May 2010

It’s July 23, 1985. The wine is the Mirassou “Third Harvest” Zinfandel 1968, Monterey County, one from a case of wines that John Grisanti gave me from the warehouse next to his restaurant. (Big John died in 1995; his family sold the property to Walgreens.)

Mirassou was once a distinguished, if not a great, name in the history of California wine. The family’s beginnings in Monterey County go back to 1854, and while for the better part of a century the product of their vineyards was bulk wine, in the 1950s efforts were made to increase quality. In 1966, Mirassou first bottled its own wines; the “Third Harvest” designation on the label of the wine featured today refers to that momentous year. Whatever the intentions, Mirassou’s wines generally seemed more competent than competitive, though the family worked hard to improve quality. Particularly notable was a series of chardonnays, especially those bottled under the “Harvest Reserve” and “Showcase Selection” labels. Also consistently well-made and enjoyable were the “White Burgundy,” made primarily from pinot blanc grapes, and the Early Harvest Gewurztraminer, of which I drank many bottles in the 1980s.

Gallo bought the Mirassou brand and inventory late in 2002; the family retained the winery and vineyards. The wines that bear this pioneering name are made in Modesto and unfortunately reflect the blandest common denominator of the California wine industry.

Here are my notes on the Mirassou “Third Harvest” Zinfandel 1968:

“This one made a valiant effort, but it was just too old. Brick red-mahogany color; autumnal; bottle-stink, musty, smell of decay; musty, earthy, dead leaves, but after an hour it pulled itself together and became, for about 15-20 minutes, a fine wine in glorious decline, then began to fall apart and slumped back into decay. Must have peaked 5-7 years ago.”

Monterey County is not known as a great region for zinfandel, and in the 1980s Mirassou shifted its source for the grape to its Santa Clara vineyard. More to the point, however, is this lesson: Give a bottle of wine a chance to perform. Older wines sometimes need time and gentle persuasion to sift through the fog of age and bear, as it were, fruit again. Young wines often require the same consideration. One of the hazards of the wine tasting trade is the haste with which we are forced to make decisions about wines that would behave considerably differently if given the opportunity. That’s why one of my favorite methods of tasting is to stand in the kitchen with four or five wines, tasting gradually, going back to each over and again, spending time to let them unfold. It can take an hour, but good wines deserve the attention. Sometimes I do this blind, especially if I’m comparing wines of the same grape or genre, and sometimes not.

In any case, I hope this selection of “100 Wines: A Chronicle” illustrates the principle that we can learn as much from “bad” wines as from “good” ones.

What, oh what to drink with fried soft-shell crab sandwiches?

The preparation couldn’t be simpler. Clean the little creatures, dip them first in milk and then in bread crumbs (with salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of chili powder) and fry them in olive oil. We like these sandwiches with ciabatta rolls because they have a nice chewy texture and stand up well to any grease or drippiness. (And what’s a soft-shell crab sandwich sans a bit of grease and drippiness?) A dollop of remoulade sauce, layers of lettuce and tomato, and voila! mighty fine eatin’ as they say in Gay Paree.

I cast about looking at this wine and that wine, taking a sip here and a sip there, and finally settled on the Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2009, from New Zealand’s well-known Marlborough region. This is a delicious and eloquent expression of the sauvignon blanc grape, but I’m as fascinated by its making as by its lovely qualities, so if it doesn’t totally geek you out, allow me to mention a few factors. The grapes ferment in a combination of French oak barriques and stainless steel tanks, 12 percent of the former, 88 percent (of course) of the latter. The oak barrels themselves are a combination of new barrels — a bare 4 percent — and “seasoned” barrels, that is, previously used, so they have largely lost their toasty character. After fermentation, the wine ages in these carefully chosen vessels for four months, on the lees of spent yeast cells.

So, what do we have?

A sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that avoids the excesses and exaggerations that we have come to recognize instantly in so many sauvignon blanc wines from that nation of narrow islands. The Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc 2009 displays fine balance between stone fruit and citrus fruit, meaning the lushness of peach and nectarine, on the one hand, poised with the zesty, lean and slightly bitter nature of lime peel and grapefruit on the other; a touch of apple blossom in the nose serves as a bridge to a hint of green apple in the mouth. Lively acidity, like a clear bell-tone, lends the wine sinew and nerve, while a prominent mineral element — soft as talc and sharp as limestone — builds the structure from mid-palate back through a clean, spicy finish. Now through 2012, whether with soft-shell crab sandwiches, sushi, grilled shrimp or fried trout in a classic brown butter and caper sauce. Excellent. About $22.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A sample for review.

At the Barbera 2010 conference in March, in Piedmont, I tasted two barbera wines from — to render the complete name — Tenuta Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy. The Barbera 2007 and Barbera “Monte Colombo” 2006 from Marchesi di Gresy I found to be smooth, harmonious and well-balanced wines and not in the least afflicted with the searing acidity, scorching tannins and piled-on oak that marred many of the other wines we tried at the four-day event. The first ages six months in a combination of two- and three-year old French barriques and Slavonian oak casks; the second ages 12 months in barriques, but reveals its wood in a sensibly soft and subtle manner.

Two days ago, at a trade tasting in Memphis, I tried three different wines from the estate and also met Alberto Cisa Asinari di Gresy, as charming and unassuming a personage as one could wish to meet or desire to emulate. The historic property. Monte Aribaldo (24.86 acres for dolcetto, chardonnay, sauvignon blamc), surrounds a 19th Century hunting lodge built by Alberto di Gresy’s grandfather in the commune of Treiso d’Alba. Alberto di Gresy, born in 1952, took over the operation of the property right out of university and began producing wine, instead of selling grapes to other producers, in 1973. Another vineyard nearby, Martinenga (59.28 acres, mainly nebbiolo), has been in the family since 1797; this is the location of the central winery. A third vineyard, La Serra consists of 27.21 acres of moscato, barbera and merlot, while the 6.38-acre Monte Colombo is for barbera and merlot.

The wines of Marchesi di Gresy are imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Ca.

Made all in stainless steel, the Marchesi di Gresy Dolcetto d’Alba 2008 is as pretty a wine as you could ask for in a red that also provides deeper notes of tobacco and leather, black and red cherries, bountiful spice and a whiff of violets, all wrapped in a slight haze of shale-like minerality. True to its name, this is a sweetheart of a wine, almost translucent in its tone and balance, that’s perfectly suited for summer drinking with lighter fare such as fresh tomato pasta or vitello tonnato. Very Good+. About $20 to $22.

Just under an acre of the Martinenga estate is devoted to nebbiolo grapes bottled under the Langhe D.O.C. Also made in stainless steel, the Marchesi di Gresy Nebbiolo Langhe 2008 displays the grape in simple purity and intensity. The color is mild medium ruby with a slightly ruddy interior; tobacco leaf, lilac and lavender, macerated cherries and plums distinguish the bouquet. The wine is quite spicy and fleshy, with notes of roasted red and black currants bolstered by lively acidity and a footprint of dusty tannins that dissolves into a touch of graphite and tar. This feels like a distinctly Mediterranean wine, with the unusual scent of damp roof tiles and dried herbs that one occasionally encounters. Mainly, though, the wine is a tissue of delicacies wound into a fabric of ineffable grace and balance. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $18 to $22.
No heavily extracted Barbaresco here, the Marchesi Barbaresco Martinenga 2006 is a medium ruby-rust color that fades to light garnet at the rim. The perfume is incredible: sassafras and cloves, spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums, a dusting of shale, violets and lilacs. The entire effect is seamless with a structure of impeccable poise and a sense of delicacy married to innate and almost invisible power; it would be impossible to say, “Here is tannin” or “Here is acidity” or “Here is fruit,” because of the complete permeation of balanced elements. This ages six months in French barriques and then 14 months in large Slavonian oak casks, but you would hardly know it except for a sense of supple and sinewy shapeliness that the wood confers. To flavors of macerated and roasted cherries and plums, add a touch of tar, a hint of balsam, a suggestion of cedar. Pure elegance and confidence. This drinks beautifully now but should mature equally beautifully through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $45 to $55.

Will it really help sell wines from Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley if labels for wines from those appellations are required by law to state “Sonoma County” as well as the region?

The trade group Sonoma County Vintners is proposing such a law for so-called “conjunctive labeling” to the state legislature, on the model of a similar law passed in the 1980s for Napa Valley. The idea is to raise recognition for the county as a winemaking region; in other words, this law would be all about marketing. As Tom Wark eloquently points out in his post on this subject on his blog Fermentation, wineries in any of the county’s 13 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) may append the words “Sonoma County” to their regional designation if they want do, but they may also choose not to; most of them, it seems, do not. After all, labeling practices are in the hands of the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which sets the regulations for wine labeling and geographical matters. Why should local authorities try to trump the feds and add even more rules to a complicated business?

And why would a producer in Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley not want to have the term “Sonoma County” added to a wine’s front label?

Sonoma County encompasses 13 growing regions (AVAs) that total about 60,300 acres of vines. Theoretically, the different official areas — “official” because they are determined and recognized by the federal government — display distinct enough characteristics to justify their existence, for example, Russian River Valley with its low-lying riverine topography and propensity to morning fog; the warmer Alexander Valley; gently rolling Chalk Hill, with its soil of volcanic ash. The implication (or hope) is that each distinct AVA contributes unique elements of geography and climate to the formation of a wine’s style and character.

“Sonoma County,” on the other hand, is such a broad category that its most legitimate function is as a generic geographic indicator, a way of saying, “This wine was made in a certain county in Northern California.” Such a condition is not necessarily pejorative, especially for inexpensive or moderately-priced wines whose grapes may be blended from several smaller AVAs, of which there are many examples. The point is that there is not an identifiable “Sonoma County” character that can be ascribed to a wine.

If, however, a producer is making prestige-level wines from smaller AVAs with the intention of reflecting the specific influence of that soil and micro-climate in the wine, then adding the term “Sonoma County” to the front label is not merely redundant but distracting. That front label is the billboard, the “Hollywood” sign of a wine bottle; it’s the field where producers state what they think is most important and immediately recognizable about their wines.

Being curious about how many wineries or producers in Sonoma County actually use the “Sonoma County” terms on the front label as well as a smaller AVA, I looked through the review sample rack and refrigerator for examples, and here’s what I came up:

Those That Do Not Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label
<>Frei Brothers Reserve Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Northern Sonoma. (The largely useless Northern Sonoma AVA encompasses all of Sonoma County except for the Sonoma Valley and Carneros appellations. It was created in 1985 — and amended in 1986 and 1990 — after a campaign by E & J Gallo. Frei Brothers is a Gallo brand.)

<>Terlato Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Sausal Private Reserve Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley.

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Dry Creek Vineyard The Mariner Meritage 2006, Dry Creek Valley. (Sonoma County stated on back label.)

<>Benziger Signaterra Three Block 2006, Sonoma Valley.

<>La Crema Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast.

<>Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Louis M. Martini Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Alexander Valley. (Yeah, I know, why do I still have this wine?)

<>Respite Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley.

<>Gundlach Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyard Merlot 2005, Sonoma Valley.

<>EnRoute Les Pommiers Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley.

<>Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. (Not a review sample, of course; I bought this at an auction. Perhaps I should drink it with tonight’s pizza.)

<>Thumbprint Cellars Westside Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Hook & Ladder “Third Alarm” Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley. (Why do I still have this wine, too?)

Those That Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label as Well as a Distinct Appellation
<>Murphy-Goode Merlot 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

Admittedly this is an anecdotal survey with a plus/minus factor of probably 10,000 percent, but it also speaks pretty clearly; 14 wineries use the specific appellation name without adding Sonoma County, while three do. Yet according to an article by Kevin McCallum in The [Santa Rosa] Press Democrat, “Eight of the county’s nine wine and grape trade groups say they would support a law that would require wines made from local grapes to feature Sonoma County on the label.” The ninth trade group, that of Russian River Valley, is also considered a shoo-in.

What the hell, readers? I mean, I won’t even speculate on the motivations behind these bewildering votes, because I can’t fathom it.

And as I look at other wine labels of bottles clustered about me in phalanxes of rectitude, I can’t help noting that most of them to do not include a broader county designation in addition to a specific appellation. Right at hand are two bottles of wine from Heller Estate that say, “Carmel Valley, California,” but don’t mention Monterey County. Similarly, bottles of vineyard designated pinot noir from Lucienne say “Santa Lucia Highlands,” without mentioning Monterey County. Here’s an Easton Zinfandel 2006 from Fiddletown that doesn’t mention Amador County. And so on.

The exception to these examples, as I mentioned earlier, is Napa Valley, but notice that the legal requirement doesn’t insist on including the term Napa County. Yes, Napa County is also a designated AVA — it’s slightly larger than Napa Valley — and wineries could use the term if they wanted to. I’m sure you have noticed that almost no one does. I mean, who wants to be known as a producer of Napa County wines?

Map of Sonoma County AVAs from

The blend of grapes in the Spice Route Chakalaka 2008, from South Africa’s Swartland region, is sort of awesomely weird. We begin with 51% syrah, 16% carignan, 11% mourvedre and 8% grenache. O.K., that’s fine, aiming along the lines of a Côtes-du-Rhône or Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Then, however, come 11% sousão, 2% tannat and 1% petite sirah. They grow petite sirah in South Africa? Sousão is found in Portugal’s Douro Valley, where it is used in many ports, though officially not recommended for that purpose, and in South Africa, where it is highly regarded as the major port grape. Tannat is the tannic, rough and ready grape that forms the foundation of the wines of Madiran, Iroulegay and other red wines of Southwest France and is increasingly cultivated in South American, especially Uruguay.

So, this is a blend that would be risible were the wine itself not so damned interesting and pretty compulsively drinkable.

Chakalaka 2008 — named after a spicy South African relish — is deep and dark, rich and robust. Black currant, black cherry and plum scents and flavors are packed with spice, seething with smoke, freighted with dusty graphite. Something wild and exotic heightens the effect, notes of mulberry, sandalwood, hot tar. Come thereafter touches of briers and brambles, a mineral quality even unto damp shale and iron, yet glossed by smooth, palatable tannins and nervy acidity. Despite its panoply of potentially overwhelming grapes, Chakalaka 2008 channels its power into pleasing intensity and concentration that deliver heaps of personality and taste. I sipped a couple of glasses of this wine with simple cheese toast one afternoon — strips of sun-dried tomatoes with three or four grated cheeses — and the next night we drank what remained with the Weekly Pizza; it would be terrific with barbecue ribs, steaks and grilled leg of lamb. Now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. I paid $20 for the wine, but it’s available around the country for as low as $15.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala. defines “boom shakalaka” as the sound of a slam-dunk in basketball or an expression of joy at an accomplishment or triumph.

June 19, 1985. A dinner at Cafe Meridian, closed long, long ago but at the time very much a restaurant of the moment in Memphis. I don’t know who organized the event, nor do I know who provided the wines, but I was so dazzled by them that I didn’t even record what we ate, clearly a disservice to chef Joseph Carey, who a few years later opened 25 Belvedere, one of the best bistro-style restaurants the city ever entertained. Cafe Meridian served Mediterranean-style cuisine, I think the first in Memphis to do so, and also had the first, or one of the first, of the mesquite grills that became such a necessity for restaurants in the mid- to late-1980s. The food that emerged from those grills may have been smoky, musky and flavorful, but, lord have mercy, it made your clothes and hair stink. If you got home and hung a jacket back in a closet, the next morning all the clothes would smell like mesquite smoke.

Anyway, these were the wines the group — whatever the group was — consumed on this occasion: Hospices de Beaune Meursault-Charmes Cuvée Albert-Grivault 1982, made by Joseph Drouhin; Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes; and Ridge Late Harvest II Zinfandel 1976, Amador County. Can you imagine what such wines would cost today? Well, look on the Internet for Yquem ’75, and you’ll find prices ranging from $500 to $2,000 for a standard 750 milliliter bottle.

The Hospices de Beaune Albert-Grivault Meursault-Charmes 1982 was the best white wine I had tasted in my life, up to that point. Here are my notes from that night, almost 25 years ago: “Pale medium gold” — all right, that seems like an oxymoron — “exquisite nose, fruity, some wood, complex, blossoming in the glass; oak, smooth but with a bite, medium body, exceptional balance, unctuous, rich and oily, lots of room to grow.”

The Hospices de Beaune is a charity hospital founded in the city of Beaune (the heart of Burgundy) in 1443; the building is a treasure of 15th Century French flamboyant architecture. The not-for-profit organization owns about 61 hectares (around 156 acres) of donated vineyard land, mostly Grand Cru and Premier Cru, and every November, since 1851, barrels of the wines made from those vines are auctioned, at an extravagant three-day event, to benefit the hospital’s services to the poor, these days rendered in modern facilities. The original Hospices de beaune is now a museum. Christie’s has run the auction since 2005.

Meursault contains no Grand Cru vineyards but as many as 29 (depending on who is counting) Premier Crus, some of which can be both pinot noir and chardonnay. Les Charmes is perhaps the best-known of Meursault’s Premier Crus, and it’s the largest, though connoisseurs may give the edge to Les Perrières or Les Genevrières.

Here is where I wish I had a menu from this far-off dinner or at least had recorded what we ate. It seems pretty obvious that Chateau d’Yquem served as a dessert wine, but the Ridge Late Harvest II Zinfandel 1976? At 15.4 percent alcohol? To what stupendous entree did this blockbuster serve as accompaniment?

That “II” in the wine’s nomenclature requires explanation. In 1976, this patch of old vine zinfandel grapes on the Esola Ranch in the Sierra Foothills, “matured well beyond normal ripeness,” as the text on the side label informs us, going on, “Seven and a half barrels were bottled in March” — making Late Harvest I Zinfandel — “while the main crop was given additional barrel age to ferment more of the residual sugar.” In other words, “I” retained enough residual sugar to be a sweet wine, while “II” came out dry. The label tells use that at harvest, the r.s. was 25.5 percent (by weight), but the r.s. in the finished wine was 0.21 percent, far below the detectable level for sweetness. All that extra ripeness went toward making “II” a tower of intensity and concentration. Here are my notes: “Oh my goodness! Deep purple; rich, ripe, fruity, dusty nose; dense, intense, incredible fruit, spice, faint chocolate, almost unfathomable, at its peak, absolutely terrific — still time to grow.”

Chateau d’Yquem scarcely needs any introduction, as people say before they launch into a long introduction of someone everybody knows, but, still, here’s a little background about this legendary property, one of the most famous producers in the world of a highly-sought after and expensive wine, as it happens, a sweet or dessert wine. The chateau itself is one of the oldest in Bordeaux, parts of it dating back to the 14th Century. Before that, in the 12th Century, it was the property of Eleanor of Aquitaine and hence, after her marriage to Henri II, part of England, until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. Through both direct descent and marriage, Yquem remained in the same family from 1593 to 1996, when in a hostile move, the family and relatives of Comte Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, who had run the estate since 1968, sold their majority shares to LVMH for around $100 million. Comte Alexandre was allowed to stay as manager until 2004, when he was ousted in favor of Pierre Lurton, manager of Ch. Cheval-Blanc in St. Emilion. And you thought the rarefied world of fine wine was above petty politics and family squabbles! The estate or property itself is Chateau d’Yquem; the wine is Yquem (“ee-kem”).

Here are my notes: “Medium gold color; subdued nose, just a little melony-apricot, more subtle than I thought it would be; sweet round melony fruit, but a stiff backbone of acid, far from cloying but still sweet, complex & gratifyingly puzzling — a great experience.”

Clearly I didn’t quite know how to wrap my nose and mouth and perception around this wine from a great vintage for Yquem. On the other hand, these wines tend not to show well — or to show themselves reticently and in their own manner — in the first decade. I was lucky enough to taste Chateau d’Yquem 1975 in 1995, and with another 10 years of age it was glorious.

In case you’re wondering how I retained the labels for wines encountered at special dinners and tastings, well, I asked if I could take empty bottles home so I could soak off the labels. Nobody ever seemed to mind. A couple of years later, at a dinner whose menu was organized around the sparkling wines of Schramsberg — this was at another long-gone restaurant, Dux, in The Peabody Hotel — I asked for empty bottles and the wine manager just brought me a box with all the wines we had tasted, I mean, full bottles. I’m sure that was the only time such a thing occurred. It wouldn’t be long before I was tasting so many wines that I abandoned the practice of saving labels.

Image of Hospices-de-beaune from Image of Chateau d’Yquem from thegrandcrew.

A versatile wine we sipped for a couple of days was this winsome cutie, the Höpler Pinot Blanc 2008, from the Austria region of Burgenland. In German-speaking countries the pinot blanc grape is known as Weißburgunder, but Americans would more willingly embrace the grape’s friendlier name.

The Höpler Pinot Blanc 2008 is fresh as a daisy, clean, pert and scintillating. The color is palest gold, and the bouquet smacks you with pear and lime peel and beeswax and penetrating scents of limestone and gunflint, with a touch of pea shoot. This is an incredibly lively and engaging wine — there’s a hint of spritz — whose keen acid structure buoys up flavors of pear, lemon balm and fig that encompass a subtle element of leafiness and slightly mushroomy earthiness. The finish is delicate, a lacy amalgam of slate-like minerality and lightly honeyed peach. Delightful as aperitif and an ideal picnic wine to drink with shrimp salad, deviled eggs, fried chicken and such. The alcohol level is a comforting 11.5 percent; closed with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $15 to $18, Good Value.

USA Wine Imports, New York. A sample for review from the local distributor.

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