February 2009

My macaroni and cheese has six cheeses: Sharp cheddar, Monterey Jack, colby, bleu cheese (Point Reyes Bleu), gruyere and parmesan. I start with four cups of bechamel sauce into which I stir two cups of shredded cheeses (which makes it a Mornay sauce) and then mix the cooked macaroni and sauce in a large bowl. I add more shredded cheeses, diced country ham and a few chopped tomatoes. Once the mixture is spread in a baking dish, I scatter over the top handfuls of panko bread crumbs tossed with shredded cheeses and finally, over all, I grate more gruyere and parmesan. About 30 minutes at 375 degrees will do it, though it doesn’t hurt to turn on the broiler for a minute or two so those bread crumbs get toasty and crusty. Yum!

For wine, I opened a bottle of the Matua Valley Pinot Noir 2008, from New Zealand’s Marlborough region. This is an inexpensive matua_logo.jpg pinot noir that may lack great dimension but gets the details right. The color is medium ruby-cranberry; the bouquet offers cloves and allspice, cranberry and cola and red and black currants with a hint of melon. In the mouth, the currant and blueberry flavors develop elements of dried spice and potpourri and a touch of earthiness. The wine ages briefly in a combination of new and used French oak and stainless steel, a process that retains the grape’s fresh appeal and zestiness, while contributing a firm satiny texture. No blockbuster here but a model of charm and delicacy and delicious fruit. Very Good+. About $14.
FWE Imports, Napa California.

Trivium is a collaboration of Napa Valley grape-grower Doug Wright, winemaker Jack Stuart and marketer Stu Harrison. The trivium.jpg winery’s debut product is Trivium Les Ivrettes Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, St. Helena. Composed of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, the wine spent 19 months in oak, 85 percent French barrels, 60 percent new.

This is a great Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Nothing opulent or flamboyant here, the wine beautifully balances elegance and power and seems to draw for its dense and concentrated character upon the nature of the soil and strata on which the vineyard stands.

The bouquet is deep and rich, packed with cedar and lead pencil, wheat-meal and walnut shell, and black currants slightly macerated and roasted. This is a cabernet of awesome purity and intensity that gradually unfurls a seamless amalgam of ripe black fruit, formidable but smooth tannins and polished oak, all enlivened by plangent acidity. The presense, the substance are tremendous, yet the wine feels neither obvious nor ponderous. The finish brings in some austerity, along with notes of fruit cake and baking spice. A terrific achievement that devotees of classic Napa cabernet won’t want to miss. Best from 2010 through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $60.

Production was 318 cases, so mark this wine Worth a Search.

Valentine’s Day this year coincided with Pizza-and-Movie Night, which we would not forgo, of course, and besides, we learned long ago never, ever to dine out on Valentine’s, because restaurants are over-crowded and rushed and never at their best. 23157.jpg Still, we had to have some champagne to celebrate, so I hightailed it to our neighborhood retail store and bought a bottle of the A.R. Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996. Only the best for LL and me!

Blanc des Blancs means that the champagne is made only from chardonnay grapes; most champagnes are a blend of chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir. Grand Cru means that the grapes came only from the highest rated vineyards in the region. Vintage 1996 in Champagne is usually described as “extraordinary” and “superb.”

The A.R. Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996 is a highly individual wine. The color is a radiant medium gold with a faint green tinge; the froth of tiny bubbles swirls tempest-like up the glass to break at the surface. The bouquet offers guava and quince with a hint of pineapple backed by roasted hazelnuts, almond skin and fresh biscuits. Twelve years have added substance to this champagne without rendering it heavy or ponderous; think of it as dignity and gravitas buoyed by a sense of fleetness and delicacy. Acidity is citrus-clean and apple-bright, paving the way for a scintillating limestone element. The finish brings in buttered toast, roasted pears and cloves. This champagne should continue to deepen and darken its spicy, toasty hues through 2012 to 2015 or ’16. Excellent. I paid $68; prices around the country range from about $55 to $75, a bargain for the quality and considering that it’s champagne..

Opici Import Co., Glen Rock, N.J.

Can it be that hard to make great or even good pinot noir wines? Sure, it’s a delicate grape, a little high-strung, requiring careful nurture. Here, however, is my more than reasonable dicta to (mainly) producers in California, for whom pinot noir is a sort of Holy Grail: Lay off the oak! Avoid deep extraction! Keep the freakin’ alcohol at a sane level!

See how simple it is?

The errant pinot noirs that I’m going to mention today don’t necessarily taste bad; I don’t mean that you would spit them out in a gush of disgust. They just don’t taste (or look or smell) like pinot noir. These are the pinot noir wines that would sit before a Senate subcommittee and confess, “Yes, Your Excellency, in 2006 I did indulge in performance-enhancing substances, but my doctor made me do it.”

Now I understand that there’s no reason why pinot noir producers in California and Oregon should slavishly imitate the manner of pinot noir made in Burgundy, the grape’s natural homeland. Differences in geography, climate, soil and philosophy dictate varied approaches to farming and winemaking and of the impressionable grape itself to these conditions. I have found myself frequently defending a pinot from Russian River Valley or Santa Rita Hills from charges that it is “too Californian.” Yet the essence of the grape should and must remain intact; where a pinot noir wine is powerful, that power should be married to delicacy, and where it is dynamic, that dynamism should be allied with elegance. The world of wine has room for blockbusters; we call them syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel. Pinot noir requires finesse, a lighter touch.

Here, then, are five pinot noirs wines from four regions of California that displeased me to greater or lesser degrees, but mainly by taking on the pumped-up character of other grapes. I will, next week, post reviews of pinot noirs wines that I do, indeed, admire.

I swear, sometimes I don’t know what to think of X Winery. In some ways, I’m a great admirer. Certainly the winery’s flagship xpinot.jpgproduct, Amicus, which debuted in the 2000 vintage, is a great Napa Valley cabernet-based wine that happens to sell for half or a third of what comparable wines sell for. (My reviews of the two Amicus wines from 2005 are here.) X’s merlot and regular cabernet sauvignon are always compellingly sleek and integrated; the petite sirah is appropriately rustic and bumptious; and the blended X Winery Red Wine and the “ES” Sauvignon Blanc are consistently attractive bargains.

But I blow hot and cold on X’s chardonnay. I thought that the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros, Napa Valley, was pretty much a travesty, made more so because the chardonnay that the Truchard winery itself makes from these vines is exquisite. On the other hand, the X Winery Chardonnay 2007, Los Carneros, from the Truchard Vineyard (54%) and the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard (46%) is one of the best, most balanced and integrated, yet boldly flavorful chardonnays X Winery has made to date; I mean you just want to kiss the limestone. It rates Excellent, and at $19, it’s a steal. That’s nice and all that, but such inconsistency is disturbing.

The point here is that I feel the same way about the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 as I did about its chardonnay counterpart from 2006. The wine ages 12 months in 90 percent French oak, of which 30 percent of the barrels were new; that might not be too much oak for some wines, but it was too much for this one, which is dominated by a strident brown sugar element, aggressive spice and downright woodiness. I expect — no, hope for –more finesse from this producer. 784 cases. Good only. About $25.
I’ll back-track for a second here and say that the Hahn Estates Pinot Noir 2006, Monterey County, did not displease me greatly, but it certainly didn’t please me a great deal either. This would be a nifty wine if it were a syrah, but it is, of course, not. Nothing wrong with the oak regimen here; 10 months in French oak, 65 percent new, seems right. The alcohol, however, is 14.5 percent, and the sweet heat and over-ripeness of alcohol really make themselves known. The wine is big and ripe, intense and concentrated, with macerated and roasted black currants and blackberries; did I mention syrah already? The texture is so super-satiny that it envelops your tongue; you feel almost as if you can’t get away from it. Not a bad wine if it were something else, but not a good pinot noir. Good+. About $20.
Spice dominates the Ventana Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, from start to finish, and by the time I got to that finish, I could have been convinced that what I was drinking was a very spicy, very ripe merlot or a slightly mild-mannered syrah. Sorry, there was nothing particularly pinot noirish about this wine. It aged 10 months in French oak — we are not informed about the percentage of new to old barrels — and the alcohol is a sane 13.5 percent; no red flags there. Still, I kept hoping for something more distinctively characteristic of the grape than spicy black cherry and plum flavors and a smooth texture. Not that it tasted bad or anything; the wine was actually attractive. It just didn’t smell or taste like pinot noir, and it is, I believe, the responsibility of a winemaker, whatever his or her vision of a wine, to give us a wine that’s varietally true. Good+. About $28.
When the initial aromas of a pinot noir wine are smoke and charred beef, you know you’re in trouble. That was the case with the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, a “pinot noir” so dark and spicy, so robust and hearty, so laced with qualities of leather and black pepper, that you would have sworn it was — need I say it? — a syrah. I’m a fan of MacMurray’s Pinot Gris, which is one of the best in California, and I have usually liked the winery’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This Russian River Valley version, however, was beyond the pale. Good+. About $37.

This is the point in this post where some readers (and perhaps winemakers) are beginning to get restive and mutter, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, telling winemakers that the wines they have worked on and exercised their thoughts and talents on happen to be not varietally true? Sheesh!”

Listen: Grapes have character, and they have characteristics, and while it’s true that the character and characteristics of grapes must necessarily admit variations that derive from the soil where they are grown and the climate that influences them, they still must retain the core, the heart of their essence. Whatever its regional influences, a wine based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, for example, should be identifiable by its essence of black currant, slate, cedar and tobacco, whether made in Pauillac, the Napa Valley or the Hunter Valley. In fact, that sense of a grape’s essential nature bolstered by and integrated with regional qualities should provide one of wine-tasting and drinking’s most profound pleasures.

Some grapes are more malleable than others, as witness sauvignon blanc wines made, say, in Sancerre, Graves, Lake County and Marlborough. What a heady set of variations that geographical extent produces, yet the wines are still identifiable as sauvignon blanc. Less malleable is the pinot noir grape, whose essential (and potentially glorious) character allows only a narrow range of variations, lest it be turned into something perverse.

The word “malleable” is important, because it implies the influence of the human element, the laying on of hands in the process of turning grapes into wine. There is no such matter as a truly “hands-off” approach to winemaking, but those hands must be gentle, not manipulative, offering guidance and nurture, not forceful shaping or ego-driven intervention. The eloquence of a wine, its ability to express the natural character of its grapes, come not from the winemaker but from the grapes themselves. The winemaker’s job is to make certain that those grapes sing. When a merlot smells and tastes like zinfandel, when a pinot noir smells and tastes like syrah, when a gruner veltliner smells and tastes like chardonnay, a great and sad failure has occurred.
I was speaking of character. The Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2005, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, on the other hand, is a caricature. Far from being “classically elegant,” as the material that came with the wine asserts, this is a big, beefy, body-builder of a pinot noir, packed with the off-putting brown sugar quality that distinguishes too many pinot noirs made in California, especially if, like this wine, they have gone through 15 months in oak. This wine is deeply extracted, dark, weighty, exaggerated and, as far as reflecting its origins goes, not a success. 720 cases. About $65.

… with the steelhead salmon that LL was preparing for dinner last night. Looking in the wine refrigerator in the garage, all I saw were bottles of chardonnay from California, and I knew by experience what kind of chardonnays these were: big, blowsy, brassy, buttery and blechy. So I went to my neighborhood retail store and bought a bottle of the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc cbv_07_final1.jpg Viognier 2007. Much better!

Steelhead salmon is leaner than some other members of this finny tribe, so LL seared these fillets briefly, wrapped them in strips of prosciutto and roasted them at 350 degrees for 10 or 12 minutes. While orzo was cooking, she sauteed snow peas with chopped tomatoes, red onions and capers. That was dinner, and a fine one it was.

Pine Ridge’s Chenin Blanc Viognier is one of California’s great bargain wines. For 2007, the blend is 80 percent chenin blanc, from Clarksburg (west of Sacramento, where the grape grows best in the Golden State), and 20 percent viognier from Lodi. The alcohol level is a sensible and quaffable 12.8 percent. Made all in stainless steel, this is a captivatingly fresh and appealing wine. The bouquet teems with pear and yellow plum and a cold green grape element, wreathed with camellia and honeysuckle. The wine is notably crisp and lively. Flavors of lemon and pear are giving a slight twist of grapefruit for its zestiness and hint of bitterness on the finish. The texture is lovely, smooth and silky. The 2008 version of this wine will be released soon, but there’s plenty of the ’07 around. Very Good+. I paid $14, but you can find it around the country as low as $9. Closed with a screw-cap for easy opening.

Cod stew with tomatoes, spinach, chickpeas and paprika.
We had obtained a beautiful piece of cod from Whole Foods, and of course the logical step would have been to prepare the old tried-and-true cod stew with chorizo, leeks and potatoes, one of our favorite dishes. LL, however, said, “I’m sorta sick of chorizo. Go online and see if you can find another cod stew recipe.” And I did, and I did find another recipe, a Spanish dish of cod with tomatoes, spinach and chickpeas with paprika. That’s it in the picture. It was hearty and delicious, and we’ll definitely cook it again.

For wine, I opened a bottle of the just-released St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. This wine is so fresh and supery.jpg scintillating that it practically knocks you off your feet. Aromas of snappy lime and grapefruit completely permeate each other and are further imbued with hints of tarragon and thyme and new-mown hay. In the mouth, the wine is jazzy and juicy, completely dry yet lusciously flavorful with those lime and grapefruit elements married to pear and peach and a touch, a little zing at the core, of sunlit, leafy black currant. Acidity here is like a shining blade animating a structure that’s lean and spare and elegant. A super-attractive sauvignon blanc. Excellent. About $23.

Even the heel of Italy’s boot gets more wine respect these days than Campania, once home — in the days of toga-wearing Romans — to some of the Mediterranean’s greatest wines. Though a shadow of its former vinous self, Campania seems poised for a comeback. Slowly, the region of which the colorful and paradoxical city of Naples is the capital is producing more wines from its official D.O.C. (denominazione di origine controllata) areas; as recently as 2005, Campania’s output of D.O.C. wines was only 3.5 percent of the total production, which means, basically, that 96.5 percent of the wine made in Campania is industrial plonk. Transformation is due.

Much of the change in Campania — the meaning of the word, “countryside,” conveys a sense of its ancient agricultural heritage and importance — is being fueling by small, dedicated producers who work with indigenous grapes, often in organic or biodynamic conditions. While not denigrating the achievements of Mastroberardino, the producer that has dominated the wine industry in Campania, at least southern Campania, for decades, it’s refreshing to see new and authentic wines made from unfamiliar grape varieties emerging from forgotten geographical and historical byways.

Here are reviews of six wines from Campania that we tried recently, two whites and four reds that are notable for their personality, individuality and depth. These are imported by Domenico Selections, a fledgling company in New York that focuses on artisan Italian wines. Availability is limited.

People looking for obscure grape varieties to add to their lists for admission to The Century Club will be happy that the Reale Andrea Aliseo 2007, Colli di Salerno (“hills of Salerno”) is a blend of 40 percent each biancazita and biancolella and 20 percent pepella. The rest of us will delight in Aliseo’s highly individual qualities, its winsome aromas of spicy lemon drop and roasted lemon wreathed with quince and smoke, its silken texture that takes energy from vibrant acid and notes of damp limestone. While this feels like a golden, sunny wine, its spicy character deepens after a few minutes, adding, to the lemon and pear flavors bass tones of earth, snuffed candle and, curiously, Yunnan tea. Very Good+. About $20.

We drank this quite contentedly with a pasta I put together of leftover roasted salmon, broccoli florets and bread crumbs, grounded by minced garlic and red onion.
The Angelrosa Greco di Tufo 2007 sports a radiant golden color. A bouquet of nettles, brambles and green tea opens to a beguiling scent of mountain meadow honey (though the wine is bone dry), pear and woody spice. The structure is spare but not sinewy, and the texture is restrained, elegant yet full and round; you feel the wine molding itself to your tongue and palate, but not obsequiously. Citrus flavors are given a zesty grapefruit finish that charges through minerally layers of shale and damp pomace. This is a deeply individual and completely satisfying white wine that will probably drink well (stored properly) through 2011 or ’12, particularly with shellfish. Excellent. About $23.
We drank the Reale Cardamone 2006, Colli di Salerno, with pizza, and its robust blend of 80 percent piedirosso grapes (“red-foot”) and 20 percent tintore proved to be delicious yet serious enough that it called to mind dry-aged rib-eye steaks or roasted venison with juniper. Matured 10 months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and large oak casks, the wine is deep, dark, smoky, spicy and tarry. Aromas of dried red and black currants, plums and mulberries are permeated by mossy earth and minerals, sassafras and something wild like blueberries and rose hips. Vibrant with keen acidity, the wine fills the mouth with notes of lavender and licorice, blackberry and blueberry jam, but it’s formidably dry and rigorously structured; tannins you could roll around on your tongue lend resonance and austerity to the finish. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Excellent, and Great Value at about $20.
Part of the Terra di Vento Petrale Aglianico 2006, Colli di Salerno, went into a Bolognese sauce I made one night; the rest went into our wine glasses. Aglianico is one of the great red grapes of Campania; here it is translated into a rich, warm, spicy wine that seethes with macerated and roasted black currants and plums deeply imbued with sassafras — is that quality inherent in reds from Colli di Salerno? — and sandalwood, smoke and minerals and a vivid charcoal edge. It doesn’t take long for elements of dry underbrush and brambles to emerge and for the wine to turn increasingly austere. This will probably be best from 2010 through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $20.
You could eat the rich, meaty, tarry bouquet of the Boccella Rasott 2006, Campi Taurasini, with a spoon. Made from 100 percent aglianico grapes, the wine features macerated red currants, plums and raspberries with a hint of spicy red cherry. Wood is present, from six months in oak, but the relationship of and the integration between fruit, texture and structure could be used as a model in the world’s wine academies. There’s a touch of extravagance, even wildness in the plush density and richness of this wine, but polished, grainy tannins and burgeoning elements of earth and minerals keep it honest. This cries out for a veal chop grilled with rosemary, hot and crusty from the fire. Excellent. About $24.
The blockbuster of this group is the Reale Andrea Borgo di Gete 2005, Colli di Salerno, made from 100 percent tintore vines that average 80 or 90 years. This is a wine notable for detail, dimension and dignity shot through with dark glamor. The first impression is of aromatic woody spices like cloves and allspice, with that hint of astringency that allspice conveys. Macerated and roasted black and red currants and plums are packed with spice, with licorice and dried orange rind and black tea deeply imbued with robust tannins and a dauntless mineral quality. The wine ages 10 months in a combination of French barriques and casks, that is small and large barrels, contributing to a structure whose firmness seems unassailable. For all its size and density, however, for all the earthiness and dust and resonance, this is an incredibly alluring, even likable wine, though it should be saved for your heartiest fare. Best probably from 2010 through 2015 or ’18. Excellent. About $55.

Luzon is one of the world’s great inexpensive wines. Made in the arid plains of Jumilla in south central Spain — the region luzon.jpg receives less than 12 inches of rain a year — the wine exemplifies the dense, ripe, mossy nature that warm, dry climates elicit from grapes.

Luzon 2007 is a blend of 65 percent monastrell grapes (mourvèdre) and 35 percent syrah. The wine is robust and chewy, but finely-knit. You smell a touch of fruitcake, candied orange zest, black currants and blueberries, clean earth and minerals. Tannins feel powdery, smooth and polished; this wine slides across the palate like motor oil. Deep flavors of intense and concentrated black fruit — the theme song is “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” — are permeated by oolong tea, lavender, baking spices and granite, all somehow pulverized infinitesimally with mortar and pestle. Yeah, this is a winner, fit for rustic comfort food or, as we drank a bottle last night, standing around the kitchen with friends snacking on chips and almonds. Very Good+. About $8 to $11, a Terrific Bargain.

A Jorge Ordoñez Selection.

Yes, that’s tooting the old horn in a personal sense, pizza-wise, and you would think that having been making pizza about 40 times a year for the past 15 or so years superlative highs simply wouldn’t be noticed. Not so! pizza1.jpg

After taking a few bites of Saturday night’s pizza, LL said, “This pizza is close to perfect.”

What makes a pizza perfect is the crust, and this one delivered just the right balance between lightness and chewiness, and during cooking, several pockets had risen around the outer edge, providing those delightful little crunchy moments. The crust was thin, but not cracker-thin.

On top, thin slices of bell pepper, thin slices of shiitake mushrooms, oil-cured olives, chopped radicchio, a few quartered cherry tomatoes, a bit of red onion and some prosciutto. Some dots of mozzarella. No, this was not a minimalist job.

For the wine, I reached into the rack and plucked forth a bottle of the Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2007, from Australia’s 93239d.jpgBarossa Valley.

This is a shiraz — as the Australians and now lots of other people call the syrah grape — of piercing purity and intensity and profound detail and definition, like the exercise-hounds you envy at the gym, and, in fact, there is a muscular litheness and sleekness about this wine. Blackberry, blueberry and black currant flavors are deep and rich without being jammy and are permeated by typical notes of leather, earth and minerals. The mineral aspect becomes more prominent as the minutes pass, feeling like an amalgam of crushed coal, lavender and exotic spices, even as the fruit takes on a slightly macerated and stewed aspect. Tannins are polished and smooth; there’s no austerity in this Australian. Here’s a shiraz that seems born of its place — the syrah-rich Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide — and true to its grape; it’s bold but not overstated, full, dynamic and complete. Drink now through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $34.

Wine is often brought into the realm of charitable events to up the ante because of its (supposed) glamor, allure and Napa Valley Wine Auction — or Prayer Meeting sophistication. Sometimes wine is used primarily to attract people to receptions or dinners, and sometimes it becomes the object of veneration itself, auctioned to bidders who pay extravagant sums for great vintages or special bottlings because the money goes to worthy causes. Other times, it’s the so-called wine lifestyle that invokes the generosity of bidders who are promised lunches and dinners at prominent wineries in California with accommodations in winery guest-houses with “the best view of the Napa Valley.”

No harm done, of course; nonprofit organizations and foundations have to raise money some way, and if their fund-raising events provide flash and fun as well as the opportunity to drop wads of dough on the needy and those who help them, well, bless their bones. Such an effort, for example, is the well-known Napa Valley Wine Auction, held every June and a lollapalooza of a blow-out event if ever there was one, which raises millions of dollars for healthcare, affordable housing and youth services in the Valley.

I have noticed, however, that even when wine is employed as a lure to get the well-heeled and beneficent in the door, the logo.gif product itself often takes a secondary role. This is no big deal, of course; the object is to raise money. I couldn’t help noticing this phenomenon, though, Friday night when I attended a dinner on the second night of the “Wine, Women and Shoes” fantasia that benefitted Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. “Wine, Women and Shoes” was created spontaneously by Elaine Honig, founder of Napa Valley’s Honig Vineyard and Winery, as a gimmick that might attract women (and their husbands and boyfriends) to charitable functions. Now the movement has grown to he point that 20 “Wine, Women and Shoes” events around the country have raised $2.5 million for women’s and children’s causes. Honig left the winery in January 2008 to devote herself full-time to the organization.

Anyway, I found myself in pretty heady (not to mention sleek and well-turned out) company Friday night at the Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar about 15 minutes from my house. (This is a national chain that mounts an ambitious wine program.) In fact, a longtime acquaintance in the local wine trade said to me, “Who are these people? I’ve never seen them at wine tastings?” I replied, “These aren’t wine people. These are rich people.”

The program was simple: A four-course dinner accompanied by wines (two each; 22 altogether) from Oakville Ranch, Cornerstone Cellars, Domaine Carneros, Grgich Hills, Chateau St. Jean, Peju Province, Reynolds Family, St. Supery, Titus, Garbrielle Collection and Patz & Hall. Representatives from the wineries — many of them owners or winemakers — were on hand to talk about their products. About the time the third course was served, an auction began of wine and winery visits and travel packages.

Now let’s be honest. Most of the people present Friday night weren’t particularly interested in either the dinner or the wines. Their purpose was to shine amongst their well-dressed peers, to engage in hugs, kisses and general hilarity and to join enthusiastically in the game of out-bidding each other in displays of fiduciary prowess — all to benefit Le Bonheur.

My purpose, on the other hand, was to suck up juice. (Yes, I was a charity-case, myself, having been invited as a guest.) I’m familiar with these wineries and had already tasted some of the wines, but I was happy of the opportunity to try a few that had not made their way to me or that I hadn’t tasted in a while.

The dinner, I’m sorry to say, was no great shakes. The best course was the second, Peppered Scottish Salmon on a Napa Peppered Scottish Salmon on a Napa Cabbage Slaw with Sweet Pepper Emulsion: Best Dish of the Dinner Cabbage Slaw with Sweet Pepper Emulsion. Also good was the Roasted Butternut Squash and Caramelized Shallot Bisque, though, in a trite device, served in a large cocktail glass. (I understand that the kitchen then has to wash only one vessel, not a charger and soup bowl.) Beef Tenderloin on a Roasted Garlic Hash brown with a Grilled Red Onion Demi Glace, however, was an exercise in meat and potato banality that could have been turned out in any kitchen (not mine!); one expects more of Fleming’s, which tends to do a great job with meat. Worst of all was a small plate of three uninteresting “artisan” cheeses plopped down on each table with no explanation from waiters as to what they were and no bread or toasts on which to eat them, though, oddly, served with olives and strawberries.

So much for that.

The scheme was that waiters would pour wines for the room, which was sort of divided into thirds, and alternate, so that each table would get to try each wine. That system broke down within about 10 minutes, and it was every man (as it were) for himself. The result was that I wasn’t able to taste all the wines I wanted, though I was happy with what I did manage to snag.

Picture this: Table-hopping, laughter, back-slapping, announcements, a surprise belly dancer for someone’s birthday, and a general mounting of the levels of noise and joie de vivre, the auction increasing in excitement, with bids (by the time I left) going up to $15,000; and then me, taking pictures of food, tasting wine, chatting with my attractive and eloquent table-mates (these were wine people), elbowing waiters to say, “Hey, pour me some of that, please.” Sure, it was fun.

Here’s what I tasted:

From Chateau St. Jean, the nicely balanced and tasty Chardonnay 2007, Sonoma County (Very Good+, about $14, an incredible bargain).

From Domaine Carneros, the delightful Brut 2005 to start the festivities (Very Good+, about $26); and the lovely, rich, warm, spicy and delicately structured Pinot Noir 2006 (Excellent, about $35).

From Oakville Ranch, their Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley, always one of my favorite Napa chardonnays, this version boldly rich but exquisitely balanced (Excellent, about $46); and the Robert’s Blend 2005, a powerful, deeply earthy and minerally, wild and warm expression of the cabernet franc grape (Excellent, about $90).

From Cornerstone cellars, the superb Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, so solid, forceful and deep, yet beautifully balanced (Excellent, about $85).
From Patz & Hall, the Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 (Exceptional, about $55), of which my first note is “lord have mercy!” One could not ask for a more perfect model of the grape’s potential sumptuousness and strength wedded to classic lightness and clarity. And it was terrific with the salmon.

From The Gabrielle Collection, the Equilateral Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Very Good+, about $40), deep and dense, smooth and harmonious. This producer also makes the Vertex Just Red, a terrific $15-quaffer.

And the Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Excellent, about $65), the essential Napa Bordeaux-style cabernet, gorgeous but broadly fleshed out with earth and minerals and a foundation of austerity. This needs from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 or ’18.

There you have it. You can see from these wines how generous the wineries were with their donations, and of course Fleming’s was generous in turning over most of the restaurant on a busy Friday night.

No, I didn’t pony up big bucks for the evening’s charitable cause; we ink-stained wretches have little more to contribute than our wit and charm.

Ah, Charity! Ah, Life!

Image of the Napa Valley Wine Auction from napavalleyregister.com.

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