March 2012


Answer? Ready?

E&J Gallo’s Carlo Rossi brand.

Yes, the wine in the bulbous 1.5-liter bottle that we — of a certain age — glugged down in graduate school and thereafter, until knowledge, experience and more or less financial stability pointed us toward more sophisticated and better quality wines, a process that opened doors to a vinous world beyond our ken: that label captures 7 percent of the entire wine market in Poland. Add Gallo’s Barefoot label, and the figure climbs to a 9 percent share of the Polish market for the giant Modesto-based company. For Carlo Rossi alone, that’s about four million liters annually, amounting to 3 billion PLN or 9.3 billion dollars. (Duh, I think that should be $1.1 billion; see the comment from sharp-eyed math whiz Jim.) The population of Poland is only about 38.2 million.

My attention was drawn to this phenomenon by a news item, issued on March 21, by Just Drinks (and reported by other sources) that Central European Distribution Corporation had signed an agreement with Gallo to distribute its products in Poland for three more years. CEDC is one of the world’s largest producers and distributors of vodka, as well as a major presence in Poland, Hungary and Russia for the multitude of whiskeys and other spirits and liqueurs that it imports. The company was founded by William V. Carey in 1997, as an outgrowth of a defunct company he and his father had exporting beef to Poland. Carey remains CEDC’s chairman and CEO. The company is headquartered in Warsaw but keeps an office in the United States.

There was an actual Carlo Rossi, that is, Charlie Rossi, a longtime salesman for Gallo who was related to the family by marriage. He went to work for the company in 1953, and in 1962 the Carlo Rossi Mountain Red label was released. Production of Mountain Red ceased in 1975 and Carlo Rossi Paisano, of which I and my then wife and our friends drank many a glass, stepped up to the plate as the label’s mainstay. Rossi was the spokesman for the brand and in the 1970s was somewhat of a pop culture figure because of the ubiquitous television commercials and his famous slogan, “I like to talk about wine, but I’d rather drink it.” In the commercials, Rossi looked as if he meant what he said. He died in Modesto — seems fitting — in April 1994 at the age of 90.

In the intervening years, the Carlo Rossi label has expanded considerably. In addition to Paisano, the line includes, for reds, Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Merlot, Sangria and Sweet Red (isn’t that redundant?); for whites, Chablis, Chardonnay and Rhine; and then Blush, Vin Rose and White Zinfandel. These are available in 1.5 or 3 or 4-liter jugs or 5-liter boxes.

I contacted Ewa Wielezynska, vice editor-in-chief of Magazyn Wino, based in Warsaw, for her assessment of the situation.

“This single brand made California the best selling region in Poland,” she said. “I’m not even sure if people know that it’s from California, maybe they think it’s Italian. Carlo Rossi is in every country site, in every gas station in the deepest provinces. The day that Carlo Rossi is dethroned will be a day when Polish people actually start to like wine.”

Wielezynska said that in Poland advertising alcoholic beverages over 7 percent alcohol is forbidden under the Education in Sobriety law, but “Gallo is very clever in their strategy, so they advertise their products through virtual events, concerts and CD promotions.”

Here’s an example of a Carlo Rossi promotion tied to Fashion Week Poland:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5xFKNzFARk

Meet me at Carlo Club, anyone?

Today we look at seven wines chosen to satisfy the sense of freshness and renewal that comes — or should come — with Spring. In fact, it’s gently raining in my neck o’ the woods at this moment, and all the shades of green in the backyard are pulsing with color. These are mainly delicate wines made for sipping or matching with food more refined that we consumed in Winter, what we had of that season, anyway. There’s a delightful Moscato d’Asti, two wines made in different fashions from the torrontés grape — and I deplore that fact that almost all importers have dropped the accent from torrontés — a robust little Côtes du Rhône red for when you decide to grill burgers, and so on. (I also deplore the fact that WordPress will not allow me to post Macon with a circumflex.) As usual with Friday Wine Sips, I include no technical or historical or geographical data; the idea is incisive notices designed to get at the heart of the wine quickly. The order is by ascending price. With one exception, these were samples for review.
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Callia Alta Torrontes 2011, Valle de Tulum, San Juan, Argentina. 13.5% alc. Not as shamelessly floral as many torrontés wines are, a little more restrained, even slightly astringent; but refreshing, cleansing, chaste, also quite spicy and savory; hints of lemon and lemongrass, zinging acidity and flint-like mineral elements. Screw-cap. Very Good+. About $9, a Raving Great Bargain.
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Trumpeter Torrontes 2010, Mendoza, Argentina. (Rutini Wines) 13.5% alc. Heady jasmine and honeysuckle, orange rind and lemon zest, mango and hints of tarragon and leafy fig; very spicy, very lively, lush texture balanced by crisp acidity; the finish dry, spare, focused. Very Good+. About $13, a Real Value.
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Michel Torino Malbec Rosé 2011, Calchaque Valley, Argentina. 13.5% alc. A beguiling rosy-light ruby color; strawberry and red cherry with touches of peach and rose petal; a darker note of mulberry; bright acidity with a crystalline mineral background; delightful and a little robust for a rosé, try with charcuterie or fried chicken. Very Good+. About $13, representing Good Value.
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La Petite Fontaine 2010, Côtes du Rhône, France. 14% alc. 60% grenache, 20% syrah, 15% cinsault, 5% carignan. Dark ruby color; fleshy, spiced and macerated blackberries, black currants and plums; smoke, briers and brambles, plush but somewhat rustic tannins, very earthy and minerally. Simple and direct, tasty; for burgers, grilled sausages and the like. Screw-cap. Very Good. About $13.
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Luca Bosio Moscato d’Asti 2010, Piedmont, Italy. 5.5% alc. Exactly what you want Moscato d’Asti to be: clean, fresh and lively, with notes of apple, orange and orange blossom and a hint of lime peel; mildly but persistently effervescent, a winsomely soft, cloud-like texture balanced by fleet acidity; initial sweetness that dissolves through a dry, limestone-laced finish. Truly charming. Very Good+. About $17
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Verget Terres de Pierres Macon-Village 2010, Maconnais, France. 13% alc. A lovely expression of the chardonnay grape; fresh and appealing, pineapple and grapefruit laced with jasmine and cloves, quince and ginger; very dry but juicy, sleek and svelte, borne on a tide of limestone and shale; makes you happy to be drinking it. A great choice for your house chardonnay. Very Good+. About $18. (Not a sample; I paid $22 in Memphis.)
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Trimbach Riesling 2009, Alsace, France. 13% alc. Pale straw-yellow; apple, fig and lychee, camellia, hints of pear and petrol; brings up a bit of peach and almond skin; very spicy, crisp and lively, svelte and elegant, nothing flamboyant or over-ripe; delicate flavors of roasted lemon and baked pears; long limestone-infused finish with a touch of grapefruit bitterness. Excellent. About $25.
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I happened upon a local Mom-and-Pop wine and liquor store recently with which I was unfamiliar. Right inside the front door stood the “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” sign, four months late. The shelves and racks held a typical selection of wine and spirits genres, brands and labels. Oh, well, I thought, doing a little exploring, not much interesting here. And then I spied a couple of shelves that presented a different appearance, an aura, as it were, of confidence, prosperity and unlimited potential. These shelves held rows of California cabernet sauvignon wines going back to 1995 and coming up to 2007, with all the years between represented. Some top-flight wines, well-known names. I felt a frisson of wonder and beguilement, expressed in a whispered, Holy shit! The selections seemed equally divided between those still at their original prices and those that had been reduced in price. I casually perused the labels and vintages and then plucked a couple from their resting places: Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley, and Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Oakville District, Napa Valley.

Mount Veeder was founded in 1973 by Michael and Arlene Bernstein, 2,000 feet up the mountain for which the winery is named. From the beginning, they produced earthy, tannic, mineral-laced cabernets that often required a decade to shed their austerity and then rewarded those having patience with deep, rich, resonant flavors and balanced structures. Occasionally, the mountain-side tannins got the better of the wines, and there are Mount Veeder cabernets from the 1970s and early ’80s that never came around. Still, it was always gratifying to know that one could expect no compromise from this focused winery. The Bernsteins also made a little zinfandel, chenin blanc and chardonnay.

The Bernsteins sold the winery to Henry and Lisille Mathieson in 1982, but the significant change came in 1989, when the Mathiesons sold Mount Veeder to the partnership of Agustin Huneeus and the Eckes Corp. of what was then West Germany. The Eckes had hired Huneeus, a Chilean, to put Franciscan in shape to be sold, but under his sensible leadership, the winery had turned around and improved. In optimistic expansion mode, Huneeus launched Estancia, and then acquired the venerable Simi and Mount Veeder wineries. Along with Veramonte, in Chile, these properties comprised Franciscan Estates. The whole kit-and-kaboodle was sold to Constellation in 1998. Mount Veeder is now part of that giant corporation’s Icon Estates portfolio.

And what about the vintage?

The cabernet sauvignon grape profited from a series of fine years in the 1990s, particularly 1994 through ’97 but at each end of the decade too. The Spring and late Summer of 1998 were atypically rainy, and uneven ripening required careful practice in the vineyards and brought the prospect of a late harvest. September came through, though, with warmth and clean skies, and the harvest, which was somewhat reduced, lasted into early November.

So, the color of the Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 is a lovely dusky ruby with a faint garnet-hued rim; aromas of spiced and macerated red and black currants are just touched with cedar and tobacco and hints of mossy forest floor and dried mushrooms, while after a few minutes in the glass, the wine pulls up notes of iron-and-iodine-tinged minerality and lightly toasted walnuts. It’s quite dry in the mouth, with red and black fruit flavors ensconced in silky, finely-milled tannins and spicy, supple oak; give it 30 minutes or so to develop elements of dried orange zest, mocha and oolong tea, even as the acidity begins to assert itself a bit sharply. The finish is austere, a little woody, sweetly autumnal. 13.5 percent alcohol. This wine, a graceful and elegant measure of a mature Napa Valley cabernet, should drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.

The Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2010, Paso Robles, isn’t just a well-made rendition of a southern Rhone Valley white wine; it’s better than about 75 percent of the examples from the region. A blend of 50 percent grenache blanc grapes, 33 percent viognier, 10 percent roussanne and 7 percent marsanne and made all in stainless steel, Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2010 is a pale straw-gold color; provocative aromas of roasted lemon, lime peel, dried thyme, ginger and quince are highlighted by a winsome note of honeysuckle. Flavors of lemon and spiced baked grapefruit generously open to hints of crystallized pear and Bit o’ Honey, though the wine is as bone dry as bright acidity and a burgeoning limestone element can make it; the complete effect is spare, supple, almost sinewy and yet juicy and savory, sleek and stylish. I bought this bottle at a local store, and we drank the wine last night with Vinegar-Braised Chicken with Leeks and Peas, a fantastic match; it would be great for serving as an aperitif through the Spring and Summer and with grilled fish or chicken. 13.5 percent alcohol. Tablas Creek is a collaboration between the Perrin family of Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, owner of their American importer Vineyard Brands. Executive winemaker is Neil Collins; winemaker is Ryan Hebert. Excellent. About $20 (though I paid $22).

Dedicated to one grape, Archery Summit, in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley region, has amassed an enviable reputation for pinot noir wines of impressive substance, tone and purity, at the same time as they seem to reflect the character of their single vineyards while projecting a somewhat heightened sense of stylish individuality. The winery was founded in 1993 by Gary Andrus and partners of Pine Ridge Winery in Napa Valley. The winery building, with its aging caves underneath, was finished in 1995. Winemaker is Anna Matzinger. Archery Summit pinots are built to impress, with prices to match, yet they tend to offer a wide range of subtlety and nuance along with their broad and deep dimensions. It was a pleasure to try them. These were samples for review.
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Archery Summit Premier Cuvee Pinot Noir 2009, Willamette Valley. The grapes for Archery Summit’s entry level pinot noir derive from five vineyards, including the producer’s top Arcus Estate, Red Hills Estate and Archery Summit Estate acreage. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 46 percent new barrels. My first note is : “How lovely.” There’s real authority, authenticity and integrity here; the wine seethes with notes of black cherry, cola and cranberry layered over hints of rhubarb and cloves and a growing presence of briers and brambles. Flavors of black currants and plums, smoky oolong tea and mulberries harbor burgeoning earthiness and shale-like minerality, all ensconced in a luscious satiny texture balanced by bright acidity. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $45.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley. Ribbon Ridge is Oregon’s smallest American Viticultural Area, encompassing 3,350 acres of which 500 acres are planted to vines; the region, awarded AVA status in 2005, lies within the Chehalem Mountain AVA, which in turn lies within the broader Willamette Valley AVA. The Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir ’09 aged 11 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels. Elevating aromas of red and black currants and plums with undertones of cranberry and blueberry are deeply infused with hints of cloves and cola, rhubarb, briers and slate. A haze of exotic, woody spices and sweet floral notes informs flavors of black and blue fruit flavors cushioned by silky tannins and a vibrant acid structure that gains more density as the moments pass. An authentic marriage of power and elegance. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $85.
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The 12-acre Renegade Ridge Vineyard, farmed by biodynamic methods since 2004, stands next to the Archery Summit Estate Vineyard in Willamette Valley’s Dundee Hills. The Archery Summit Renegade Ridge Pinot Noir 2009, Dundee Hills, aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new, while, interestingly, 1/3 of it aged an additional 4 months. Does that process account for the wine’s unusually robust character and deep spicy elements, for this is a strapping, brawling pinot noir that one recognizes as pinot noir (one would not mistake it for syrah), but it exacts a price, subtracting some shades of meaning as it were, for its stalwart qualities. Do not look here for pinot’s fabled elegance and nuance, though this example certainly delivers an impressive snootful of powdered roses and violets, intense and concentrated black and red currants and plums and the whole redolent spice box of exoticism. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Very Good+. About $85.
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Fermented in traditional open-top wood vats and aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 56 percent new, the Archery Summit Red Hills Estate Pinot Noir 2009, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, is a deep, rich, savory pinot with intimations of iron and iodine and higher notes of sassafras and beet-root and rhubarb, cloves and licorice and spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass, and it pulls up tons of brambles and briers and underbrush, giving it a firm, earthy (and then slate-like) dimension that cannot conceal a spirit of finesse and elegance; this is the sort of paradox that makes great wines infinitely expressive and interesting. To intensify the paradox, building from these aspects of dimension and detail, the wine concludes with a powerful, slightly woody and austere finish. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $85.
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Pure raspberry, black cherry and blueberry scents waft from a glass of the Archery Summit Arcus Estate 2009, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley. The wine fermented in a combination of open-top wood and stainless steel tanks and aged nine months in French oak, 70 percent new barrels. To that heady amalgam of bright fruit aromas are added notes of sour cherry and melon ball, cranberry and rhubarb, sweet Asian spices, mocha and rose petals. In terms of texture and structure, this is a robust, vibrant pinot noir that stops just shy of being syrah-like in opulence and earthy, graphite-tinged minerality, yet it never crosses the line, instead finding essential equilibrium in its seamless alliance of power and elegance; even the finish, for a large-framed wine, is supple and harmonious. Now through 2016 to ’19. Excellent. About $100.
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The Archery Summit Estate Pinot Noir 2009, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, is a black and blue wine, by which I mean that the color is darkly radiant ruby/black with a violet tinge and the range of fruit scents and flavors is black cherry, black plum and blueberry, highlighted by rhubarb (o.k., rhubarb is neither black nor blue), licorice and pepper. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 63 percent new barrels, and then an additional five months in older barrels. It’s broad and generous, a bit fleshy and macerated, yet firmly, almost rigorously structured by firm tannins, vibrant acidity and an undercurrent of graphite-like minerality; there’s an intriguing rooty, slightly vegetative component. This pinot was made in a fairly individual style, and while it’s more substantial than the pinots I adore — with that ineffable lightness of being wedded to essential earthiness — it’s quite remarkable for the manner in which it takes the grape to a singular stance, brooding yet selfless, of purity and intensity. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $150.
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An overall satisfying, even in some instances great group of pinot noir wines, examples touching the winemaking borders limits of California, from Anderson Valley in the north to Santa Maria Valley in the south. Different interpretations, assuredly, diverse approaches to the notoriously difficult grape, but all feeling authentic and legitimate, though my taste runs to the more refined and elegant; and, blessedly, though the use of oak, of course, varies, none of these is burdened with or buried by too much wood. As usual in the Friday Wine Sips, I dispense with the minutiae of technical, historical and geographical data in order to deliver to my readers incisive and provocative yet thoughtful reviews, though I admit that a couple of these run a tad longer than I intend for this space, but then, come on, it’s pinot noir I’m writing about. With one exception, these were samples for review. The order is alphabetical. I’m posting this fairly late at night, but it’s still Friday in the USA.

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Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 14.4% alc. Elegant and sophisticated at first, but becomes more intense and concentrated, a real mouthful of smoky black cherry and rhubarb, violets and lilac, hints of briers and brambles, sassafras, roots and moss, i.e., quite earthy and then quite spicy; deeply satiny texture, lithe and supple too, flows coolly through the mouth; but you feel the tug of oak from mid-palate through the finish. For those who like a muscular pinot noir. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $35.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.3% alc. Medium ruby color with a tinge of magenta; incredible perfume: beet-root and root beer, rose hips and strawberry leaf, violets and sandalwood, black cherry and red currants, and then a gentle surge of austerity in brambles and forest floor and finely-honed graphite; in the mouth, more serious than you might think, deeply earthy, multi-dimensioned, yet suave, sleek, supple, satiny; black tea with cloves and cinnamon, orange zest; black and red fruit flavors, a beautifully burnished, balanced, transparent finish. Beautiful. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight “Zero” Pinot Noir 2009, Charles Vineyard, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 13.5% alc. “Zero” does not mean no oak but second-year and older barrels. Gosh, what a lovely gentle delicate yet darkly radiant sifting of finely-meshed, cloud-like tannins; ripe and slightly macerated red currants, plums and mulberries; earthy briers, brambles and leather; and baskets of dried flowers and spices. A model of pinot noir purity and intensity. Perfect with a roasted chicken; I could drink it every day. 360 cases and Worth a Search. Excellent. About $38.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 13.9 % alc. So, how is the “regular” Foursight Pinot Noir ’09 different from its stablemate mentioned above? This is also quite alluring and exhibits similar purity and intensity of expression and character; fruit falls into the range of red and black cherries and cranberries with more emphasis on spice than flowers and just a haze of smoky (but not toasty) oak. As with the previous wine, balance and integration of all elements feel inextricable, tightly woven yet generous and expansive, a touch lithe and sinewy yet with a seductive satiny drape. Now through 2015 or ’16. 405 cases and also Worth a Search. Excellent. About $46.
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MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.5% alc. Riveting purity and intensity; vivid yet somehow transparent or at least infinitely delicate black cherry and mulberry scents and flavors highlighted by subtle notes of sassafras and lightly toasted Asian spices; sleek, supple and a little spare, with flavors partaking more of plums as moments pass; a real dreamboat of a pinot noir with an understanding of its darker nature. Now through 2013 or ’14. 600 six-pack cases produced. Excellent. About $35.
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MacMurray Ranch Winemaker’s Block Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley. 14.5% alc. Loads of presence and tone yet ineffable balance and integration; lots going on, plums and more plums, with black and red cherries and hints of mulberry and rhubarb, undertones of cola and cloves, but it doesn’t feel fussy or overdone, all is smooth and finely-meshed; dense texture, satin transmuting to velvet but held in check by the ballast of earthy underbrush and a bit of foresty austerity. I like rather more reticence in pinot noir (as in the previous wine and the two Foursights), but this reveals thoughtful wine-making. Now through 2014 to ’16. Production was 600 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $60.
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Witness today that the “Damn, This Was Good!” series is not always about expensive wines.

Last night I prepared Jamie Oliver’s Risotto with Fennel, Ricotta and Dried Red Chili (pictured here) from his book Jamie’s Italy (Hyperion, $34.95). A little prepping is involved, mainly slicing the fennel and some garlic thinly and crushing fennel seeds; these you sweat in a covered pan over low heat so they turn soft. Make the risotto as usual — yes, that requires standing and stirring, but you can use those minutes as an opportunity for meditation — add the fennel mixture and so on, and serve with crumbled ricotta (or, as here, grated ricotta salata), crushed red chili flakes and fennel fronds. It’s a terrific dish for Spring, with bright, savory flavors and a lush texture that’s not too rich.

For wine, I opened, with a deft twist of the wrist. a bottle of the Domaine Perraud Vieilles Vignes Mäcon-Villages 2010, a lovely and eloquent expression of the chardonnay grape, made all in stainless steel; no oak needed here! The wine hails from the Mäconnais region, south of Burgundy proper. Aromas of pineapple and grapefruit are highlighted by notes of jasmine, quince and ginger with just a smidgeon of apple skin. Citrus flavors, again, leaning toward pineapple and grapefruit (with a hint of peach), are bolstered by the vivacity of crystalline acidity and a burgeoning tide of limestone and shale-like minerality, while the wine’s texture offers attractive talc-like softness; it’s that combination of inextricable effects — the tautness of sinewy acidity with the moderate ripe juiciness of texture — that gives such wines their liveliness and appeal. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2012. Very Good+. I paid $21 but the average national price is about $16.

Imported by North Berkeley Wine, Berkeley, Cal.

Fired up the grill yet? Maybe it’s a tad early, but we’re having pretty perfect outdoor cooking weather in these parts (though the prediction is for cooler temps and rain at the end of the week). Still, you can’t plan too far ahead, so here’s a recommendation for a wine that will go head to head and toe to toe with the heartiest fare you can rustle up over charcoal; I’m talking steaks, pork chops, leg of lamb, ribs, especially, yes, ribs. The wine is the Petite Petit 2009, from those madcaps at Michael David Winery, founded in 1984 by brothers Michael J. and David J. Phillips, fifth-generation grape-growers in Lodi. These guys have a sort of genius for producing big red wines and marketing them with clever names and designs. Petite Petit, with its exuberant cartoon label featuring two circus elephants, is the cleverest, though not far behind is the line of blockbuster reds named for the Seven Deadly Sins. Winemaker and general manager for Michael David Winery is Adam Mettler.

Petite Petit 2009, Lodi, is a blend of 85 percent petite sirah and 15 percent petit verdot. The color is really truly deep inky purple; in fact every aspect of the wine embodies the notion of “inkiness.” Aromas of deliriously ripe black currants, blackberries and blueberries are woven with licorice and smoky lavender, with hints of graphite and jammy boysenberry; give the wine a few minutes in the glass and it brings up intriguing notes of Bazooka bubble gum, sour cherry and melon ball. In the mouth, yeah, well, this is sturdy, robust, dense and chewy, a powerhouse of finely-milled, velvety tannins and vibrant acidity that still manages to be sleek and appealing. Dark and intensely ripe black and blue fruit flavors seethe with graphite-like minerality and exotic spices, while the finish careens through reserves of underbrush, briers and brambles. No, friends, Petite Petit 2009 is not for effete Europalates, but we’re not in Europe are we, and when was the last time you heard of Europeans chowing down on barbecue ribs or a bowl of chili or a platter of enchiladas in mole sauce? 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Very Good+. About $18.

A sample for review.

I was recently in New York, where lunches at two well-turned-out restaurants brought a question to my mind about wine-by-the-glass service. Should waiters bring the glass of wine to your table or should they bring the bottle to the table, show you the bottle and then pour the wine? Put to the vote, I don’t see how anybody could not opt for the latter procedure.

My flight arrived at La Guardia at 12:35 on Sunday. I had not checked a bag, so I was able to rush outside, grab a cab and beat my friends to a 1:15 reservation at Bar Boulud, on Broadway directly across from Lincoln Center. Talk about a great location. Pre-matinee, the place was packed, and from what I have read, that’s the case with before and after theater at night or anytime. Bar Boulud is one constellation in the galaxy of establishments in New York (and around the world) belonging to French chef Daniel Boulud. It’s called a casual bistro, but instead of going in the direction of Keith McNally with Balthasar in SoHo and Pastis in the Meatpacking District, that is, reproducing down to the ultimate nostalgic detail an old-timey bistro or brasserie in Paris — or our fantasy of such — Boulud called in Thomas Schlesser, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant designer, to create a sleek, contemporary vaulted room that’s cool in its modernist allure yet warm at heart.

The menu features a wide range of traditional French “country” and bistro fare, with lots of charcuterie, which the kitchen, under chef Damian Sansonetti, turns out in stylish versions. The wine list, overseen by sommelier Michael Madrigale (and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for all of Boulud’s restaurants and what a tremendous job, in all senses, that must be), is phenomenal; I mean, truly, it’s the sort of deep and detailed wine list one might expect at a high-end temple of French cuisine, yet it includes many reasonable choices too, though by reasonable I mean under $100. This is New York. The list focuses on Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, with excursions into the wine regions of other countries that use Burgundian and Rhone grape varieties and then a section of “heart-throb” wines of other sorts. The list is interesting, inventive, intriguing, inviting and in the rarefied cases very expensive, so one wisely turns to the wine-by-the-glass offerings.

I forget what my friends ate at Bar Boulud — they had the $29 four-course prix-fixe — but I do remember that they each had a glass of the charming Domaine Triennes Sainte Fleur Viognier 2009 ($12 for a glass; $45 for a bottle). With my “country breakfast” of fried eggs, house-made sage sausage, buttermilk biscuit and tomato confit ($18), I chose a glass of the Domaine Tissot Cremant du Jura Brut ($15; $59), a completely delightful, floral and slightly austere sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinor noir, trousseau and poulsard grapes.

Our waiter, whose only flaw was being too chatty, brought the bottles to the table, showed us the labels and then poured the wines. We knew exactly what we were getting.

A few days later, I had lunch with friends on West 57th at Brasserie 8 1/2, an elegant restaurant reached by descending a wide spiral staircase theatrically carpeted in red-orange. Our waiter, whose only flaw was that he was goofy and distracted and therefore distracting to us, followed the standard line; he took our drink orders — from the surprisingly ordinary, corporate wine list — and returned in a few minutes bearing a glass of red and a glass of white. Who knew what was in those glasses?

I ordered the Domaine Le Croix St Laurent Sancerre 2010 ($12; a bottle is $52), and, yes, the wine was certainly made from sauvignon blanc grapes in the dry, limestone-loaded style of the eastern Loire Valley — it was quite nice, and I enjoyed it, especially with my sea urchin risotto and skate with lentils (from the three-course prix fixe, $34); executive chef is Julian Alonzo — but who’s to tell if a cheaper wine had not been substituted? No, please understand that I’m not accusing Brasserie 8 1/2 of chicanery; I’m just using that occasion to mention that in the system by which wines-by-the-glass are delivered to the table instead of poured at the table the possibility for abuse exists.

As Americans, we’re all about transparency, especially at this point in history; we’ve been hoodwinked plenty, not to mention keelhauled and financially waterboarded, in the past decade, and we want to know what we’re paying for. Wouldn’t it make sense for the sake of good customer relationships and openness and honesty to have waiters bring the bottle of wine out to the diner and pour the wine into the glass at the table instead of merely escorting to the table the now anonymous glass of wine which has apparently been reluctantly released from some mysterious Guantánamo of wine coolers in the back of the restaurant?

Image of Bar Boulud from sociallysuperlative.com; image of Brasserie 8 1/2 by Paul Goguen from bloomberg.com.


Friday again, so soon, time flies, seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and then it’s like why didn’t I drink more wine? So, here’s your chance! Today’s Friday Wine Sips are mainly from California except for an Argentine malbec I threw in to mess with your heads this morning. As usual, I eschew technical data for the sake of brevity, punch, vim and vigor. Seven wines here, arranged by price; six recommended, one emphatically not. These were all samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the Federal Trade Commission.
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Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma County. 14.5% alc. Bright and bold but not flashy or overdressed; classic pineapple-grapefruit scents and flavors freighted with notes of green apple and cloves, a hint of some floral aspect; very dry but juicy, lively and taut with acidity and a sinewy limestone element but a lovely, almost lush powdery texture; a zing of grapefruit and flint on the finish. Very attractive. Very Good+. About $13.50, a Raving Bargain.
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Conundrum, 2009, California. 13.5% alc. The famous mystery white blend from Caymus, though the grapes are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, muscat canelli, viognier and semillon. Radiant medium straw-gold color; mango and jasmine, roasted lemon and cinnamon toast; you feel the oak in the presence of a touch of toffee and spicy baked pears; quite spicy altogether, hints of lychee, lemongrass and petrol; lovely talc-like texture balanced by bright acidity and limestone. The best Conundrum in years. Current release is 2010 but the ’09 is still widely available. Excellent. About $18.
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Parley The Bookmaker 2009, California. 14.5% alc. 70% cabernet sauvignon, with zinfandel, petite sirah and petit verdot. From Ramian Estate. Pick up a cheeseburger with one hand and a glass of this robust wine with the other. Black currants, black raspberry and plums; laden with smoke and spice, potpourri, thyme and cedar, a hint of graphite minerality; rambunctious and slightly shaggy tannins wedded to svelte oak; long sleek, dusty finish. 570 cases. Very Good+. About $19.
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Morgan Syrah 2009, Monterey County. 13.8% alc. Blackberry and black raspberry with undertones of blueberry and mulberry; lavender and violets, cloves and sandalwood; a deep exotic core of bittersweet chocolate, moss and smoked Russian tea; quite earthy, a little rustic and muscular but eminently drinkable, balanced and integrated. Very Good+. About $20.
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Mer Soleil Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 14.5% alc. Medium gold color with green highlights; big, rich, bold, brassy; very ripe, very spicy, very toasty; mango, pineapple and grapefruit, buttered toast, toffee, brown sugar, coconut crème brûlée, bananas Foster; full-bodied, rampant ripeness and oak; a woody stridently spicy finish. Who would want to make such an exaggerated “chardonnay”? Who would want to drink it? Not recommended. About $32.
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Colomé Estate Malbec 2010, Calchaqui, Salta, Argentina. 14.5% alc. Dark ruby-purple color; intense and concentrated; walnut shell and rosemary, cedar and bay leaf, black currants, black raspberry and blueberry; a combination of austere and juicy with deep, dry dusty tannins and huge reserves of oak and dry woody spices. Try from 2014 to 2018 or ’20. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $30.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. 14% alc. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Ripe, fleshy and meaty, intense and concentrated black currants, black cherries and plums; graphite right through the core to the bottom; mint, dried thyme and bay leaf, earthy and loamy; huge power of dynamic fine-grained tannins, vibrant acidity and a great undertow of polished oak, but boy this is lithe and sleek and seductive. A tremendous achievement. Best from 2013 or ’14 through 2019 to ’22. Excellent. About $45.
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