December 2010


The label of the Juane Serra Cristalino Brut, a 10-dollar CAVA sparkling wine from Spain, carries this disclaimer: “JAUME SERRA CRISTALINO is not affiliated with, sponsored by, approved by, endorsed by, or in any way connected to Louis Roederer’s CRISTALâ„¢ champagne or Louis Roederer.”

Not meaning to be a total asshole or anything, but would anyone with even a modicum of sanity think that these products, which stare at each other across a vast abyss of intentionality, taste and expense, have the slightest connection to each other? To refresh your enfeebled memories — it’s the end of a very long week, right? — Louis Roederer Cristal is one of the grandest of the grand cuvee champagnes, served in the hallowed temples of cuisine and beloved by hip-hop artists who splash it around their hotel rooms or the interiors of their Escalades with gleeful prodigality. Retail prices for Cristal range from about $200 to $300 a bottle; the cost in a restaurant or from room service is unimaginable. Cristalino, as I mentioned, retails for about $10 and is often discounted to $7 or $8.

It struck me that the language of the disclaimer possesses the stink of legalese, and a little research by my lovely assistant, Miss Google, proved that indeed back at the beginning of August the producer of Cristalino — J. Garcia Carrion — lost a four-year lawsuit for copyright infringement brought by Louis Roederer. (Those interested in the actual brief may read it at the Minnesota Litigator website.)

I received a bottle of Jaume Serra Cristalino yesterday by overnight delivery — my friendly UPS man said, “Wow, they really wanted you to have this in a hurry!” — along with related press and technical matter. The letter from the importer, CIV (USA) in Sacramento, begins thus: “Hello, I’d like to share with you some exciting news about Jaume Serra Cristalino, … [which] has an entirely new look this year for the Brut, Vintage Brut, Rose Brut and Extra Dry sparkling wines that are now in the U.S.” I suppose I can’t blame the company for not adding “and the reason we have an entirely new look is because we suffered a humiliating loss in a lawsuit brought against us for copyright infringement.” The company was required to change everything about the label: color, typography, font, devices, the whole shebang. You can see in the photo I took of the lower half of the new label that “Jaume Serra” now gets top billing over “Cristalino.”

Will the litigation, the negative ruling and the radical change of label hurt sales of Cristalino? Naw. Remember the mantra of the old-time Hollywood agent: “All publicity is good publicity.” The CAVA has been marketed in the U.S. since 1989 and by 1997 was selling about 400,000 bottles a year. More recent figures are not available, but anecdotally Cristalino is the country’s top-selling CAVA; I would be happy to receive more exact information. In any case, it’s hardly surprising that sales of Cristalino “exceed sales of Cristal,” as the lawsuit ruefully puts it — like boo-hoo — as if a sparkling wine that consumers could purchase by the case for as little as something like $84 wouldn’t outsell a luxury Champagne that could cost $2,400 a case, if you could find one. We’re talking completely different worlds here, and they not only weren’t separated at birth, they weren’t born in the same hospital.

My initial impression of the Jaume Serra Cristalino was a bit negative because the bubbles are rather large and flabby, but the steely, limestone-tinged bouquet drew me in with its hints of lemon, lime and grapefruit, its slightly nutty and yeasty character. This sparkling wine, made in the traditional champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle, is quite crisp and lively, and it’s that factor that makes Cristalino so fresh and engaging. It’s a blend of the typical grapes of the Penedes region, 50 percent macabeo, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo. Buy by the case for parties and receptions. 11.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $10 and often found two or three dollars cheaper.

For the Thanksgiving dinner dessert, we had a luscious pumpkin chiffon pie, prepared by a local chef, and then I made an apple tart, using Julia Child’s recipe and procedure for puff pastry from our much stained and blotched copy of The Way to Cook (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Basically, the process is a fairly tedious one of amalgamating six and a half sticks of chilled butter with four cups of flour using only a bare splash or two of ice water to help; ten “passes” with chilling in the refrigerator after every two. Miss Child would probably have been appalled at the rustic appearance of my pastry and the tart overall — the brown splotches are caramelized apricot glaze — but boy it certainly tasted rich and scrumptious. I patted and rolled the crust out on a cutting board and slid it carefully onto the baking sheet sprinkled with a few drops of water. Once on that surface, I used lengths of the dough to fashion the raised edges. The apples were Granny Smith, good for baking because of their tartness and firm texture.

I have a selection of half-bottles of dessert wine in the white wine fridge, but I decided to go with the oldest, the Renaissance Winery Late Harvest Riesling 1992, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills. “Oldest” does not mean the oldest released. Though made from grapes harvested in the autumn of 1992, the wine was not released until 2008, that’s right, at 16 years old. Renaissance, as a habit and philosophy, holds their wines longer than any other producer in California. Add two years, and that makes the wine 18 when we tasted it at our table.

The Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1992 is the color of faintly tarnished gold, like the back of an old pocket watch. Though closed at first, a few minutes of swirling brought up traces of peaches, orange rind and cloves, with notes of apricot jam and orange marmalade, and hints of quince and crystallized ginger, this gorgeous yet unobtrusive panoply melded with utmost delicacy and finesse. In the mouth, a sweetly faded and gentle quality, a repose of talc, lemon verbena, rose hips, melon drops and pomander reminded me of a sachet in an old-fashioned lady’s vanity. Essential acidity is certainly present, and in fact the wine gains succulence and vibrancy after some moments, elements that lay the foundation for a finish wrapped in grapefruit and limestone. A lovely dessert wine, filled with authoritative detail and dimension yet mild and mannerly; it was tremendously agreeable with the apple tart. 11.8 percent alcohol. If you have this bottle in your cellar, it should be consumed by 2012. Production was 364 cases. Excellent. About $35 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.

This was a sample for review.

Naturally we made — rather LL made — a deep rich broth from the turkey carcass and then used that for a splendid, hearty Turkey, Barley and Mushroom Soup from The Williams Sonoma Cookbook (Free Press, 2008, $35.95). I had to take a cleaver to those thick bones, but talk about rib-stickin’ earthy flavors!

We slurped up bowls of this concoction last night, perfect for the chilly weather, with glasses of the Artezin Zinfandel 2009, Mendocino County, a label from The Hess Collection. The wine sees no new oak and contains 8 percent petite sirah grapes and 1 percent carignan. Bright and appealing aromas of blueberry, black currant and black raspberry are woven with a touch of wildness, something like mulberry, red plum and dusty herbs with undertones of briers, brambles and black pepper. Unlike many zinfandels, the Artezin 2009 displays no annoying hotness, no cloying over-ripeness; instead, the wine is balanced, integrated and thoroughly drinkable, and I mean that assessment in the best sense. Black fruit flavors are permeated by baking spice and a bit of dusty shale-like minerality and nestled in a texture of moderately dense and finely-milled tannins. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass, and it brings up lovely notes of potpourri and thyme, sandalwood and smoke. Drink now through 2012. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $18.

« Previous Page