August 2008


Things are getting nasty over at Tom Wark’s blog Fermentation. Frankly, this week, the shit hit the fan.

Wark closely follows the wine industry, marketing, politics and wine blogs on his entity, and he posts frequently on these matters. He has worked in wine marketing for years and knows the business thoroughly.

On August 27, in a post titled “On Press Sampling — Giving and Taking and Ethics,” Wark sharply denounced a program in which a small group of wine bloggers was given bottles of a new wine from Rodney Strong Vineyards, the limited edition Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, suggested price, $75. The stipulation given to these bloggers was that if they took the sample they had to write about the wine, whether in a review or in a story, within a time-frame of four days. The samples came to the bloggers before they went to mainstream wine publications like the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast, meaning that the notices or reviews from the bloggers would be published before the Big Guns even got the wine.

The idea did not originate at Rockaway or Rodney Strong Vineyards or with Rodney Strong’s public relations director Robert Larsen. Instead, the experiment was organized by Jeff Lefevere at Good Grape as an exercise in blogger power, to see, that is, if the simultaneous, or closely simultaneous, publication of these reviews or notices would have any sort of effect. Obviously the winery cooperated by supplying the wine.

Wark’s denunciation of one part of this experiment, that is the aspect that the bloggers were required to produce copy at a certain time, can be summed up in this sentence from his post, and I suspect this is what hurt people’s feelings:

I’m not sure bloggers shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to these terms — assuming they want to be seen as part of the long tradition of independent journalism and professional criticism that strives to maintain a measured and necessary distance from their subject that allows them to entertain and inform their readers through the appearance (and reality) of not being unduly influenced by their subject.

The result was (at this time: 2:32 p.m., C.T., on Saturday) 110 increasingly vituperative responses and 45 fairly snarky responses to a follow-up post, “On the Wane,” that Tom put the blog on Aug. 28. (I am generally in agreement with Tom, and I admit to having been fairly snarky myself over there.)

There seems to be a crisis of confidence in the world of wine bloggerdom, and the crisis revolves around these issues:

1. Is it all right to accept samples of wines from producers and imports?

2. As wine blogging becomes better-known and (perhaps) more influential, is there a danger that wine blogs will lose their independence and personality?

3. What sort of ethics should be applied to wine blogging?

My perspective on these issues derives from having written a weekly print wine column for 20 years (for 15 of those years as a nationally distributed column) and as 22 years as a full-time journalist at a daily newspaper. I have been writing for the Internet since December 2004, first on my old website and now on this blog.

Samples

Nobody picks up The New York Times Book Review on Sunday and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of books that the Times got for free from the publishers, how can I trust them?.” No one picks up Fanfare or Downbeat and says, “Oh no, these are reviews of CDs that the magazines got free from the recording companies, how can I trust them?” And yet there’s all this anxiety among wine bloggers that they will be tainted if they accept samples of wine.

Calm down, friends. A sample bottle of wine is not a bribe.

Sending wine samples is written into the cost of doing business for wineries and importers. In the 24 years that I have been writing about wine, no representative from a winery or importer, no marketing or PR person, has tried to establish a quid pro quo understanding about how I would review a wine or even if I would review it or not, though of course they would like some sort of notice in timely fashion. And even after negative reviews of some wines, most producers have continued to send samples, because that’s part of the procedure.

An excellent example of this aspect, as a matter of fact, is the winery in question; over the years, I have been hard on Rick Sayer, the longtime winemaker at Rodney Strong, because I think he has too free a hand with oak. When I can recommend a wine from Rodney Strong, I do; when I can’t, I say so. I continue to receive samples from the winery, and I hope it’s because they trust me to be objective and straightforward. (Rather than that they just forgot that I was on the mailing list.)

The understanding has to be perfectly clear: Writers receive samples from wineries. They will write about those wines if and when they can, and they will write about those wines with a sense of complete freedom and independence. If that concept makes you nervous, don’t review wine. And if bloggers feel that they can only write about wines that they purchase, that they have to take this stance to reinforce their integrity, that’s fine, but I would say that it’s a stance that’s impractical for most of us.

Keeping Blogs Independent, or “How Can We Get Respect But Not Turn into the Wine Spectator”?

So, what kind of respect do wine bloggers want, anyway?

One aspect of the Rodney Strong experiment — or “RodneyStrongGate” as Terry Hughes at mondosapore dubbed the brouhaha — that surfaced repeatedly was that it served as a signal to the mainstream publications that wine blogging had to be taken seriously. Remember, however, that the experiment was organized by a blogger and carried out by other bloggers; there’s little evidence that it advanced the recognition of wine blogging other than the fact that Rodney Strong agreed to participate. The whole affair hardly seems to live up to the “innovation” it was touted to be.

The real question is, from whom do wine bloggers want recognition? Do we really care if the mainstream publications like Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast acknowledge our existence or feel a sense of competition? I would say not. While a few wine blogs carry real advertising, most of us (envious, to be sure) have to be content with Google Adsense; not much recognition (or livelihood) that way. Would stories about wine blogging in food magazines and the popular press satisfy our need for recognition?

Give it up. The recognition comes from the readers of our blogs, the consumers who are looking for alternatives to the mainstream journals, which are increasingly “lifestyle” oriented, the readers who enjoy a little quirkiness, a little personality, a little attitude. It worries me to read that wine bloggers seek “legitimacy,” another word that came up in the posts surrounding this mess. Do a good job and satisfy the needs of your audience; there’s your legitimacy.

Wine Blogging Ethics, or Just, You Know, Ethics?

One response to Tom Wark’s posts on Fermentation suggested that a code of ethics for wine bloggers needs to be formulated.

Sorry, that notion suggests committees and subcommittees, months of endless emailing, divisions into factions, official positions.

Let me save everyone the trouble:

*Be Honest.
*Be Fair.
*Don’t Be an Asshole.

In other words, yes, of course wine bloggers need to have a sense of ethics, for crying out loud, but it doesn’t have to be some special agenda. It’s a matter of common sense. Transparency, for example, begins at the beginning of a process, not at the end. Independence from the sources of your wine is always necessary; if you feel compelled to disclose to your readers that wines you review are samples, by all means do so. I mean, I just assume that’s the case anyway. Even if you go to a trade tasting and work through 100 wines in four hours (or whatever), the wine still came free from somewhere. That’s the nature of the business, and it’s your job to stay objective and enlightened.

To the person who says, “But it’s my blog, and I’ll be dishonest, unfair and an asshole if I want to be,” I say, Go for it, but I won’t be one of your readers and I bet that people who care about wine won’t be either.

One More Thing

What bothered me about l’affair Rodney Strong was the tone adopted by some of the bloggers who reviewed Rockaway 2005. What they wrote sounded like press releases for a winery’s new product; there was a notable lack of the distance and detachment necessary to true balance and objectivity.

Here are some lines from some of the reviews:

“These small areas of the vineyard are where the viticultural and winemaking teams have found the best fruit that expresses the terroir there.”

“To maximize the expression of the Rockaway vineyard …”

“Please join me in congratulating Rockaway on the pending release of their new wine …”

“To craft these wines, grapes from only the best (meaning most tasty) vines/rows are selected …”

“In a final feat of expressing the best of the land …”

“Rockaway is completely made from free-run juice from the best rows and vines in the vineyard. Their goal is for it to be the ultimate expression of terroir …”

These (somewhat similar) lines convey all the enthusiasm of writers who got so carried away with a project that they forgot to be objective and detached. If I had written like this when I was doing a print column, my editor would have throw the copy back at me and said, “Stop with the press release bullshit and write something real.”

So, here’s my final point:

You bloggers want recognition? You want legitimacy? You want to be taken seriously?

Then love wine in general, but be very skeptical about wines individually.

Delight in the process of wine-making, but be very skeptical about wineries.

Admire the people who make the wine, but always watch your back.

Sometimes LL cooks dinner, sometimes I cook dinner, sometimes we cook dinner together. And then I get a bottle of wine from the fridge or the rack and we see how it works out. What you must remember is that food and wine pairings don’t have to be whitesoup.jpg sublime; sometimes the food and the wine simply have to taste good together. Rarely do we say, “Well, that wine’s a mistake.” More often, we say, “That’s nice” or “That’s good.” And sometimes we chime on the Bingo Effect, as in “Whoa, that’s fabulous
together!”

Here, then, are some food and wine pairings from our dinner table, mainly from July and August. This post is dominated by pinot noirs from different areas of California, a circumstance I didn’t foresee when I began writing, but that’s just fine, because they’re all excellent, as well as instructive.

*Cucumber/radish soup with dill and mint AND Schloss Vollrads Kabinett Riesling 2006, Rheingau. The chilled soup was bright, refreshing and earthy, and so was the wine, which delivered lovely peach, pear and melon scents and flavors supported by lively acid and a fairly spare but supple texture. The minerality blossomed as the minutes went by. A great match. I call the wine Excellent. About $24.

*Chilled pea soup with mint and fresh ricotta AND Lustau “Jarana” Light Fino Sherry. Ah well, what’s classic if not a delicate, nutty, vibrant, fine-boned fino with a full-flavored pea soup that felt like the essence of a spring vegetable patch. Another great match. A Christopher Cannon selection, imported by Europvin USA, Oakland, Cal. Excellent. About $20. Well-made sherry remains one of the bargains of the wine world.

*After the pea soup — we were having some friends over for Sunday dinner — we served a chicken dish that while nicely chicken.jpg photogenic, didn’t impress us, though it was a lot of work. The recipe called for a selection of exotic spices, toasted and then ground, and a separate process of chopping onions and garlic and some other vegetable substances. One was required to coat the chicken pieces with the spice mixture and then lave it with the moist marinade, and we kept thinking, “Why couldn’t you just do all of this together.” In any case, the wine was better than the dish. This is a wine I wrote about a few weeks ago, the Clos Poggiale 2004, Vin de Corse, a dark, spicy, smoky, floral-infused blend of sangiovese (55 percent) and syrah (45 percent. Very good+. About $28. That’s sauteed kale with roasted red pepper on the plate with the chicken.

*A better chicken dish came a couple of weeks later, just chicken thighs dusted with salt and pepper, rosemary and oregano and grilled, by me, over the trusty old hardwood coals. Not just finger-lickin’ good, but hand- and elbow- and shoulder-lickin’ too. Now, we’re suckers for pinot noir and grilled (or roasted) chicken, so I pulled out a bottle of the Donum Estate Pinot Noir 2005, Carneros. No, the wine does not display the finesse of which many Burgundian models are capable, but even in its bold aromas and bold flavors, this was authentically pinot noir. Black cherry, cranberry and plum flavors are permeated by spice and minerals, with a touch of tobacco; the texture is dense and chewy and platonically satiny, yet not the slightest bit heavy or obvious. A superb feat of winemaking and a wonderful match. Excellent. About $65.

*Grilled swordfish AND J Pinot Noir 2006, Russian River Valley. The swordfish was marinated in the usual fashion (for us), in lime juice and soy sauce, minced garlic and ginger, salt and pepper. These were pretty thick pieces of swordfish, so I grilled them for maybe five minutes on the first side and two or three minutes on the other side, so they were still rare in the middle. My first note on the pinot noir was: “a beautiful wine.” This is an especially balanced and harmonious pinot noir, rich and warm, with plenty of depth and structure but also exhibiting ineffable nuance and fleetness. Black currant and plum flavors become spicy, even a bit meaty, as the wine spends a few minutes in the glass, while elements of earthy brambles and underbrush provide serious underpinning. Excellent. About $38.

*All right, another pinot. Pork loin tonnato AND Sanford Pinot Noir 2006, Santa Rita Hills. The classic Italian dish is veal tonnato, that is with a smooth, mild tuna sauce, a unique surf ‘n’ turf concept. We’ve done turkey tonnato for a couple of years, a fine substitute, especially if you’d rather not partake of veal; this pork loin tonnato was also a big hit. It’s interesting that these three pinot noirs, reflecting their origins in different appellations in California and in varying winemaking philosophies, were are true and (to our palates) irresistible examples of the grape. Imagine that dried red currents, orange rind, cloves and rose petals were ground in a mortar, with a touch of allspice, for its brooding, slightly acrid earthiness, and that this mixture composed the essence of a seductive, entrancing wine whose lovely, satiny texture made it almost impossible not to drink, all of this accomplished with delicacy and breeding. That’s this pinot noir. Excellent. About $34.

*It has not been as killingly hot this summer in Memphis as it was last summer, particularly in August, when the days over 100 breadsalad.jpg degrees seemed infinitely extended. Still, it’s been hot enough, so one day LL said, “Let’s just have a bread salad tonight.” As you can see from the image, the salad contained many ingredients: Chunks of bread, of course, which I dabbed with olive oil and grilled before tearing into shards; red and yellow tomatoes, celery and cucumber; looks like some green pepper and red onion; and certainly fresh basil. All this went into a bowl, took a sprinkling of olive oil and lemon juice and a brief soak to soften the bread slightly. The wine was El Coto de Rioja Rosado 2007, a half-and-half blend of tempranillo and garnacha (grenache) made completely in stainless steel. With its weaving of red currents, raspberries and orange zest, its dry, lively, stony nature, its edge of dried Mediterranean herbs and its lovely silky texture, this was a refreshing match with the bread salad. The wine rates Very good. About $11. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

*When LL travels to distant cities and I fend for myself, I always take one night to prepare an omelet. On the night in question, I chopped a tomato, some green onion, some radicchio, a little green pepper, a chopped roasted potato left over from a previous dinner and a little speck, let them cook briefly in some olive oil while I whisked three eggs with crumbled feta cheese, salt and pepper, and then poured in the egg mixture. I don’t care for a runny omelet, and I probably cook the thing longer than a true devotee of omelets would tolerate; in fact, anyone can chime in now and say, “FK, what you’re making is a stove-top frittata,” and I suppose you would be right. The wine happens to be another pinot noir made in yet another style. The Handley Cellars Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, is the sort of pinot that cuts a swathe across the palate with its complete clarity and sinewy spareness and vibrant acidity. It’s quite dry, though a full complement of dried black fruit — currents, cherries, plum — expands and fattens a bit, becoming fresher and riper and earthier. The oak slowly emerges in a tide of foresty, brambly elements, leading to, paradoxically, an austere yet almost delicately floral, spicy finish. I think this is a pinot noir that a Burgundian could love. Excellent. About $25. Oh, it was delicious with the omelet.

Morgan Winery’s “Metallico” Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Monterey County, is one of the best wines to emerge from California in the 21st Century; the first vintage was 2001. It’s a direct contradiction to the over-oaked, stridently spicy, cloyingly creamy morgan_bottle_ch_metallico.jpg chardonnays that we saw so much of in the 1990s and that may, perhaps, be disappearing. At least this wine offers a delightful alternative. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel and then the wine is aged a scant three months in three-year-old oak, meaning that the barrels are neutral, though they provide a touch of softening to the crispness and a bit of suppleness to the texture. The wine does not go through the malolactic process, so there’s no hint of butter or cream, just the essence of chardonnay grapes.

For 2007, Metallico is utterly clean, fresh and pure, bursting with notes of green apple, lemon and lime peel; it’s an incredibly pretty wine, subtly floral and spicy, with seductive presence and vibrancy. In fact, with its electrifying acid and plangent resonance, it feels almost crystalline. Limestone permeates flavors of roasted lemon and lime peel with touches of tangerine and grapefruit, while there at the finish, in the bouquet, comes a winsome whiff of camellia and a mysterious after-scent of smoke. 6,000 cases were made, so there’s plenty to go around. Excellent. About $22.

Visit morganwinery.com.

Lord have mercy, I haven’t done one of The Chronicle wines since May 10. I’m sorry, and I assure you that it hasn’t been for not wanting to, it’s just that MY CAMERA SUCKS AT CLOSE-UP SHOTS, and I’m embarrassed to display the results of my efforts. It does fine (sort of) with food images, but trying to capture a wine label with sharp, crisp detail seems to be beyond its (and my) capabilities. The instrument in question is a Canon PowerShot S410; I think that most people nowadays have better cameras on their cell phones.

Anyway, photographically-challenged or not, here goes the seventh in this series on posts devoted to the wines from which I learned the most, going back to when I was a neophyte trying to learn about wine and how to make notes. We’re still in my first notebook, which encompassed the wines of 1983.

The date is August 8. The wine is the Joh. Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese Riesling 1981, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. We — my first wife and I –had prum.jpg driven to New Orleans to visit our friend Bill Gebauer, with whom I taught English at Memphis State University from 1969 to 1974, and he gave me this wine, which he bought at Martin’s Wine Cellars. We brought the wine back to Senatobia, Miss., south of Memphis, where we were teaching, and drank it with chicken curry. Of course such a wine, with its German locutions, required a flurry of reference book checking: “Wehlener” the village; “Sonnenuhr” the vineyard; riesling the grape, naturally; “Spatlese” the second degree of ripeness of grapes in German high quality wines.

At the time, my vocabulary felt rather inadequate to describe the wine. It was certainly sweet, but very well-balanced, very lively, “with a full, round taste,” “the sweetness disguised as a kind of exceptional suave smoothness,” says my notes, “not cloying or heavy in the least.”

The price was about $12.50.

Other wines we drank from the middle of July to the first week of August that year, in our quest for the most varied wine experiences:

*Heitz Cellars Gewurztraminer 1979, California. $5.58.
*Clos du Bois Merlot 1979, Napa Valley. $9.99. (I thought the price was too high.)
*Bolla Bardolino 1980. $4.85. (“Chilled a little, it improved immensely.”)
*Weingut E. Schmitz Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett 1978, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. $6.85.
*Louis Jadot Cote de Nuits-Villages 1974. $11.65. (A disappointment.)
*Leonard Kreusch Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay Riesling (Vintage Unknown). Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. (This thoroughly undistinguished wine was from the list of Masson’s Restaurant in New Orleans. The price there was $9.50)
*Bandiera Chardonnay 1982, Mendocino. $6.49.
*Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, North Coast. $5.99. (A really good cabernet. We drank it with boiled brisket, carrots and onions.)
*Henri de Villamont Pouilly-Fuisse 1982. Price unknown. (“Didn’t deliver much.”)
*Derwaltung der Staatweinguter Steinberger Kabinett Riesling 1979, Rheingau. $9.49.
*Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico Riserva 1979. $2.99!!!!!
*Bandiera Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Sonoma County. $5.59.

So the Wine Spectator has egg all over its face, and the upscale lifestyle, oops, wine journal becomes even more the mag we love to hate.

This story was published in Wines & Vines magazine and picked up by Alder Yarrow at Vinography. Here’s what happened.

For years WS has offered Awards of Excellence for restaurant wine lists. Lists that receive the award multiple times are elevated to a Grand Awards level. The results of the competition are published annually in a hefty issue of the magazine, and I say hefty because Awards of Excellence go to restaurants all over the world, though mainly, of course, in the United States and Europe. “Wow,” you’re thinking, “how can the magazine’s staff or even hired free lancers visit all of those restaurants?” They don’t. The awards are based on wine lists submitted by the restaurants, along with a $250 application fee. Only the Grand Award winning restaurants actually get visits from the magazine.

This would seem to be a system ripe for corruption, if not simply ineptness. I know that in my hometown, Memphis, when I dine at a restaurant whose wine list has received an Award of Excellence from WS, my reaction is usually, “You have got to be kidding. This list is as standard as they come.”

So, iconoclast — and the problem with iconoclasts is that they are usually self-anointed — Robin Goldstein decided to test the Awards of Excellence program, and I have to admit that as a sting, this is pretty freaking sublime. Goldstein created a fake restaurant in Milan, concocted a website for this fake restaurant, compiled a wine list and submitted it, with the $250 application fee, to WS, which granted the fake restaurant an award. The real nub of the deception is that among the wines Goldstein chose for the wine list of the fake restaurant were Italian wines that had received mediocre scores from — can you guess? — WS’s own reviewing staff. That’s diabolical. He also obsessed about the details, providing a real street address so a Google search would pull up a map and posting reviews from diners on Chowhound (since deleted).

Does this elaborate stunt, rather like shooting a very large fish in a very small barrel with a gun you made yourself, prove that WS’s Awards of Excellence program is completely fraudulent? No, it simply proves that like any organization, WS is susceptible to fraud. Obviously WS makes scads of money from the application fee, a fact that in itself should raise eyebrows (“how else can be rake in some dough?”), but the fake restaurant and wine list incident doesn’t mean that all the awards are suspect; it does cast a pall, however, on the accomplishments of the (perhaps too few) restaurants that do deserve the award.

Here is WS’s reply, posted on the magazine’s website here.

While the response is measured, this is not the time for WS to be crying that it was sucker-punched. Founder and publisher Marvin Shanken and editor Thomas Matthews need to take this incident, ludicrous as it may be, to heart and order a thorough evaluation of the Award of Excellence system. It’s been my experience, visiting restaurants around the country with WS award wine lists, that the club has too many members.

And while we’re all indulging in chuckles and chortles at WS’s expense — I mean, it’s so easy — don’t forget that this fraud could not have been perpetuated without the nearly infinite resources provided by the Internet. That’s the same Internet that enabled the publicists for the movie Bottle Shock to send out fake responses to blogs that mentioned the words chardonnay or Chateau Montelena or the name of the movie, thereby adding to the film’s publicity blitz without revealing that the fake posts were a form of advertising.

That made us indignant; that made us mad. The nerve of those people! Trying to defraud us!

Baby, the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.

Let’s give a shout-out for Eric Asimov, whose column in yesterday’s New York Times (and the post on his blog “The Pour”) are among the most important commentaries he has done.

The point is that on a recent trip to the Napa Valley, Asimov discovered or became reacquainted with a number of wineries that still make cabernet sauvignon wines in the “old-fashioned” style of balance and restraint, subtlety and nuance. These qualities napa_valley.jpg stand in contrast to the current fashion of super-ripe, jammy wines with lots of toasty new oak and high alcohol levels, qualities beloved by the reviewers at the Wine Spectator. Asimov’s recommendations of Napa Valley wineries that produce cabernets of balance and restraint are:

Chateau Montelena, Clark-Claudon Vineyards. Clos du Val, Continuum, Corison Winery, Dominus Estate, Dyer, Forman Vineyard, Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills, HdV Vineyards, Heitz Cellars, J. Davies, Joseph Carr, Kongsgaard, Mayacamas Vineyards, M by Michael Mondavi, Rubicon Estate, Seps Estate, Smith-Madrone, Spottswoode Estate, Tom Eddy Wines, Trefethen Family Vineyard, Truchard Vineyards, White Rock Vineyards.

Some of my favorite cabernet-based wines are on this roster — Clos du Val, Corison, Dominus, Frog’s Leap, Mayacamas,
Rubicon, Smith-Madrone, Trefethen and Truchard. The Wine Spectator often dismisses the cabernets of some of these producers with the epithets “harmonious” and “elegant,” rendering each adjective into a condescending synonym for “damning with faint praise.” When did harmony and elegance become such pejorative terms? Why did the reviewers for the Spectator start favoring big, jammy toasty fruit-bomb cabernets over the classically proportioned models? Especially since those reviewers learned to love California cabernet with the great old classic examples? Perhaps it’s simply about having the power to shape an industry or a “lifestyle” in its readers.

Anyway, I would add Mount Veeder and Oakville Ranch Estate to Asimov’s line-up. And I have a bottle of Tom Eddy’s 2002 in my rack; I’d better unlimber that little number. On the other hand, I have to say that to this palate, the red wines of Grgich Hills have displayed, for the last several vintages, unusually powerful and obtrusive earthy elements. I’m worried about what’s going on inside this venerable winery. The Grgich Hills whites, however, keep a firm grip on greatness.

The response to Asimov’s celebration of lean, supple, balanced cabernets has been interesting and polarizing. The first post after the column went up on the Times’ website came from Tom Lino:

I love young California Cabernet. I don’t usually drink them with food. I enjoy the full bodied flavors and embrace this as America’s style of wine making and consuming.

An example of the opposing view came from James Ricci:

I used to be mad for California cabs, now I’m astonished at how rarely I buy or order them. I miss them at the dinner table. Nowadays most of them might as well be port — or filler for fountain pens.

I agree with Ricci (not a surprise), but Lino has a point; why should cabernet wines made in the Napa Valley, derived from different soil and climate and sensibility, have to conform to the model of Bordeaux? They don’t, of course. They should, however, be made with a few iota of common sense and with an eye to the proper cousinage with their origins. It’s not the fruit that bothers me so much in fruity Napa Valley cabernets; it’s the over-ripe jamminess. I am more bothered by the high alcohol levels, which contribute to the wines “hotness” and cloying qualities and to the use of highly toasted French oak. Both of these elements mask the character of the grapes from which the wine was made, turning the product into just another big expensive red wine rather than something distinctive.

Let’s go back to the source, Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting. As always, I am quoting from the little edition of 1982 published in the United States by Simon & Schuster. I recently bought at a yard sale, for fifty cents, an older edition, the one of 1973, when the pamphlet was still a “Christie’s Wine Publication.”

Anyway, it’s salutary to read what Broadbent, a great taster brought up on the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, has to say about the cabernet sauvignon grape:

Without hesitation, I put cabernet-sauvignon at the head of the great red wine grapes of the world, not because I am dogmatic enough to place the finest claret, which it produces, above the finest burgundy, but because it maintains a recognizable style and character even when transplanted out of its classic home region, Bordeaux. For example, a well made ‘cabernet’ from Australia, California or Chile will have a basic family resemblance despite overtones produced by differences of soil and climate.

The cabernet-sauvignon gives red Bordeaux (claret) its quality; its depth and richness of colour, aroma and wealth of bouquet; the firm, hard, keeping qualities and length of flavour. The three keys to its recognition are its deep colour, its characteristic aroma of fresh black currants or cedar, and its particular concentrated fruity flavor combined with tannin and acidity.

Broadbent clearly appreciates the grape’s ability to remain true to itself in different environments (expressed as “overtones”), but some qualities must remain constant. Look again at the last phrase: “its particular concentrated fruity flavor combined with tannin and acidity.” There you have it, the three elements that are essential to any wine worthy of our high regard: fruit, tannin and acidity: the flavor, the structure, the aliveness.

Napa Valley vineyard image from z.about.com.

The Miquel Torres Santa Digna Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2007, from Chile’s Central Valley, is one of the best rosé wines I have tasted all summer. Tasted, hell, we gladly drank the whole bottle, over several nights of cooking dinner. The wine, made from santadigna.jpg 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, displays more personality than most rosés, being uncommonly spicy, unusually flavorful and almost unfairly robust. It remains, however, a true rosé in terms of its brilliant cerise shading into red plum color, its beguiling scents and flavors of strawberry, raspberry and cherry-berry with touches of dried fruit as well as ripe. Loads of limestone lend some seriousness to the enterprise, while crisp acid and a hint of orange rind make it lively. Drink now into 2009. About $10 and a Great Bargain.

The winery is an outpost in Chile of Spain’s well-known Torres family of wine-producers. Visit their website here.

Imported by Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York.

The object pictured here serves as a model of the principle that sometimes the most inspired ideas are the simplest. This is a peppercornwafer250-b.jpg thin disk of dark chocolate, 75 percent cacao, that holds on the center of its slightly convex surface a scattering of crushed pink peppercorns. Take a bite. The chocolate is lush, smooth, powerfully flavorful with a slightly astringent edge. Then the crunch and heat of the pink peppercorns burst on your palate, and the lushness of the intense chocolate and the flagrantly spicy, peppery effect get mixed together in a tremulous yin and yang, ego and id, Cheech and Chong of paradoxical, challenging yet wholly satisfying deliciousness.

This tiny miracle of culinary incisiveness is made by Veré (pronounced very), a chocolate company in New York City founded and directed by Kathy Moskai. Moskai has bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees in painting and fine art from the Yale School of Art and Architecture, so it’s no fluke that the packaging for Veré chocolates is quite distinctive, spare yet captivating. (Previously she was founder and president of HUE, the fashion legwear company.) All of the Veré chocolates are 75 percent cacao, made from beans sustainably grown and responsibly harvested in Ecuador. The couverture, the chocolate liquor from which candy is manufactured, is produced in Ecuador, so Veré owns the process “from bean to box.” The company uses a low glycemic sugar to keep the sweetening of the chocolate as minimal as possible. And all the ingredients for the flavored bars are organic.

So, all these details can make you feel good about yourself, if not about the world in general, but forgetting that do-gooder agenda, what are the Veré chocolates like?

We spent several weeks trying various products from the company, the truffles (almost more savory than sweet), the brownies, the flavored bars, the clusters, truffleboxes300.jpg the caramels, the pink peppercorn wafers (wafer are also available in cacao nibs, espresso, tamari almond and spicy pepita) and the “Crunchy Stuff.” (All these products were supplied by the company.) With a couple of exceptions, they were flat-out wonderful.

The artistic philosophy of Veré seems to be understatement. Truffles (a box of four for $10; 16 for $35) and caramels (a box of four for $8, 16 for $28) are small, about the size of one die. Truffles come in cream, cognac, coffee and Earl Grey tea; the caramel flavors are lavender (decadent), rose and pistachio (wonderful), walnut and fennel, the Asian-themed ginger and sesame, lemon and poppy seed (like a pound cake), cinnamon and pecan, spicy pumpkin seed and salt and cacao nibs. Brownies (12 for $12) occupy all of one bite. The wafers come five to a box (for $7.50, cheap in my view); so it was two each for LL and me, and then we had to call in a team of surveyors to measure and divide the fifth.

We also doted on the Organic Bars, especially the Espresso + Anise and the Raspberry + Lemon, while the Ultimo Dark was like mainlining chocolate right into the brain. We didn’t care for the Banana + Macadamia Organic Bar; it just wasn’t a winning combination for us.

The clusters, chocolate-almond and so on, seemed pointless, almost primitive. Likewise the “Veré Crunchy Stuff” snack mixes — Pump’dcorn, So Good It’s Nuts and Coco Crisp — though that didn’t prevent us from scarfing the stuff down. Still, Veré is best when its products are the most pure and intense.

Now, as to the wine.

We had some friends over for dinner, and I served Veré chocolates for desserts, four small pieces each on large white plates, chapoutierbanyuls.jpg befitting the elegant and quasi-religious nature of the Veré experience. I opened a bottle of Banyuls 2004 from the great Rhone producer, M. Chapoutier (about $24). Banyuls is a vin doux naturels, that is, a fortified wine to which a spirit is added before fermentation is complete, raising the alcohol level and keeping the wine sweet. The region Banyuls is far from the Rhone, though, being at the far western edge of Roussillon, overlooking the Mediterranean, almost to Spain. The primary grape is grenache noir.

This example was luscious, offering roasted plums, black currants and fruit cake with hints of orange zest, dried spices and even a hint of bittersweet chocolate. It’s similar to port but lighter, more delicate than intense or weighty. It was delightful with the Veré chocolates.

A couple of nights later, I grilled a ribeye steak outside and to drink with it, I opened a bottle of a new wine, the Phifer Pavitt “Date Night” Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley (about $75). A few inches of wine remained in the bottle when we finished dinner, and on an impulse, I said, “Let’s try this with a couple of the truffles and caramels.” I’ll be writing about this wine more thoroughly in a week or so, in a post about California cabernets from 2005, but let me say that this sumptuous wine’s combination of black fruit flavors, especially like roasted, meaty plums, and its elements of mocha and dried ancho chilies and its vibrant mineral character with the Veré chocolates made us feel as if our timbers had been shivered, our socks turned inside out and fires lit along the little watchtowers of our taste buds. This was a seriously seriously good match.

Veré products are available pretty extensively in New York and California and in a more limited manner in a dozen other states. Visit the company’s website for more information or to order online.

Just to show you that we’re not only about wines that cost $200 a bottle, as we wrote about yesterday. These will be more in climbing_chard_06_rgb.jpg tune with the pocketbooks of real people, like you and me.

*Oak Grove “Reserve” Sauvignon Blanc 2007, California. This is fresh, clean, delicate and dry; peach and pear flavors are mildly herbal and grassy, faintly floral, all set into a pleasing texture that balances moderate lushness with crisp acid. A touch of bitterness buoys the finish. A nice aperitif or to serve with light picnic fare. Good+, and certainly worth about $8.

*Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2007, California. Though the designation is California, 93 percent of the fruit for K-J’s Vintners Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ’07 comes from Lake County, the rest from Mendocino and Sonoma counties. And it’s a blend of 95 percent sauvignon blanc grapes, 4.4 percent semillon, and 0.3 percent each viognier and muscat canelli. And, 8 percent of the wine was fermented and aged in new oak, though we are not told what kind or for how long. I don’t mean to overwhelm readers with technical information, but I want to point out that K-J winemaker Randy Ullom spends considerable amount of time working on the details of the Vintners Reserve wines, trying to give them personality as well as a soupcon of character. The result here is a wine that’s incredibly clean and bright and refreshing, bursting with snappy grapefruit, lime zest and gooseberry scents and flavors with a touch of melon and pear. Dried thyme and tarragon (and a hint of honeysuckle) weave their way through the wine, which finishes with an explosion of spice and limestone. Very Good, and A Bargain at about $11. nobilopinotgris.jpg

*Nobilo Pinot Gris 2007, East Coast, New Zealand. About $13. Nobilo’s Pinot Gris ’07 spends three months in oak, and you feel it in your mouth like a soft burr (yielding a lovely texture), in the way (if we can use a metaphor from a vastly different medium) that ink spreads delicately yet irrevocably through the lines on an etching plate. I don’t mean to make the wine sound dark and heavy; it is, rather, clean and fresh and delightful, with bright lemon-lime and lemon curd flavors permeated by dried Provencal herbs and potpourri and, on the finish, hints of spice and limestone. This is a bit more serious than most people are prepared for in a pinot gris (or pinot grigio), but it’s definitely worth trying. Very good+ and A Bargain at about $13.

*Climbing Chardonnay 2007, Orange, Australia. The high-elevation Orange region is about three-and-a-half hours drive west of Sydney. This is an extremely attractive chardonnay. Partially barrel-fermented and then aged six months in new French barrels, the wine bears its oak lightly, in the form of spice and smoke and a suave texture leavened by crisp acid and mineral elements. It’s clean and crisp, well-balanced and tasty with grapefruit and pineapple flavors that open to hints of roasted lemon and mango. Bottled with a screw-cap for easy opening. Very good+. About $15.

*Morgan Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Monterey. Always one of the best. Fifteen percent semillon grapes give the wine’s bright lemon, lime and grapefruit flavors a touch of leafiness and spiced fig. It’s notably clean and crisp, deftly balanced between ripe fruit and tartness; there’s a definite new-mown-grass quality, but the wine avoids overt “grassiness.” Hints of peach and melon come up after a few minutes in the glass; the finish is dense with grapefruit and limestone. A large portion of the wine, 85 percent, spends three months in French oak, but only 8 percent of the barrels are new, so the wood influence is almost subliminal. lee-family-farm-label-verdelho-2007.jpgExcellent, and Great Value. About $15.

*Lee Family Farm Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho 2007, Alta Mesa. The Lee Family Farm is a pet project of Dan Lee, long-time owner and winemaker for Morgan. Alta Mesa is a subregion of the Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area); it’s a warm growing area with cool late afternoons, well-suited to the Portuguese verdelho grape. Ron Silva, owner of Silvaspoons Vineyard, was the first person to plant the grape in California. This version of verdelho is absolutely irresistible. It’s a cool, crisp, almost elegant wine, with lemon curd and lemon balm scents and flavors highlighted by melon and grapefruit. And it’s snappy and a bit sassy, with the fresh attack of green apple and white pepper tapering to pear and gentle spice in the finish. Gentle also is the oak, which is like a soft burgeoning that brings moderate lushness to a lovely texture. Excellent, and Great Value at about $15. Production was 350 cases, so mark it Worth a Search.

Forgive my play on words: The truth about truth. In truth, it’s a bold stroke to name a winery Vérité — “truth” — not only because of the reference to the familiar Latin tag In vino, veritas — “In wine, there is truth” — but because of its powerful implication: “This wine is the truth.”

Vérité, of course, is French, and the winery is, in a sense, an outpost of France, and Bordeaux specifically, in Sonoma County. verite.jpg Winemaker for Vérité is Pierre Seillan, who grew up on his family’s estate in Armagnac, worked in Saumur-Champigny in the Loire Valley and spent 20 years as technical director and winemaker for seven chateaux in various regions of Bordeaux. He came to California, as vigneron, that is, as vineyardist as well as winemaker, for Vérité in 1997.

The philosophy is simple: To use excellent grapes from small, climatically and geographically ideal vineyards to make red wines on the model of three of Bordeaux’s great red wine appellations: Pomerol, St. Emilion and Pauillac. Those areas correspond to the three labels that Vérité produces: La Muse (merlot-dominated Pomeral); Le Désir (merlot with more cabernet franc, as in St. Emilion); and La Joie (more cabernet sauvignon than merlot, as in Pauillac).

The wines receive the same oak treatment, 16 months in all new French barrels, and the alcohol levels stay consistently between 14 and 14.2 percent.

What you do not perceive in these classically structured and mainly reticent wines are toasty new oak, sweet alcohol, over-ripe jammy fruit, low acid and excessively velvety textures, the quintet of sins that permeate so many red wines made in California.

I tasted the Vérité wines from 2004 back to 2001 blind with a group of friends on a Sunday afternoon, people in wholesale and retail and fellow-blogger Benjamin Carter. I say “blind,” but of course I knew what the wines were; I told my friends only that they would be trying red wines. After the first flight, when I asked if anyone would hazard a guess as to the grapes or origins of the wines, all but one person said, “Cabernet and Bordeaux.” The dissenter, Angela Moon, who works in retail, said, “Cabernet, sure, but they’re California, in fact, I would say Sonoma.” I responded with a cool and measured “Interesting,” while the thought-cloud above my head said, “Holy shit, she’s good.”

We began with La Muse 2004 through 2001.

La Muse 2004. (Merlot 85.55%, cabernet franc 7.7%, cabernet sauvignon 4.1%, malbec 2.65%) Pungent bouquet, minerals, bittersweet chocolate, black raspberry, cedar and tobacco, touch of black olive and bell pepper. Awesome tone, structure and v04lmrwf.jpg presence, a massive wine yet exquisitely balanced; the oak, tannin and acid feel as if they had been assembled and set in motion by the finest Swiss watchmakers. Wonderful purity and intensity of black fruit, etched with a keen and formidable line of iron that penetrates the long, cool, slightly austere finish. 759 cases. Best from 2009 through 2016 to ’20. Excellent.

La Muse 2003. (Merlot 84%, cabernet franc 10%, cabernet sauvignon 5%, malbec 1%) More tannins here, at least more in evidence, an earthier and more minerally wine than La Muse ’04; Very solid, very dense and chewy, packed with spice, grainy tannins and polished oak, quite dry and austere; all about structure. 884 cases. Try from 2010 to 2015 to ’20. Very good+ with a “patience required” attached.

La Muse 2002. (Merlot 92.5%, cabernet franc 7.2%, malbec 0.3%) Rates a “wow” right off. Big, embracing, ripe and roasted, meaty and fleshy, smoke, minerals. Spiced and macerated black currant and black cherry flavors are permeated by cedar and black olive. The bouquet keeps coming at you, while in the mouth the wine delivers huge, almost gritty tannins and a whole roster of earthy minerals. Tremendous vibrancy and resonance. 1,485 cases. Drink now through 2012 to ’17. Excellent.

La Muse 2001. (Merlot 87%, cabernet franc 12%, malbec 1%) A wine of paradox; cool, sweet, ripe and engaging on one hand; huge, earthy, close to rustic, almost a flurry of raw power on the other hand. And somehow these forces do not contend but are inextricably balanced in a gratifying display of dynamism married to elegance. Allow this a few minutes in the glass (or decant it) and give it a chance to harmonize. 1,252 cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent.

Remember that Désir, with its increase in percentage of cabernet franc, is Seillan’s emulation of the wines of St.-Emilion.

Le Désir 2004. (Merlot 49.2%, cabernet franc 46.9%, cabernet sauvignon 3.8%, malbec 0.1%) The first impression is of oak, then a sense that the wine is burly and beefy, ripe and fleshy; elements of wheatmeal, dried porcini and brambles brood in the v04ldrwf.jpg mid-range over a background of iron-like tannins. This is, on my palate, a tough customer that needs five or six years to soften and then should drink well through 2018 to ’20. Production was 791 cases. Very good+ with the potential to reach an Excellent rating.

Le Désir 2003. (Merlot 44%, cabernet franc 41%, cabernet sauvignon 11%, malbec 4%) This was one of my favorite wines of the tasting. Ripe and fleshy black currant and black cherry scents can scarcely contain their complement of potpourri, sandalwood and that touch of snappy clean linen that only the most classic wines of St.-Emilion reveal. The wine is remarkably intense and concentrated, pent with energy waiting to unfurl itself, though for the present its weight of oak and tannin produces a very dry austere finish. 1,538 cases. Great potential from 2010 or ’11 through 2018 to ’21. Excellent.

Le Désir 2002. (Merlot 52.7%, cabernet franc 41.2%, cabernet sauvignon 5.1%, malbec 1%) Another classic wine, deep and resonant and vibrant, so clean, pure and intense that it feels alive in the glass. Fruit consists of vivid black currant and black cherry permeated by black olive and bell pepper and a touch of cedar, while tannin asserts itself in elements of beetroot, wheatmeal, dried porcini and minerals. 1,001 cases. A great wine for drinking now (with a steak) through 2016 to ’20. Excellent.

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