December 2009

For my birthday on Dec. 7, 1984, we met some friends for dinner at La Tourelle, a French restaurant just off the Overton Square district of shops and bars and restaurants in Memphis. At the time, remember, we still lived in Senatobia, Miss., a small town (in a dry county) south of Memphis, where we taught at the junior college. Most of our entertainment dollars, believe me, were spent in Memphis.

La Tourelle closed in July 2007, just after its 30th anniversary. Located in a wooden Queen Anne house (with a round tower), the restaurant was owned by Glenn and Martha Hays. He was the track coach at the University of Memphis for 36 years and was a devotee of France and French cooking. La Tourelle was an incubator for chefs in Memphis, many of whom passed through that kitchen to open their own restaurants in the city. It was one of the restaurants I wrote about the most in my 20 years of reviewing restaurants for the newspaper here. The Hays still own the thriving bistro-style Cafe 1912, a few blocks south of La Tourelle, which is now Restaurant Iris, presided over by award-winning chef Kelly English.

Anyway, that night, 25 years ago yesterday, we gathered in La Tourelle’s smaller dining room, an intimate space with a fireplace, to celebrate my birthday. It was the first time I had eaten rabbit, an animal we don’t see enough of on restaurant menus, probably because (a) it’s difficult to cook without drying out, and (b) dining on Thumper just messes with people’s heads.

Though I had been writing a newspaper wine column only for five months, the phenomenon had already begun; when a waiter offered a wine list, it was passed to me, usually with the words, “You’re the expert, you choose the wine.” At this point my expertise was more likely a combination of nervous geekdom and bravado, but on this occasion, I ordered a bottle of the Georges Duboeuf Juliénas 1983, the first time, I’m pretty sure, that I had tried a cru Beaujolais. Juliénas is a middle-of-the-road cru Beaujolais, not as delicate as Fleurie, not as spicy as Brouilly, not as robust as Morgon, yet with an appealing fresh, dark, slightly spicy interiority of its own. Actually, it’s my favorite of the 10 crus of Beaujolais, at least in this mood of retrospection, and it was, as my notes attest, terrific with the rabbit fricassee.

The price of this wine on La Tourelle’s list was $11.50, “not a bad price for a restaurant wine,” I wrote in my label album. Ah, those were the days.

Picking up from yesterday’s post about three single-vineyard rieslings from Frankland Estate in Western Australia, let’s look at the winery’s “starter” riesling, the Rocky Gully Riesling 2007, not just because it’s delicious and finely-detailed but because it’s a Great Bargain.

Sipping this wine is like drinking liquid limestone that happens to be permeated by jasmine, peach, apricot and lychee and an expressive petrol/rubber eraser element. Bright, ripe apple, citrus and mango flavors are conveyed in a lovely texture that deftly balances powdery lushness with crisp, practically radiant acidity that slices like a well-poised cleaver. The wine gets more spare toward the finish, drawing out a sinewy line of lime peel and wet gravel. Absolutely delightful. Very Good+. About $16.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection. This was a sample bottle delivered unto my doorstep for review purposes.

Yesterday was the first meteorological day of winter, but that season debuted officially at our house two nights ago with the first ritual preparation of the cod and chorizo stew, with leeks and potatoes, that LL and I dote on. I have written about this delicious, body-filling and soul-satisfying dish before, so I won’t go into detail about it, but I do want to mention, of course, the superb wine we drank with it so successfully (and the wine’s cousins).

This was the Frankland Estate Poison Hill Vineyard Riesling 2008, from the Frankland River region of Western Australia. The estate produces three single-vineyard rieslings, as well as a sort of cadet version under the Rocky Gully label, all finished with screw-caps.

The Frankland Poison Hill Riesling 2008 delivers incredible purity and intensity; this is a purposeful and confident riesling, shimmering, vibrant and concentrated in dimension and detail. Piercing limestone and damp shale qualities support classic notes of diesel fuel (call it rubber eraser if that makes you feel better), pear and peach with spiced apple and ginger. Hints of jasmine and honeysuckle seem to draw from the Platonic essence of those blossoms, so the effect is more earthy than overtly floral. This is a case when the accumulation of different sorts of delicacy meld into the balance between power and elegance; while there’s a sense that what you’re drinking is transparent and ethereal, you never forget this riesling’s strong connection to the soil. Rattling in its dryness, startling in its crystalline acidity, the Frankland Poison Hill 2008 finishes with marked austerity, high-toned and a little glacial, yet packed with citrus and spice. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Exceptional. About $28.
The Frankland Estate Cooladerra Vineyard Riesling 2008, Frankland River region, feels even more serious than the Poison Hill ’08 rendition. This riesling is substantial, generous and expansive, while still tiptoeing an edgy line of blade-like acidity; there’s a risk in seeking this kind of precise balance between tension and resolution in a riesling, but the scheme works here. And for all its grand airs, the Cooladerra ’08 offers delightful elements of peach and lychee, lime and gravel, wrapped in an elixir of petrol and lilac. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $28.

Last of this trio is the Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling 2008, Frankland River Region. You’re greeted by an extraordinary bouquet of petrol and taffy, lychee, candied grapefruit, smoke and bergamot; riesling lovers may dab it behind their ears. After that beguilement, you’re surprised when the wine explodes with unassailable dryness, irrepressible acidity and irreproachable minerality in the crushed gravel, damp shale mode. I mean this wine is so crisp that it feels as if you could break it over your knee and pass out the shards to the poor in spirit, yet if ever a wine carried elegance to the point of severity, this is it. And still — and still — how winsomely it brings up a note of orange rind and another note of cloves, and a hint of quince, and an element so earthy and macerated that the wine is almost savory. What a performance! Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $28.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection. These were sample bottles sent to me for review.

Yes, readers, debuted three years ago this week, December 2006. This brief retrospective glance chalks up as Post No. 554.

Who knew I had so much to say? (He said, disingenuously.)

I don’t know how many wines I have reviewed in three years; forgive me if I don’t go back and count each one. A lot, anyway.

What’s gratifying, besides the responses and the give-and-take of opinion that blogs afford, is the readership that has steadily grown since the beginning. In January 2007, the first full month of record-keeping, my counter program, from, recorded 6,800 visitors; in November 2009, the last full month, the number of visitors was 35,739. (The best month was October ’09, with 36,496 visitors.) Anyway, the increase has been about 80 percent. Total number of visits, from the start? 836,418. So close to a million!

I dwell on these statistical matters because I still harbor the illusion that with enough readership, this blog will draw advertising and provide a modicum of income, so that while I am spending hours writing posts, reviewing wine and expressing my opinion about issues in various aspects of the wine industry, I could feel that I am not too grievously neglecting other writing work that actually pays. Or perhaps every reader who visits BTYH could click on a bunch of those little Google ads, which so far bring me about $100 a year. Woo-hoo! Yeah, I’m feeling pretty mercenary; tomorrow is my birthday, and I could use a boost.

Anyway, thanks to all you readers for coming to BTYH and finding something valuable here, whether they’re reviews, commentary, opinion, food and wine matching or the expression of a personality. And thanks to the wineries and estates, the importers and the local wholesalers that send me wine or call and say, “We’re tasting such-and-such today, come on over.” Obviously, I couldn’t do this job without wine samples or tastings and such, and, as the FTC now demands, such debt must be acknowledged.

Thanks also to all the readers and voters that helped BTYH win the “Best Wine Blog Reviews” prize from the American Blog Awards this year. That was a tremendous thrill and also a reminder of the standards that I must maintain, so I’ll keep truckin’ along from this side and try to make the whole shebang fun for everybody, combining experience, knowledge and imagination with a love of wine and food and sharing all of it with you.

Third anniversary image from

Overlooking for the moment the issue, which seems important to me, that there are no rules about using the term “old vines” on wine labels in America, I’ll propose as a model of what an old vines zinfandel should be the Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley. The dry-farmed vineyard from which Sausal draws the grapes for this wine was planted before 1877, according to available records. That makes these zinfandel vines at least 132 years old; by any definition, these are old vines indeed, and they make a wine of profound depth and dimension as well as balance and integration.

First, what the Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007 is not. It’s not over-ripe or jammy; it’s not “hot” with alcohol; it delivers no cloying boysenberry scents or flavors; it’s not massively tannic. The alcohol level is 14.7 percent; yes, legally that’s give or take a point on either the up or down side. Still, the wine does not fall into the category of almost port-like zinfandels that soar over 16 percent alcohol. I mean last week I drank a lovely, delicate pinot noir from the Willamette Valley that carried its 14.5 percent alcohol like a zephyr, so 14.7 for a zinfandel is child’s-play.

The Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley, offers a beguiling bouquet of clove-and-black pepper-infused black currants and blueberries that unfolds to reveal ground violets and lavender, crushed gravel and a hint of mocha. The wine is notably clean and fresh and pure, a graceful amalgam of power and elegance that never loses its sense of being rooted in the earth. Black fruit flavors are rich and spicy but subdued by vibrant acidity and supple tannins; a year in French oak lends a touch of suavity to the wine’s texture and firmness to the structure. Altogether, a pleasure to drink, indeed an exemplar of presence and resonance, now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $40.

We drank the Sausal Century Vines Zinfandel 2007 with chuck roast braised in wine and onions, with root vegetables, the second time I made this dish in a month.

Sausal Winery is owned by the Demostene family, whose ancestors came to Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley in 1901. The winery makes all red wines, chiefly several zinfandels, cabernet sauvignon and a Chianti-like sangiovese.

This wine was a sample for review.

Which came first, the wine or the marketing campaign?

In my career writing about wine, I have received, along with wine, of course, the usual and the odd assortment of devices from marketing and PR people. These include corkscrews and foil cutters, little notebooks with pens, packets of spices and jars of condiments and, back in the 1990s, when this was the rage for some reason, dried-up pieces of grapevines and sacks of dirt; now that’s what terroir is all about.

Rarely, however, have I been on the receiving end of as strange a perk as I was granted last week, along with four wines with a new label, Tempra Tantrum, from Bodegas Osborne. Depicted in the whimsical image here, this alien-looking creature, reaching out a hand of friendship to the aloof feline, is a webcam with which I and my similarly lucky winewriting colleagues are encouraged to “create web videos of your wine tastings, with Tempra Tantrum as your first post!” Fat chance of that, unfortunately. The cover letter, purporting to be from vintner Rocío Alonso-Allende Osborne, a member of the sixth generation to run the family business, founded in 1772, goes on to say, “I hope he” — the webcam, which she names Toñito — “inspires many moments of self-expression and I hope you enjoy these wines which are an expression of my life.”

I always hate it when a winemaker writes that his or her wines “are an expression of my life,” because then I have to say something like, “Erk” or “Gack,” because, in this case, the Tempra Tantrum wines aren’t very good and are certainly not as good as the Solaz wines produced by Osborne at the same property, Malpica de Tajo, in the vast, flat wine region called Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, not far from Toledo. Not that the Solaz wines are great; they’re pretty rustic and forthright, but they offer a sort of bruised-knuckle integrity and individuality that these Tempra Tantrum wines — the coy name is unendurable — cannot hope to emulate.

Each of the four Tempra Tantrum blends contains 60 percent tempranillo — get the joke now? — with 40 percent of something else: merlot, shiraz (as they say), grenache and cabernet sauvignon. The first impression is of dusty, bubble-gum-ish, basic Beaujolais-like fruity blandness. I found little of the typical tempranillo character of dried red and black fruit and spice, dried flowers and orange rind. The temp/merlot blend is the most generic; the temp/cabernet blend a little drier and slightly more muscular; the temp/grenache blend a little ‘darker” and spicier and slightly more austere; the temp/shiraz blend moderately characterful. None exhibits qualities that would compel you to drink it, and all are far from displaying, as the back labels put it, “the passion, flavor, style and emotion that embodies modern Spain,” subject/verb agreement error included free of charge. Nor are the wines notably, again quoting the back label, “vibrant, plush and in a word — sexy.” Sexy, I would say, least of all.

This conjunction of mediocre wine and ardently senseless marketing too often defines the relationship between wine and consumer in today’s global situation. I receive many new cute, goofy labels every year that raise the question: Which came first, the wine or the discussions about how to name and market the wine before the grapes were even harvested (or, in some cases, purchased)? And that question leads to another: Are consumers so naive, not to say gullible, that they will actually purchase a wine based on its supposedly witty name and its promise of “passion, flavor, style and emotion,” all for $10? Or do they give a damn?

I, for one, would support a ban on the word “passion” from wine labels. I am a-weary, weary of reading squibs like, “This wine reflects my family’s passion for excellence and our passionate attachment to the land that our ancestors so passionately believed in with all their hearts and minds.” Just make the wine, Jack, and make it well and sell it at a decent price. Other than that, shut the fuck up.

The Tempra Tantrum wines are imported by Underdog Wine Merchants, Livermore, Cal. They were supplied as samples for review, along with the webcam mentioned above.

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