March 2014

Grapes for the Elk Cove Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley, Oregon, derive from five estate vineyards, with the addition of a small amount of grapes purchased from trusted growers on long-term contract. The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels. The wine is, in other words, a summation of a house-style or region rather than an individual expression of a single vineyard; as such, it succeeds admirably. The color is a glowing medium ruby hue; aromas of rose petals and violets, red currants and plums are buoyed by notes of cranberry and rhubarb, with hints of briers and cloves. Underlying loam and graphite elements support delicious red fruit flavors in a structure enlivened by taut acidity and just enough tannin to provide a modicum of grip; the texture is supple and satiny, while the finish adds more spice. 13.5 percent alcohol. A real crowd-pleaser for drinking through 2016 or ’17. Try with medium rare roasted duck. Excellent. About $29.

Tasted at a wholesaler’s trade event.

Anyone who has read Rockss and Fruit, the blog written by Lyle Fass, knows that he is enthusiastic, opinionated and articulate. Meet him in person, and you understand what a force of nature he is, a man of seemingly boundless energy and zeal for a particular sort of vinous purity and intensity. A little more than a year ago, Fass, who worked in retail for almost 20 years — a well-known figure at the distinctive Chambers Street Wines in lower Manhattan — launched Fass Selections, an online entity designed to get fine European wines into the hands of consumers at reasonable prices by by-passing the three-tier system. Such a scheme is possible for an importer only because in the state of California, since Jan. 1, 2012, it is legal for an importer to sell wine via the Internet and via direct mail without requiring the importer to maintain a physical retail location or to hold a beer and wine wholesaler license (California Business and Professions Code section 23393.5). So while Fass, a fourth-generation Brooklynite, lives in that borough of New York, the business itself is registered in the Golden State. His take on the three-tier system is that it is “beyond imperfect.”

In frigid mid-December, after a round of delayed flights, I met Lyle Fass at the improbable Michelin one-star Lan Sheng Szechuan Restaurant in Manhattan’s Garment District (60 West 39th Street), a bastion of retro 60s modernist decor inhabited by legions of lunch-going office workers intent on — I’ll say frankly — some of the most riveting Chinese food I’ve ever encountered. Odd as it may seem, the German and French wines that Fass, 39 by the way, brought to taste were terrific with this spicy and profound fare.

What does he look for?

“Wines that express a terroir, that show freshness and acidity, that show purity.” Fass travels to Europe several times a year, using his contacts to find small artisan producers that embody these criteria. He is especially fond of Burgundy and Beaujolais, several regions of Germany, and now Champagne.

How does his system work?

All it requires in the way of brick-and-mortar presence is a warehouse to store the wines before he offers them on his website. Because inventory is low, he doesn’t need a lot of space. Once the wines are sold, Fass has already moved on to the next offerings. “Inventory,” he said, “is the scourge of the industry.”

“All the business is conducted by email,” he said. “I contact the producer and put the wine on the website. I get the orders from customers and send an invoice to the producer, who gets paid before the wine leaves the winery. We outsource the packing and shipping. I deal with farmers. They don’t know how to do invoices.”

His goal, over the next five to seven years, is to find 35 to 40 producers “that I’ll work with for a long time.” He acknowledged that the first two or so years of a start-up are tough. “We had some unexpected expenses, but we also have low overhead. 2015 or ’16 should be the breakthrough.”

While the wines are sold individually at a bottle price, Fass discounts prices in four or six bottle-groups.

The following wines were tasted at lunch with Lyle Fass. They represent the kinds of wines he sells but might not necessarily be available now.

Weltner Rödelseer Küchenmeister Trocken Sylvaner 2012, Franken, Germany. Ineluctable and ineffable earthiness; peaches and lemongrass and camellia; sea salt and salt marsh; pea shoot and lemon balm; ethereal texture and structure; heaps of scintillating limestone. Absolutely irresistible balance and authority. Excellent. About $27.

Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. 7.5% alc. Medium gold color with faint green highlights; otherworldly purity, intensity and beguilement; totally fresh and appealing; lemon verbena, thyme, grapefruit and tangerine with backnote of pineapple; layers of limestone and shale-like earthiness yet sun-kissed with leafy hints of apple, lychee and fig; a golden beauty, for drinking through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional. About $20, a Wonderful Value.

Laible Durbacher Plauelrain “SL” Riesling Trocken 2012, Baden, Germany. 12.5% alc. Pale gold color; jasmine and honeysuckle, peach and yellow plum fruit; spicy and savory; offers the energy of bright acidity and limestone minerality with the seductive power of a lovely almost talc-like texture, resulting in a winsome marriage of refinement and animation; pinpoint balance and integration. Drink through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $25.
Irancy is one of those places that you hope never disappears, absorbed into some larger appellation because it’s obscure and little wine is made. Nominally linked to Burgundy but lying southwest of Chablis in a picturesque hidden valley, Irancy produces red wine made from pinot noir grapes and a small amount of rose; the local cesar grape is allowed. Though wine has been made in Irancy for more than 1,000 years, the tiny region was accorded AOC status only in 1999. The Thierry Richoux 2010, Irancy (13% alc.), is one of the purest yet most unusual expressions of pinot noir I have encountered. This is 100 percent pinot noir that sees only old passage barrels, so there’s no tint or taint of new oak. Intense medium ruby color; scents and flavors of mulberries, red currants and blueberries tinged with licorice and cloves and a distinct mossy-loamy quality; this is a lipsmacking tasty wine, for which a bastion of dusty, slightly leathery tannins and brisk acidity provide support. Rustic in the best sense of a country wine that represents its place and grape with style, character and integrity. Now through 2018 to ’22. This was intriguing and evocative with the restaurant’s camphor-smoked duck. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.

A different perspective on pinot noir is the Hervé Murat Les Tuvilains Beaune Premier Cru 2010. Murat launched his Burgundian domaine in 2005, not an easy task in a region where vineyards are divided and subdivided and lost and regained through inheritance and where established land is expensive. Les Tuvilains in one of the smaller and lesser-known Premier Cru vineyards of Beaune; it was planted in 1947, and Murat owns half a hectare, that is, about 1.28 acres. This is classic, offering a medium ruby color with a hint of garnet; aromas of macerated and slightly stewed red and black cherries and currants with a hint of lilac and fruitcake and a spare, supple, sinewy structure through which clean acidity cuts a swath. Dark and dynamic. 12.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $39.

The Battenfeld Spanier Mölsheim Riesling 2012, Rheinhessen (12.5% alc), is a dry riesling of tremendous tone, presence and character. Radiant medium gold color; replete with spicy apple, stone fruit and yellow plum elements, but fruit is almost superfluous — I think I’ve never said that before — in the face of its dense, almost chewy texture, its resonant crystalline limestone and shale minerality; this is a riesling that comes close to being tannic; huge dimension but real cut, swagger and detail. I mean, holy fucking moly. Now through 2020 to ’25. Exceptional. About $23, practically a Give-Away. .

Here I go, pushing Spring again, when there’s treacherous snow and ice on the ground and on the roads in many regions between the shining seas. Perhaps it will do us good, though, to think in terms of Spring-like wines. The one of which I speak is the Leo Torrontes 2013, from the Valentin Bianchi winery in Argentina’s well-known Mendoza region, specifically from the estate’s Dona Elsa Vineyard in the San Rafael area, a whopping 2,493 feet above sea level. You probably know that some wines made from the torrontes grape can be overwhelmingly floral to the point of being vapid or crushingly dry and crisp beyond the point of austerity. This wine is not one of those. The quite pale Leo Torrontes 2013, made all in stainless steel, offers delicate notes of jasmine and camellia, with hints of roasted lemon, cloves, lime peel and greengage plum; tingling acidity keeps the wine lively and compelling, with a lovely structure balancing crispness with a moderately lush, talc-like texture. Acidity and limestone minerality win by a hint and a nod, however, keeping the wine glintingly honest, while its spiced citrus and stone-fruit flavors are delicious. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through the end of 2014 into 2015 with grilled fish or seafood risottos. Very Good+. About $17.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa Calif. A sample for review.

The wine is named for Argentine soccer superstar Leo Messi, who plays for FC Barcelona and the Argentine national team. A portion of sales of the wine benefit the Leo Messi Charity Foundation, which focuses on health care and educational development of socially-disadvantaged children.

One of the most gratifying aspects of the job, the vocation, the quest of writing about wines on this blog is the sort of email I receive in which small wineries, mostly in California, ask if they may send products for me to review. This is a great way to learn about the wide diversity of wineries and the efforts of individuals or families that make amounts of wine that might not otherwise get attention. (I always emphasize that I cannot guarantee the outcome of a tasting or review.) One of those messages arrived recently from Ryan Sherman, winemaker for Fields Family Wines in Lodi. This winery defines what we mean by “small” and “family-owned.” The total number of cases produced for the four wines mentioned in this post is 625. The winery is owned by Russ Fields, an attorney in Sacramento, and his wife Melinda; Sherman, a real estate agent, is a partner, and both families and their children are involved in running the company. The wines receive very little or no new oak; they are bottled unfined and unfiltered. Alcohol levels are kept fairly low, for this group of wines 14.2 to 14.8 percent. Finally, these reds lean more toward elegance, refinement and nuance than blatant qualities of over-ripeness and blockbuster tannins; balance and harmony are the keywords. Those interested in purchasing any of these wines — I recommend the Old Vine Zinfandel 2011 and the Tempranillo 2011 — should contact the winery at or call 209-896-6012.

These wines were samples for review.
The vines mentioned in the Fields Family Wines Old Vine Zinfandel 2011 are 55 to 60 years old and are found in the Sherman Family Vineyards in the Mokelumne River American Viticultural Area, located in the southwestern part of the overall of Lodi AVA. Mokelumne River was established as an AVA in 2006, though it was the first region in the county to be planted to vines. The wine aged in French and Hungarian oak barrels, less than 35 percent new; the number of months is not specified. The Fields Family Old Vine Zinfandel ’11 offers a dark ruby-mulberry color and pungent scents of briers and brambles, white pepper, spiced and macerated black and red currants and cherries with an undertow of plum; a few moments in the glass bring in notes of lavender and lilac, cloves and sandalwood. Moderate tannins keep her steady as she goes, providing plenty of foundation for bright acidity and delicious black and red fruit flavors but never as a dominating factor. Lovely balance and integration. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 200 cases. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $24.
The Fields Family Tempranillo 2011, Lodi (Mokelumne River), evinces the transparent and radiant ruby color you see in glasses of wine in Dutch still-life paintings. The wine aged 20 months in neutral French barriques, a process that lent almost subliminal subtlety and suppleness to the structure. This is ripe and meaty, delivering red and black currants and raspberries, both fresh and dried, with smoky, roasted notes and hints of pomander and potpourri, then conjuring fruitcake and toasted walnuts. A silky texture and mellow but spicy black fruit flavors belie the leathery and slightly dusty tannins that take an hour or so to emerge, along with a hint of graphite minerality for backbone. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 100 cases, so good luck, though this wine was my favorite of the quartet. Now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $22.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________The Fields Family Il Ladro 2011, Lodi, is an unspecified blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, 10 percent from Napa Valley. The wine aged in used French and American oak barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple. The wine begins with attractive scents of spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums highlighted by orange zest and black tea, lavender and potpourri. There’s lovely delicately velvet-like weight and texture (moderately dense and dusty) balanced by lip-smacking acidity and slightly tarry, leathery tannins, all in the service of tasty black and red fruit flavors. 14.4 percent alcohol. Production was fewer than 175 cases. Now through 2017 or ’18. An enjoyable blend, certainly, but I wish it offered more stuffing and complexity. Very Good+. About $25.
There wouldn’t be a darned thing wrong with the Fields Family Syrah 2011, Lodi (Mokelumne), if it were, say, a particularly intense pinot noir from Santa Lucia Highlands. What I’m sayin’ is that this is a thoroughly enjoyable and delicious wine but not very syrah-like, not even in the sense of a more restrained syrah. The wine aged about 16 months in French oak, less that 25 percent new barrels. The color is a deep purple-magenta; the bouquet teems with quite spicy red and black cherries underlain by hints of smoke, tar and violets. It’s rich and succulent and satiny, a bit too sophisticated for syrah, but — I’ll say it again — quite a tasty glass of wine. 14.2 percent alcohol. 150 cases were made. Now through 2016 to ’18. Very Good+. About $22.

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