bright ripeness and textural power married to clean acidity and a profound mineral element.

There’s no need for the Golden State’s producers to adhere strenuously to Burgundian and Chablisienne models, as glorious as the chardonnay wines from those hallowed region can be, just as there’s no need to suppress the natural exuberance that California’s many and richly varied microclimates often impart, especially in warmer areas. There’s also no need, however, to exaggerate that exuberance through the slavish use of French oak and the (wholly natural but easily subdued) malolactic process that occurs in barrel and transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamy lactic (“milk-like”) acid.

Ripeness is essential, but balance is all.

*Blackstone is known best for inexpensive, competently-made and rather bland wines, especially merlot. Ho-hum, right? So I was surprised and gratified by the quality of the Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County. The color is medium gold; the bouquet offers classic pineapple and grapefruit flavors with a hint of mango and a touch of buttered toast. The wine is vivid and vibrant, immensely flavorful and zinging with acid to compensate for some of the richness of the spice-drenched pineapple and grapefruit flavors. The oak comes up from mid-palate back, lending some austerity and a hint of vanilla to the finish. I would like the wine better if the oak were a bit gentler in the caboose, but I think it shows amazing dedication from the winery. Very Good. About $17. Blackstone also produces a Reserve Merlot 2005 that’s well-worth picking up (Very Good+) at $15 to $19.

*The Raymond Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley, is fermented in stainless steel; 70 percent of the wine is aged in new raymondreservechardonnay.jpg French oak for three months; malolactic is not permitted. The result is a chardonnay of incredible freshness and crispness with just a wisp of spicy oak to bolster the wine’s ineffable prettiness. Green apple, pear and yellow plum scents waft irresistibly from the glass to be joined by a hint of jasmine. In the mouth, the wine sports typical pineapple-grapefruit flavors in a pleasing texture of moderate weight that channels vibrant acid and scintillating limestone elements. Overall, the balance is impeccable. Very good+, and a great candidate for a house chardonnay. About $20, though one finds internet prices as low as $16.

*Markham Vineyards celebrates its 30th anniversary this year; perhaps it has been around long enough to suffer casual neglect, because it’s a winery that often does not receive proper due for making well-balanced wines and selling them for reasonable mrkchard2-nv_label_72.gif prices. The Markham Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley, possesses not only an attractive character but some individuality, especially in a slight herbal aspect unusual for a chardonnay. The fruit is lovely, round and spicy, bright and vivid, laden with peach and roasted lemon twined with jasmine. Snappy acid keeps the wine lively, limestone provides a foundation and oak makes it supple. That oak influence gains through the finish, turning it a little “blond,” a little toasty, but overall the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated. Neither the notes that accompanied the wine to my house nor the winery’s website provides information about the oak treatment, but whatever the case, the wine came out just fine. Excellent. About $21.

*A great deal of care went in to the making of the Handley Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. The grapes are fermented and the wine ages in a combination of new barrels (24 percent), neutral barrels (meaning used several handley.jpg times) and large puncheons. The wine ages a bare three months; 32 percent of the wine goes through malolactic. Here, then, is a chardonnay that’s not only bright, clean and fresh but elegant and finely chiseled. Very ripe pineapple and grapefruit flavors with undertones of apple and smoky pear are nestled in a texture that embodies moderate richness and lushness balanced by snazzy acid and wet stones. This sense of structure carries through to the finish, which, unfortunately, feels a little narrow. Hence a Very Good+ rating for a chardonnay that’s compulsively drinkable. The alcohol level, by the way, is 12.8 percent; when was the last time that you saw a California wine of any kind whose alcohol was that sane? Production is 1,934 cases, from organic estate grapes. About $22.
On the other hand, I would avoid the Handley Chardonnay 2006, from the Russian River Valley. Its towering alcohol content of 15 percent makes it awkward, off-kilter and hot. About $20.

*Wines from Clos du Val are sometimes dismissed by writers with the faint praise of being elegant, and then I have to wonder, “Isn’t elegance better than shameless flamboyance?” A perfect example is the Clos du Val Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley. This happens to be cast in the Chablis mode: cool, high-toned, packed with slate and limestone, imbued with a clean earthiness that includes a flush of lightly sauteed mushrooms; quite classic. Yet one notices California-like aspects in touches of candied citrus peel and lemon balm, hints of honeysuckle and roasted pear. All of these qualities are impeccably integrated and balanced, in a smooth, yet vibrant and resonant package. The grapes are barrel-fermented, and the wine ages 10 months in French oak, only 20 percent of which are new. This was a great match at our house with fillets of King salmon, given nothing but salt, pepper and lemon juice, and briefly grilled. Excellent. About $24.

*My first note on the Sonoma-Loeb Private Reserve Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County, is “Whoa, classic California!” It’s a sonomaloeb.jpg large-framed chardonnay, incredibly powerful, vibrant and resonant and bursting with ripe, spicy pineapple-grapefruit flavors bedded on fathoms of limestone and enlivened by purposeful acidity. This, my friends, is a real mouthful of wine, a personification of glamor, yet it manages, paradoxically, to behave itself and display a little restraint, it holds something back, though the oak comes up like a tide through the finish; still, great balance all around. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25 at the winery, but you’ll find prices around the country up to $33.

*The Hendry Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2004, Napa Valley, is just damned superb. (The ’05 is available now; I haven’t tried hendry-chard04.jpg it.) Made from vines planted in 1974, the wine is beautifully delineated, packed with detail and dimension and with every resource of vibrancy and resonance that a chardonnay can call forth; the purity and intensity of the chardonnay grape here are so concentrated yet so generous that the wine feels crystalline, otherworldly. It spends 11 months in French oak, 33 percent new, and it does not go through the malolactic process, a factor that lends elements of spice and suppleness without throttling the wine with wood. Power is married to elegance, even whimsy, as roasted lemon flavors take on notes of orange zest and cinnamon toast. This is still young; try now through 2012 or ’14. Exceptional. Prices range from about $21 to $27, a bargain considering the tremendous quality and character of the wine.

*The Nickel & Nickel chardonnays are barrel-fermented but do not go through the malolactic process. Oak is typically fairly restrained; both of these wines received nine months in French barrels, 42 percent new oak for the Truchard, 55 percent new oak for the Medina. Despite that fact, you feel the oak a bit more in the Nickel & Nickel Truchard vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Napa-Carneros, than in the Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Still, the Truchard is sleek and smooth, almost lustrous; it’s a golden blond, while the Medina is more platinum. The Medina, my favorite of this pair, reveals tremendous presence and verve, incredible layering of limestone and shale, of rich spicy fruit and vivid acidity; the texture is almost talc-like yet it retains electrifying crispness. Each is a terrific chardonnay, but I give the Truchard a rating of Excellent and the Medina, well, it has to be Exceptional. Drink these now through 2012 or ’13. Each about $45.

*The Oakville Ranch Chardonnay 2006, Napa Valley, takes apple-pineapple-grapefruit flavors and etches them with crystallized ginger and cloves, then brings in notes of roasted lemon, lemon balm and jasmine. The wine is clean and fresh, chiming with acid and dense with damp limestone; that density and the intensity burgeon in the glass, creating a wine that feels not just lively but alive; you wonder how the bottle contains it. Oak — 11 months, 70 percent new French barrels — is subtly revealed in the wine’s suave suppleness, in unobtrusive layers of spice. This is a very young chardonnay; drink now through 2011 or ’12. Production is 513 cases. Excellent. About $46.

We see many comments on blogs and in print columns that over-oaked chardonnays are passé, that the American consumer has been weaned away from the smell and taste of butterscotch, crème brûlée and burned toast in chardonnay and that, thank god, producers have come to their senses and begun making chardonnays that emphasize the purity and intensity of the beloved grape.

The most recent wave in this tide of optimism was the comment by The New York Times’ Eric Asimov in his “Wines of the Times” column Wednesday: “Now, the chardonnay producers have pulled back and are making leaner, livelier, non-oaky chardonnays.”

If only it were true.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Last year Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery released a new line of single-vineyard wines from the Russian River Valley. There are five chardonnays and one pinot noir. I didn’t taste those 2005s, but last weekend I tried two chardonnays from 2006, “Emelia’s Cuvée” and “Fiorella,” released in February. Let me put the straight stuff right up front: Packed and permeated with so much oak that they were exaggerated and cloying, the wines were not merely unpalatable but undrinkable. fiorella.jpg

The immediate impression of “Fiorella” is of spicy oak, crème brûlée, butterscotch, toasted coconut saturated with vanilla; the oak gets toastier, “where’s the fruit?” ask my notes, and “sorry, this is all about the wood. ugh.”

“Emelia’s Cuvée” begins with baked apple and roasted pear, but takes on notes of crème brûlée (especially the brûlée part), scorched butterscotch and toffee, increasingly toasty oak; the spice turns strident, overpowering; the finish is oddly austere. The whole effect is like drinking baked Alaska, and I don’t mean that in a positive way.

Here’s the oak regimen for these wines: They’re barrel-fermented, go through 50 percent malolactic and rest in barrels, on the lees, for 15 months. The barrels are 30 percent new for Emelia’s and 40 percent new for Fiorella. That’s actually a pretty sensible approach, though 15 months is a serious amount of time for chardonnay to be in wood; perhaps that’s the factor that affected this chardonnays so drastically.

The effort is obviously to make significant wines. The packaging is discreet and elegant; production is limited — 344 cases for Fiorella, 449 cases for Emelia’s — and the price, $36 a bottle, commands respect. Such wines are not inexpensive to produce. French oak barrels cost around $1,000 each nowadays; in Sonoma County in 2006, according to the Sonoma Economics Development Board, chardonnay grapes sold for about $1,500 a ton. Fifteen months in the cellar ties up capital.

Why, though, go to the time and expense to fashion a single-vineyard, limited-edition chardonnay and merely produce an over-oaked, over-ripe and spice-sodden chardonnay that smells and tastes like every other over-oaked, over-ripe and spice-sodden chardonnay made in California? Despite the names of the vineyards on the labels and the name of the grape, these wines are neither about the vineyards nor the grapes; they’re about a process that happens in the winery. Far from revealing the wonderful purity and intensity of which the chardonnay grape is capable, these wines blatantly display the hand of the winemaker.

I know, you’re about to interrupt and say, “Wait a minute, F.K., there are plenty of people who like this kind of chardonnay.”

Yes, I know, and I feel sorry for them. The chardonnay drinkers who dote on the flavors of coconut cream pie, roasted marshmallows, marzipan, vanilla custard and the other dessert-like characteristics that the Wine Spectator heaps high ratings on might as well be drinking over-manipulated viognier or sauvignon blanc than chardonnay; there’s no chardonnay “thereness” there. 06_tru_chard_large.jpg

Here’s another disappointment.

I am generally a fan of the wines of X Winery, but the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros, Napa Valley, proved to be a major let-down. It’s rich and ripe from the beginning, flamboyance leading to opulence, “truly full-bodied” say my notes, dense and chewy; classic grapefruit-pineapple flavors quickly expand into toffee and butterscotch and cinnamon toast, with deep-seated toasted coconut. The wine becomes so spicy that it’s off-kilter, strange, almost clueless. Lord have mercy, why didn’t they take a hands-off approach to this beautiful fruit? How do I know that the fruit was beautiful? Because Truchard itself made a gloriously, irresistibly pure and intense wine from the same vineyard. X made 336 cases of this chardonnay. About $25.

We’re close to the end of July, and you may have noticed that your neighborhood retail store is still stocking rosé wines from 2006, while bringing in more examples from the most recent vintage, 2007. The question is, Is it o.k. to drink rosés from the previous year? Or are they old, tired and faded?

Rosés are not like beaujolais nouveau, a fresh, grapey, frothy (in spirit) quaff that begins to turn thin and sullen at the age of six months or so, like a troubled pop singer after a jail term. The best rosés, however, though charming and delightful, possess the structure of “real” wine, that is to say, they are real wine, with the proper acidity and balance to last for more than a season. Not that we expect longevity; it’s just that rosé wines don’t have to be regarded as beyond the pale (haha, sorry) once they reach a year in age.

I’ve encountered several rosés from 2006 that I heartily recommend. We’ll start with a comparison of a terrific model of a rosé montezargues.jpg from both recent years.

Tavel in the southern Rhone Valley has a centuries-old reputation for rosé wines, a reputation too often merely traded upon than reasonably proved. Fine models exist, however, and some of the finest are produced by the Prieuré de Montèzargues, pictured here. The original priory was established in 1119; grapes have been grown there and wine made since sometime shortly after 1300. Winemaker in the present manifestation of the property — it long-since ceased its function as a religious house — is Guillaume Dugas. Grapes grown at Prieuré de Montèzargues are grenache, cinsault, syrah, mourvèdre and carignan for red and clairette, picpoul and bourboulenc for white, all the typical southern Rhône or Provençal varieties. The wines are imported by Henriot Inc., New York.

Prieuré de Montèzargues 2007 offers a lovely color of bright garnet flushed with salmon’s orangy-pink. Notes of strawberry, raspberry, peach and orange zest waft from the glass and segue seamlessly to the mouth in consistent flavors. The texture is soft and enticing but energized by crisp acid and a scintillating mineral element that expands to dominate the finish. Great montezargues-label-nv-hr.jpg balance and freshness. Very Good+. About $18 to $23.

How about the version from 2006? The color is similar, perhaps with a shade of magenta, but the wine is robust, ripe and fleshy, delivering scents and flavors of strawberry and peach with touches of melon and dried herbs. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of cherry/berry and Bazooka Bubble Gum, with orange zest, limestone and earthy notes and a lingering hint of cloves on the finish. This is an unusually complicated rosé for drinking through the end of 2008. Great detail and dimension. Excellent. About $18 to $23. If you can find the ’07 and the ’06, buy some of each.

Here are notes on three other rosés from 2006, also French:

*The Rosé de Fayel 2006, made by Chateau des Sources, Vin de Pays du Gard, southeast of the city of Nimes, is an unusual blend of 70 percent syrah and 30 percent cabernet franc. While I don’t recommend buying a wine for its color alone, the intense magenta color here, tinged with blue, is stunning. The wine is extraordinarily earthy and stony, offering (a bit reluctantly) delectable notes of dried raspberry, strawberry and red currant. The limestone quality expands and the acid is lively and vibrant, making this truly a dry rose, but with thirst-quenching freshness and (after all) winsome red berry flavors. The ’07 version of this wine is available (in a slightly different blend), but why neglect drinking this one over the next few months? Very good+. About $10, a Great Bargain . Robert Kacher Selections, Washington D.C.

*The Domaine des Corbillières 2006, a pinot noir rosé from Touraine, in the central Loire Valley, sports the classic pale corbillieres.jpg copper-onion skin color. The bouquet weaves fresh and dried strawberries with fresh and dried raspberries and hints of peach and orange zest. Though the wine is dry and crisp as all get-out, the texture is lavish and silken, a pleasure to feel gliding over the tongue and palate. The finish brings in heaps of minerals (more damp slate than limestone) without being austere. Really attractive for drinking through the end of 2008. Very good+. About $11 to $14. Robert Kacher Selections, Washington, D.C. The ’07 is on the market, but why waste this ’06?

*Characterized by a spiced peach element infused with dried raspberry and orange rind — and the color a pale peach-salmon — the Domaine de Beaurenard 2006, Côtes-du-Rhône, unveils delicate strata of baking spice, dried herbs, melon and rhubarb, all supported by the necessary acid for tautness and structure and depths of minerality. For drinking through the end of this year, certainly, but with a great deal of satisfaction. The grapes are grenache, syrah and cinsault. Very good+. About $15. European Wine Group, Tucker, Georgia.

The Wine of the Week continues to be white, but let’s add a red for a versatile pair of products. girard.jpg

We made scallops ceviche last night, marinating (in the refrigerator) the sliced raw scallops in a bath of orange and lime juices and minced chives, fennel fronds and Italian parsley. After it chilled for 20 minutes, the ceviche went on top of a simple lettuce and tomato salad, accented with its own sprightly lemon vinaigrette, alongside ciabatta bread to nibble. This made a terrific light Sunday supper.

I pulled the cork on a chilled bottle of the Girard Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley. a very pale straw-colored wine that scintillates with incredible freshness and clarity; it feels as if you’re drinking a bracing sea-breeze filtered through grapefruit, lime peel and limestone. The wine is mildly grassy and herbal; the emphasis really is on the immediacy of the fruit and the zinging chiarlo.jpg acidity, an impact sustained by the winemaking method: all stainless steel, no malolactic. Touches of roasted lemon and lemon balm emerge, highlighted by anise and jasmine, all of this set into a texture of surpassing silkiness. An Excellent example of the grape and the style. About $17.

It was a pick-up pasta dish after a busy day: chopped roasted chicken, basil, I think some kale or chard, tomatoes, you know, that kind of “see-what’s-in-the fridge-cuz-we-ain’t-going-to-the-store” thing. I opened a bottle of Michele Chiarlo Barbara d’Asti Le Orme 2005 from Piedmont. The wine earns its “Superiore” designation through its generosity and vigor, its ripe, fleshy and spicy black currant and plum fruit infused with smoke and leather, potpourri, lavender and licorice, the sinews of acid and tannin that keep it taut and muscular (and a little austere on the finish). Great with grilled meats and roasts. Very Good+. About $15.

“Discover the Eco-Chic Wine Choice!”

Ha, what a slogan! And “Eco-Chic” describes precisely the relationship to ecological concerns that many Americans of a certain class — white, affluent, subtly guilty — aspire to: an itemization of easy cures to the world’s ecological problems, some of which, as you no doubt are aware, pose dire hazards to the continuation of life on earth. The French call this class le gauche caviar, “caviar leftists.” I call them “Emo-Environmentalists.”

On the other hand, the phrase “eco-chic” itself exudes boundless cynicism. The slogan comes from PR materials sent out by Boho Vineyards — “We were Boho before it was chic” — to promote the Boho Vineyards Chardonnay 2006, Central Coast, that comes in three-liter “eco-friendly” bag-in-box packaging made from 95 percent recycled kraft paper using only soy-based ink. This “Premium Cask” — notice how each of those words is meaningless — presses to Mother Earth a “carbon footprint … 55% smaller than the four 750ml bottles it replaces.” The Boho wines are distributed by Underdog Wine Merchants, a division of The Wine Group, Inc., the country’s third largest wine producer, after E&J Gallo and Constellation.

The way the wine inside this “eco-friendly” packaging is described, however, makes evident the fact that this is plain old regular “non-eco” chardonnay: “We selected the grapes for our Boho Chardonnay from our cool climate vineyards specially selected to emphasize the crisp and aromatic character that are [subject-verb error] so important to the Boho style. The grapes were harvested cool and fermented at cool temperatures in the winery to maximize the fruit flavors.” Etc. Etc. In other words, the box is “eco-friendly”; the wine is not.

I read this Boho chardonnay material just after taking a gander at the “Eco Checklist: Easy Ways to Live Better” in the August 2008 issue of Food & Wine magazine — right, the issue in which wine-writer Lettie Teague actually wrote that “when picking a wine, I care more about the integrity of the people making it (or for that matter selling it) than the method they chose,” yeah, and I’m going to stop reading books written by assholes — a publication that tries so hard to be hip that sometimes it’s cute and sometimes, as now, it’s just freakin’ annoying. I mean the cliche-detector at the magazine operates at nil level! These people make themselves so easy to parody that it’s like shooting free-range, organically fed fish in a barrel fashioned from trees grown in sustainable forests by workers who wear only clothes made from recycled paper.

Talk about eco-chic/emo-environmentalism! Of course there are the usual admonitions to abandon plastic water bottles for reusable aluminum containers (such as the ones designed by Japanese artist Shinzi Katoh) or the compostable plates made from fallen leaves (VerTerra, $9 for 10 plates). You can “upcycle” — a new cliche — stained shirts by baking them in the oven (330 degrees) with blueberries and sugar, leaving your friends and colleagues to wonder, “Where did all the fruit flies come from?” You can “Set a Stylish Green Table” by using Dansk’s resurrected “Classic Fjord” flatware that uses sustainable teak ($100 for a five-place setting) or handblown pitchers made in a wind-powered studio in Portland, Ore. (Esque, $200). Or you can drink Del Maguey Minero Mezcal, a “warm, smoky mezcal … made from organic agave by independent family producers” ($70).

In your kitchen, you can choose Michelle Kaufmann’s mklISLAND, “ideal for small, energy-efficient homes (from $5,250).” Or you can “Take a Green Vacation,” such as one through Aventouras, which books “intimate trips in seven countries [that] include stays at a guesthouse in the Andes and dinner with a Costa Rican family” that no doubt serves only organic food on plates made from fallen leaves. The State Department, by the way, reminds us that for safety reasons the American Embassy in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, places official visitors in large suburban hotels rather than in hotels in the center of the city, and further advises Americans to avoid “areas of high concentrations of bars and clubs, especially at night.” Just so you know.

Am I being a total bastard here? Sorry, but being able to tell your dinner party guests that every item of food or decor on the table comes from sustainable or organic sources isn’t the same as 1. Not driving. 2. Driving a lot less and driving more slowly. 3. Using public transportation as often as possible. 4. Writing to your representatives in your state capital and in Washington and telling them that they will no longer receive your vote if they don’t support efforts toward weaning America from fossil-fuels and if they don’t support efforts to find alternative fuel and energy sources, like wind power. Wind is there, and those wind turbines are pretty damned beautiful. 5. Supporting Human Rights Watch in its efforts to see that the people (for example) who work in those organic agave fields in Mexico receive decent salaries and health care. 6. Thinking about the big picture in terms of urban culture and the local livability of urban and architectural design. Get a seat on your architectural and design review board. Attend meetings of design and zoning boards. Be vocal; become an annoying busybody. And wear your sustainable clothes.

We made ricotta cheese at home Saturday. It was easy! It was fun! And the result was excellent! I used the ricotta on ourpasta.jpg Saturday night’s pizza instead of mozzarella, and it was terrific. Then we used the ricotta in this wonderful pasta dish with tomato broth, bacon, peas and basil. The instructions for how to make your very own ricotta cheese in your very own kitchen and the recipe for the pasta dish were in the New York Times food section on May 28.

With the pasta, we drank the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2006, Paso Robles.

Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded in 1987 by the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel, one of the best producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Robert Haas, owner of Vineyard Brands, Beaucastel’s American importer. After finding the right soil and micoclimate is Paso Robles, the team didn’t release the first wines until the vintages of 2001 for white and 2000 for reds. All the grape varieties grown on the estate are of Rhone Valley origin. Though the products of Tablas Creek are French in sensibility, they are Californian in execution, with alcohol levels and the spectrum of ripeness much more emphatic than their counterparts from the southern Rhone Valley. On the other hand, the wines, for the most part, are superbly balanced.

The blend in the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2006 is 65 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc and 5 percent espritblanc06_label.jpg picpoul blanc; the idea seems to be to produce a wine that resembles or pays homage to the white wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and in that task the winery has succeeded. This is a white wine of power and elegance, balancing lushness and spareness, vibrant acidity and an almost radiant limestone element with flavors of spiced lemons and pears that take on a slightly roasted quality as the wine sits in the glass. That fruit follows a path to a rich, honeyed aspect, yet the wine is neither over-ripe or cloying; instead it’s dynamically dry and pulls up layers of earth and minerals on the forceful finish. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $45.

Dropping back a few degrees in complexity and price, the Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc 2007 is bright and sassy and almost too easy to drink; I mean because it’s irresistibly tasty. The bouquet teems with cotesblanc06_label.jpg cinnamon and cloves, roasted lemon, smoke, lanolin and dried flowers. In the mouth, the wine is lively and crisp but offers a seductive, dense almost satiny texture; an undertow of grass and dried thyme flows through the citrus and peach flavors. The blend here is 38 percent roussanne, 25 percent marsanne, 20 percent picpoul blanc and 17 percent grenache blanc. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Very good+. About $22.

Made from 100 percent roussanne grapes, the Tablas Creek Roussanne 2006 delivers a bounty of lanolin and beeswax, spiced roussanne06_label.jpg and roasted lemon, white summery flowers; the wine is lush and juicy, slightly honeyed, though almost formidably dry. Notes of almond and almond blossom come in, lime and limestone, jasmine and honeysuckle. The texture is dense and chewy; the finish is expansive, dry and spicy. This is a terrific version of roussanne, which we drank with great pleasure with a piece of simple, grilled wild steelhead salmon. Drink now through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $27.

A soaring alcohol level of 15.3 percent detracted a bit from the success of the Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc 2006, especially on grenacheblanc05_label.jpg the “hot” finish; otherwise, the wine is exemplary. The bouquet resonates with lemon curd and lemon drop, face powder (think of being a kid and opening your mother’s compact), almond and almond blossom, honeysuckle and camellia. The wine is very pure, very intense, lively, vibrant, almost crystalline yet deeply imbued with earth and minerals. Notes of lavender and violet appear, along with a strain of the April in Paris perfume we used to give on Mother’s Day (can you still get that?). The finish is quite dry and austere and, as mentioned above, rather hot with alcohol. I would say that the rating is Excellent but shadowed by Very Good+ because of the alcohol content, which brings a hint of loss of control at the end. Now through 2010 or ’11. About $27.

Finally, the Tablas Creek Rosé 2007, blended from 57 percent mourvèdre, 31 percent grenache and 12 percent counoise grapes, offers a lovely cherry-magenta color, a spicy cherry-berry/raspberry bouquet with a touch of clove and Red Hots, and a lively texture wrapped around red and black cherry flavors invested with spiced peach, orange zest and limestone. It possesses unusual vitality and depth for a rosé wine and could drink nicely through the end of summer 2009. Excellent. About $27.

Man walks into a bar, settles on a stool and says to the bartender: “You know, what I would like at this moment more than anything on earth, what would set matters right in this weary, godforsaken world, what would make me happier than fame and wealth and glory is an ice-cold Tanqueray martini, up, with one olive.”

Bartender: “Comin’ atcha, sir!”

This, thinks the man, will surely be a golden moment in the sordid history of my life, because, for once, the cocktail glass has been kept in the freezer, along with the gin, and the vermouth emerges from the refrigerator, and for once the bartender, ruminating on his time in school, remembers that cocktails with fruit juices are intended to be shaken but all other cocktails are stirred, and he performs this action correctly, and in a few minutes, he places before the man that epitome of elegance and chaste power, that inverted cone of pure, crystalline transparency, with its inviting fullness and astringency — the perfect martini.

Patron: “Thanks, barkeep, that’s swell.”

Bartender: “A great pleasure, sir.”

Patron: “By the way, could I get a little bowl of little snack thingies, you know, some mixed nuts, even some peanuts, or some of that cocktail mix, you know, Chex cereal mixed with nuts, pretzels, chili crescents and wasabi peas? or just a bowl of Goldfish mixednuts.jpg crackers. I skipped lunch today, and I don’t want to pour this perfect martini, perfect as it may be, into a completely empty stomach.”

Bartender: “Certainly, sir, here’s the menu.”

Patron: “No, no, barkeep, I don’t require a menu, just a bowl of cute little nibbles to absorb some of the alcohol.”

Bartender: “Sorry, sir, we don’t provide bowls of cute little nibbles at the bar. Here’s the roster, however, of what you may order.”

Patron: “But, this is the dinner menu. I don’t want dinner, just a wee snack, a handful of nuts or crackers, bestowed not merely for convenience but for the sake of conviviality.”

Bartender: “Try the pecan-dusted grilled quail with sunchoke puree and mango-radish salad. Many customers find that agreeable, and as an appetizer. it’s not too filling.”

Patron: “That’s $16!”

Bartender: “Well, look at the seared day-boat scallop with flash-fried okra and limoncello beurre blanc.

Patron: “That’s $15! Can’t I get something quick? And another martini!”

Bartender: “Yes, sir, of course, sir.”

The bartender makes and brings the second martini, but for some reason, this one doesn’t seem to glow as the first one did.

Bartender: “All right, sir, people in a hurry often order the Individual ‘Cassoulet’ de Brian.”

Patron: Why is ‘cassoulet’ in quotation marks?”

Bartender: “Ha-ha, that’s Chef’s little joke. It’s actually his version of pork and beans.”

Patron: “So why does an appetizer of pork and beans cost $14?”

Bartender: “Well, sir, that particular dish is outsourced to Mumbai and Fedexed to the restaurant every night.”

Patron: “Look, what’s happened to bars? They used to be nice, friendly, comfortable, welcoming places where you could get a drink and a handful of nuts or a bowl of popcorn and feel, well, maybe not cosseted but certainly taken care of. Now they’re all sleek and slick and chic and ambitious and if all you want is a drink and a snack, you’re here for an hour and it sets you back $40. Now could I just get a fucking bag of Fritos and another martini?”

Bartender: “Sorry, sir, I don’t think I can serve you. You’re getting pretty agitated. You shouldn’t have drunk those martinis on an empty stomach.”

Image of mixed nuts from Wikipedia.

Here’s an attractive white wine to match with fairly delicate or lighter fare, a vitello (or turkey) tonnato or blanquette, roasted ca_bianca_gavi1.jpg
chicken, grilled trout or ham salad and deviled eggs.

Made in Piedmont from 100 percent cortese grapes, the Ca’Bianca Gavi 2006 is fermented and briefly aged in stainless steel, except for 20 percent made from over-ripe grapes in new French oak. The result is a Gavi that transcends the typical blandness of the grape with uncommon spiciness, notes of roasted lemon and lemon balm and hints of almonds and dried Mediterranean herbs. The wine is refreshingly crisp and vibrant and quite dry, though the texture offers some juiciness and moderate lushness. A few minutes in the glass bring up heady touches of jasmine and almond blossom, anise and limestone. Drink now through 2009. Very good+. About $17.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

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