March 2009


I’m still “under the weather” a bit, so when LL asked if I would like a sandwich for lunch, like, how about grilled cheese with tomatoes and sausage and a glass of wine, my response was, Well, hell, yeah!

The cheeses were Gruyere and goat Gouda, the sausage a saucisson sec we keep on hand, also useful for pizza and pastas. When I mentioned that the sandwiches were like panini, except not pressed, she made a squashing gesture with her hands and said, “Oh, I pressed them, too,” meaning with a pot-lid in the skillet, which, when you think about it, must have been how cooks in Italy made panini before panini presses were invented. Anyway, the sandwich was delicious. Not that my lunch was better than yours. I’m just saying.

For wine, we finished a bottle of the Sausal Winery “Family” Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. The nv_famzin.jpg “Family” zinfandel represents the youngest of the winery’s estate vineyards, where the vines average 50 years old; also produced are zinfandels from vines that are 90 years old and 130 years old.

The Sausal “Family” Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 is one of the loveliest, deftest, most precisely balanced zinfandels I have ever tasted. Initially, it’s hearty and robust, exuberant with acidity and tannic power but never boisterous or bumptious; that was with meatloaf. Coming back to it the next day, though, was a revelation. The wine teemed with notes of prunes and black plums, cinnamon and allspice, fruitcake, black currant, blueberry and mulberry. Sweetly ripe, seductive and a little exotic, the wine offers beautiful equilibrium and poise, along with great swaths of earth and minerals and real tannic grip, as well as the structure and spice that come from aging 21 months in French and American oak barrels, 50 percent each. Luscious black fruit flavors are held steady by the slight rigor and austerity of the wood and tannins, yet the wine has to give itself over to the blandishments of rose petals, violets and smoke. An immensely satisfying zinfandel to drink through 2011 or ’12. Excellent. About $19, making it Great Value.

Is Wednesday too late to post a Wine of the Week? Well, no, not if I say so. Call it a short week.

Here we have a wine that may stun you with its utter familiarity, not to say ubiquity, but the selection today is the Clos du Bois Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley, sporting the new labels with which the line is adorned. Now let me make this perfectly clear: As much as we might all like to be sipping away at limited-edition, hand-crafted, family-made wines from New labels for Clos du Bois Sonoma Reserve series obscure and blazingly authentic little appellations discovered yesterday, it’s not always possible to do so. And if you’re sitting in a bar in Duluth, say, or Dallas, or Dwaynesboro, and you ask for a glass of chardonnay with your fried calamari appetizer, you would not be unhappy at all to have a glass of this dependable, well-made wine.

It’s clean and fresh, of course, balanced and integrated, easily surmounting that first level of requirement, but beyond that, the wine packs a lot of detail and dimension into a sleek, suave package. Fruit is classic pineapple-grapefruit infused with lemon balm and lemon drop and a hint of mango. Spice runs up and down the scale, but playing second fiddle to hints of roasted pear and lightly buttered toast, all of this amalgamated in a burgeoning tide of minerality. A lovely quaff to drink through the end of 2009 or into 2010. Very Good+. About $17, but often discounted as low as $14.

… no, ha ha, I don’t mean rude whites — you can find them in most bars, and in many Southern states, they’ll be packing heat legally — no, I mean two white wines from Rued Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County. The name is pronounced “ru-ed.” The family began growing grapes in the Russian River Valley since 1882 and in the Alexander Valley since 1905. Prohibition took the Rueds in the direction of apples, pears and prunes, returning to grapes, in Dry Creek Valley, in 1957. The winery itself was founded in 2004. The owners are Tom and Dee Rued; co-winemakers are their son Steve and his wife Sonia.

These white wines are instantly likable, and I don’t mean that they’re glib or facile, but that they express with immediacy the charming and authentic characters of the grapes from which they were made. Quantities are limited, so mark this pair Worth a Search.
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One sniff of the Rued Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Dry Creek Valley, draws you in, with its wreathing of fresh lime and tangerine and grapefruit, its hints of dried thyme and tarragon and a back-note of cookie dough. Notably clean and fresh, almost effervescent in nature, the wine offers pear and peach flavors inflected with leafy fig, jasmine and — way down inside — a joyful snap of caraway. The mineral element teeters between slate and limestone — think of the difference between damp roof tiles and damp gravel — while crisp acidity guarantees liveliness. Irresistible for drinking through the end of 2009. Production was 642 cases. Very Good+. About $16, a Great Bargain.
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The hallmark of the Rued Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley, is a thrilling sense of balance between classic ripe, spicy apple, pineapple and grapefruit flavors (that could so easily dominate the wine) and a factor of scintillating acidity and vibrant minerality that is almost rigorous. The wine is like a microcosm of the integration of power and elegance, so as you’re thinking, “Wow, this is so bright, so bold, so flirtatious in its spicy toastiness,” you’re also thinking, “Man, this is so clean, so pure and intense, so finely detailed.” The combination of all these elements produces a wonderful texture, vivid and lean yet close to plush, and mainly thoroughly alive in the mouth. Drink though 2010 or ’11. Production was 881 cases. Excellent, and Great Value for the price, about $18.
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So, I’m embarrassed. I concluded my post Friday about BTYH winning the “Best Wine Reviews” category in the American Wine Blog Awards with the injunction, “So, back to work.” But I didn’t do it!

Well, you have probably inferred, readers, that one of the philosophies of this blog is Never to Go Off-Topic, and while it may occasionally seem as if I skirt perilously close to violating that principle, I try to make certain that every post has something to do with drinking or eating. A five-day hiatus, however, seems to me reason enough to edge down the slippery slope of the personal and mention that I have been, as the phrase goes, “under the weather,” though isn’t that an interesting way of saying that one has been ill, since, we are always, when you think about it logically, under some kind of weather. Stew about that for a while.

Anyway, I apologize, and I’ll get things back in motion in a couple of days. Until then, thanks for all the positive reaction to the award, both here on the blog and in email messages.

You all are just so freakin’ nice!

I mean thanks to you readers and thanks to the judging panel of the American Wine Blog Awards for selecting bestwinereviewsawba-web.jpg BiggerThanYourHead as the winner in the “Best Wine Reviews” category.

The satisfaction of winning is immense, of course, but I feel the sense of honor more keenly knowing that I was competing with some of the best blogs and best writers in the wine blogging realm. What we share is a love of wine, an obsession for educating and an irresistible attraction to the power of language.

This award means that readers find what I do and how I think about and write about wine valuable, thereby entailing the responsibility for me to continue performing up to the standard I have set and that you, my readers, expect. I will, I promise, keep at it, daily, weekly, and so on. I mean, I have a back-list of wines to write about now that I need to jump into, for all our sakes!

Tremendous thanks must be offered to Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog, who conceived of the American Wine Blog Awards three years ago, created the necessity for them, nurtured the concept and shepherded it to completion. Next year, he turns administration of the AWBA over to OpenWine Consortium, which was one of this year’s sponsors. The others were Riedel Crystal and Mutineer Magazine. The gratitude of all the nominees, finalists and winners goes to these organizations.

So, back to work.

I know that I’ll feel safer dining out when the Tennessee state legislature passes a bill allowing gun-permit owners to carry their concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol. The bill advanced yesterday, but “was deferred because an amendment prohibiting guns after 11 p.m. in restaurants serving alcohol was filed late,” according to The Commercial Appeal, the newspaper in Memphis. (The legislature did pass a bill allowing concealed weapons in state and local parks, so watch oout for those angry soccer dads.) Notice that the Bullets & Burgers restaurant bill has only been delayed; I guarantee, after having lived in Tennessee for most of my life, that sure as God made little green apples the legislature will approve this bill. Similar bills are working their way through the statehouses of Virginia and North Carolina.

Let’s see if we can follow the logic of this legislative process:

1. Alcohol is an intoxicating and sometimes impairing beverage, and people who drink too much often indulge in obnoxious and even threatening behavior.

2. Ergo: Let’s allow people to carry concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol so when they get drunk and mean, they can shoot and maim and kill other patrons or restaurant staff with whom they clash!

This may not be how Aristotle would parse the proposition, but it describes the mental process of the typical denizen of Tennessee’s statehouse.

But wait! The thoughtful legislators of The Volunteer State included a caveat that should ensure the safety of diners innocently chowing down on their dinners or the waiters serving them. And that is: That people can carry concealed weapons into restaurants that serve alcohol — ready? — only if they don’t drink!

Now, the nature of a concealed weapon is that, you know, nobody knows it’s there except for the person carrying it. So will waiters and bartenders, along with asking for ID, have to ask if a patron is packing heat? Will there be signs in restaurant bars that say, “No Booze for Gun-Carriers”? Do you think that gun-toters will say to waiters, “No wine for me, thanks, I’m carrying”? No way. People with concealed weapons will be able to drink as freely as their potential victims.

We have had two incidents recently in Memphis in which people left restaurants, got their guns out of their cars, and shot someone; in one instance, a man shot and killed another man for parking too close to his car.

Turning restaurants into (concealed) armed camps on the specious argument that restaurants and bars are likely targets for robbery — so are banks and convenience stores! — is a terrible idea. The last thing I want to do is swing into a lamb shank and a glass of red wine at a local bistro knowing that the guy at the table next to me might have a .38 tucked into his waistband.

Restaurant do get robbed, of course, but they’re mainly fast-food places, and they get robbed before or after hours. The last thing robbers want is to go into some neighborhood establishment where a hundred people could be witnesses and identify them.

No, friends, the potential danger in dining out isn’t so much from robbers as from the pistol-packin’ guy who’s feeling pretty empowered by his iron. Say that robbers did barge into the place were you’re having dinner; do you want a hail of bullets ricocheting around from the guns of those concerned about their “safety”?

Image from atlanta.creativeloafing.com.

Readers of this blog know that LL and I tend to cook pretty simply at home. You can look, for example, at the posts I did last week, up until a few days ago, about what I prepared from ingredients on hand while LL was out of town. When she came back Sunday, I made black bean and butternut squash chili with Swiss chard; Monday night, she made chicken mole. That kind of thing.

Occasionally, though, I like a challenge, so for dinner last night, I turned to the cookbook Asian Flavors of Cod with Malaysian Chili Sauce Jean-Georges (Broadway Books, $40), a compendium of recipes derived from three of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Asian-inspired restaurants in New York, Spice Market, Vong and 66. I was intrigued by the recipe of the straightforwardly titled “Cod with Malaysian Chili Sauce.” (66 closed in April 2007 and reopened in June 2008 as Matsugen, a soba house.)

This is one of those dishes that requires two or three preparatory steps leading to the cooking of the primary element — the cod, in this case — and then assembling the dish. First, make the basil oil from Thai basil, grape seed oil and salt. Then cook down to a jam-like consistency a mixture of Guilin chili sauce, garlic, fresh ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, rice wine (for which you can substitute fino sherry), sugar and salt and the chopped white parts of scallions. The result is spicy, of course, but more heatedly intense and concentrated than spoiler-hot. While the cod roasts in the oven, you blanch diced celery. That’s it; all it takes is putting everything on the plate in order. It’s a great dish, with lovely and intriguing contrasts in flavors and textures, a dish which, actually, you could use at a dinner party.

For wine, I took a chance on the Loan Semillon 2005, from Australia’s Barossa Valley. I say “took a chance” because I wouldn’t typically associate the semillon grape with spicy Asian fare, but this worked beautifully, both in the sense of balance and 52936.jpg contrast. The wine boasts a perfect 13.3 percent alcohol; the grapes derive from a certified organic vineyard.

A limpid golden color with mild green highlights, the Loan Semillon 2005 — the current release of this wine — opens with scents of bee’s-wax, fig, green plum, roasted lemon and almond blossom. Give it a minute, and it tosses some lychee and lime zest into the mix. The wine ages eight months in old French barrels, lending a fine firmness of structure and a suggestion of dried spice. Moderately lush flavors of leafy fig, lemon and lime fill the mouth; fortunately — for the wine and for the dish we were eating — clean, bright acidity sweeps the palate and gives the wine a vibrant edge. Drink through 2010 or ’11. Production was 475 cases. Closed with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by The Grateful Palate, Oxnard, Ca.

Readers, voting in the American Wine Blog Awards ends tonight at 11:59. This blog was nominated in the category of “Best Wine2009awbafinalistbadge.jpg Reviews on a Blog,” and I hope you’ll take the minute or two required to follow this link — right here! — and cast a vote for BTYH. Seventy percent of the result is based on the popular vote, and that’s you! If everyone who visited this blog today — and my stats show that that should be 875-1000 of you –well, that would be so great, and I would admire you like crazy and respect you in the morning!

Thanks for the support!

The American Wine Blog Awards are organized and hosted by Tom Wark at Fermentation: The Daily Wine Blog. Sponsors are Riedel Crystal, OpenWine Consortium and Mutineer Magazine, which will announce the winners in its April/May issue, scheduled to hit newsstands on March 31.

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At first you might think that the Water Wheel “Memsie” 2007, from the Australian wine region of Bendigo, is simply charming, but a few minutes in the glass alter that perception. The wine — a radiant golden blend of 44 percent chardonnay, 32 sauvignon blanc, 13 semillon and 11 roussanne — is charming, but it unfurls detail and dimension that go beyond its price. First come aromas of peach and pear, the peach slightly macerated; then the kick of lime and orange rind, followed by honeysuckle and dusty meadows. The texture grows lush, round and soft, though crisp acidity enlivens the package, lending a strain of keen nervosity. There’s spice a-plenty, like a wooden spice box emptied out, with roasted lemon and lemon balm flavors wrapped around a core of lemon drop and Bit o’ Honey; there’s candied ripeness here (like pineapple and grapefruit) but the wine is dry. Waxy white flowers dominate the finish, along with a burgeoning tide of earthiness and minerality. This is quite a production, which would take nicely to the simplest preparation of white fish, like cod and halibut, or grilled shrimp or — in a radical move — a goat Gouda or Comte cheese. Excellent, for drinking through the end of 2009. About $16, a Great Bargain.

The last meal I prepared in LL’s absence wasn’t Saturday. That night — wonderfully snowing in Memphis — I met my daughter at Beef Salad Bari, a favorite restaurant of ours in town, to celebrate (belatedly) her birthday. We sat at the bar and ate grilled octopus with grapefruit, a platter of grilled red bell peppers and zucchini with speck and braseola (with stacks of good crusty bread), and finished with three cheeses. You know, sometimes you just have to think that the most simple, freshest, perfectly prepared food is what great eating is all about. I had an excellent Tanqueray martini (up, with one olive) and a satisfying glass of the Prunotto Fiulot 2007.

Sunday, though, I was feeling a bit peckish at lunch-time and decided to do something with the steak and pasta left over from Friday’s dinner. Remember, the penne pasta had chopped preserved lemons, oil-cured olives, roasted garlic, capers and rosemary. So I put the pasta in a bowl, sliced some of the steak in thin strips, diced a couple of little tomatoes — the dish needed some red — and chopped a few springs of cilantro. Voila! Beef salad.

I also decided to pull out six wines, for the diversity and for one of those food-and-wine matching games that are not of a huge amount of significance but are fun anyway. We mustn’t obsess about these matters.

Requiring geographical Seven-Leagues Boots, these were the wines, three whites and three reds:

Penfolds Thomas Hyland Riesling 2008, Adelaide, Australia.
La Tunella Rjgialla Selenze 2007, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy.
Renaissance Roussanne 2006, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, California.
Northwest Cellars Merlot 2005, Yakima Valley, Washington.
Colores del Sol Reserva Malbec 2008, Mendoza, Argentina.
Guardian Peak Frontier 2006, Western Cape, South Africa.
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The Penfolds Thomas Hyland label is a trove of well-made, authentic wines available for not much money, generally $14 or $15. So, the Penfolds Thomas Hyland Riesling 2008, Adelaide, offers lime, lime leaf, green apple and almond blossom in the nose, calling up hints of spice and crystallized ginger. There’s lovely purity and intensity of riesling fruit — lime, green plum, grapefruit — and a sense of lightness and delicacy about the texture, highlighted by bright acidity and a final sweep of earthy minerality. No full-throttle quality here, but an attractive, crisp, tasty riesling. The alcohol level is a mild 12 percent. Very Good+. About $14.
FWE Imports, Napa, Ca. (Foster Wine Estates). Convenienty closed with a screw-cap.
This was not a perfect match with my beef salad, but it was pleasant and did act as a foil to some elements, like the preserved lemon, capers and cilantro.
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American consumers should get used to the ribolla gialla grape, one of the treasures of Italy’s northeastern wine regions. One of the best renditions of the grape is La Tunella Rjgialla Selenze 2007, Colli Orientali del Friuli — “eastern hills of Friuli.”
Made in stainless steel and all the better for it, La Tunella Rjgialla Selenze ’07 — you see now that “Rjgialla” is not a typo — is a medium straw color; aromas of spicy roasted lemon and lemon curd with a touch of apple and pear and a hint of white blossom are enticing. The wine is suave and supple in the mouth, a model of balance and integration, with a moderately lush texture bolstered by vivid acid and a slightly dusty shale-like character. Great presence and tone, for drinking through the end of 2010. Excellent. About $27.
Imported by Quinessential, Napa Ca.

This wine actually worked fairly well with the beef salad, creating a sort of yin and yang effect with the salad’s sprightly herbal and earthy notes.
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Those of you — and may your names be legion and your tribes increase! — who have been reading me for years will remember rs2004-resized.jpgthat I’m a fan of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery in the North Yuba area of California’s Sierra Foothills. Snug in those rolling hills, the winery, under the guidance of winemaker Gideon Beinstock, produces ridiculously small quantities of superb wines. The Renaissance Roussanne 2006 is the radiant straw-gold color of Rapunzel’s hair; the entrancing bouquet unfolds a sequence of candle wax, bacon fat, camellia and peach with an infusion of lime tea. Roasted lemon, lemon curd and lemon balm dominate the palate, with a touch of pear in the background, an aspect of roasted honey — though the wine is bone-dry — and a touch of dried meadows and potpourri. The flare of keen acidity sings the wine’s honesty and integrity. The alcohol level is a gratifying and old-fashioned 12.8 percent. A seriously beautiful wine for drinking through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Exceptional. About $35. The Rub? Beinstock only made 76 cases of this wine.

Of this trio of diverse white wines, the Renaissance Roussanne 2006 performed the best at bringing itself and the flavors and herbal-spicy notes of the beef salad together, though let’s face it, we’re talking basically about a red wine dish.
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So, the first red I opened was the Northwest Cellars Merlot 2005, made from three vineyards in Washington’s Yakima Valley: nwc_m05.jpgOlsen Estates, Roza Ridge and 3 Rocks. The blend barely qualifies the wine as merlot; it’s 75 percent merlot (the minimum for a varietal wine), 13 percent syrah and 12 percent cabernet sauvignon. In an era in which winemakers strive for intense extraction and deep colors, this wine’s moderate dark ruby shading to a brick-red rim is a lovely reminder of sensible restraint. Aromas of black and red currents, black cherry, cedar and lead pencil twine with a touch of smoke; in the mouth, fairly concentrated black fruit flavors are ripe and meaty and slightly stewed, as in macerated plums and cherries. There’s nothing plush or over-ripe here; the balance between the rigor of the wine’s acid and tannic structure and the vibrant nature of its sensuous appeal is deftly handled. Very Good+, the revelation being that the suggested price is $15, making this wine a Great Bargain.

This Northwest Cellars Merlot 2005 made the best match with the beef salad, nicely bringing together the ripe fleshiness of the wine and the meaty flavors of the steak and allowing the other spicy-herbal nuances plenty of play.
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Colores del Sol “Reserva” Malbec 2008, Mendoza, is a new label from the humongous Foster Wine Estates; visit here to see the astonishing list of the company’s wineries and labels, remembering that within many of the wineries, Beringer, for example, are other products. I enclose “Reserve” thus because there’s no evidence that the winery turns out a non-reserve wine; 25,000 cases were imported, so, reserve, one asks, in relation to what? Having been snarky so far, I’ll say that this Colores del Sol 2008 is quite an enjoyable wine; it’s 100 percent malbec from the high elevation Lujan de Cuyo area of Mendoza. The color is medium ruby purple. The bouquet is deeply spicy and warm, earthy and minerally, with black currant and blueberry scents and a slight floral aspect. While not compelling, the wine is attractive and tasty (a little more blunt in mouth than in nose), layering mulberry and blueberry over black currant flavors bolstered by rustic tannins and spicy oak.
Very Good, and not a bad price at about $12.

This wine and the beef salad basically existed in parallel universes.
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The Guardian Peak wines represent a collaboration between South African winemaker Jean Engelbrecht and professional golfer Ernie Els. All red wines, the trend is toward a South African interpretation of Australian Rhone-style wines; there’s a shiraz and a “SMG” blend (syrah, mourvedre, grenache). However, I opened the Guardian Peak Frontier 2006, Western Cape, a blend of 58 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent syrah (shiraz) and 17 percent merlot. Boy, this is just a big, dark, rollicking exuberant expression of powerful grip and stuffing. Aromas of dusty leather, smoke and tar, black currant and black cherry seethe in the glass, while in the mouth, the wine expands with almost possessive personality; I mean, it fills all the spaces. At the same time, it’s not obtrusive or flamboyant, tempering itself with a well-knit texture and polished oak from 10 months in French and American barrels. No, this is no great tower of complexity, but it does draw one in by its sheer confidence. Very Good+ and a Bargain at about $15.
Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Il.

It should be obvious that what this wine needs is not a beef salad but beef itself, steak or prime rib or barbecue brisket, or lamb shank or pork chops with a spicy Southwestern glaze.
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