Special occasions


The account in The New York Times this morning of Barach and Michelle Obama’s first state dinner makes it sound glorious. Hey, we voted for the guy! Where was our invitation? My intent here, however, is to praise the wine choices for the meatless menu — in honor of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India — prepared by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit. I don’t know who manages the White House wine cellar and oversees the wine served there, whether for the First Family or their guests, but in this case he or she did a great job.

Here is the menu with the wines:

>Potato and Eggplant Salad, White House Arugula with Onion Seed Vinaigrette. The wine: Modus Operandi Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Napa Valley.

>Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Cheese. The wine: Brooks “Ara” Riesling 2006, Willamette Valley.

>Roasted Potato Dumplings with Tomato Chutney, Chick Peas and Okra or Green Curry Prawns, Caramelized Salsify with Smoked Collard Greens and Coconut Aged Basmati. The wine: Beckmen Vineyards Grenache 2007, Santa Ynez.

>Pumpkin Pie Tart, Pear Tatin, Whipper Cream and Caramel Sauce. The wine: Thibaut Janisson Brut, Sparkling Chardonnay, Monticello.

Notice that the dinner is a weaving of culinary threads from Indian, African and the American South. Samuelsson took a bold step in including Indian ingredients and techniques; generally, it is considered undiplomatic and competitive to serve Indian cuisine to Indian statesman outside of their country.

Notice, too, the eclectic nature of the wines served at the dinner. Two are from different growing regions of California, one is from Oregon, and one is from Virginia, not far from the White House. The wineries are all small and family-owned; there’s nothing corporate or global here, just a reliance on artisan standards of production and quality. And perhaps the choice of a riesling for the lentil soup — how interesting is that? — will spur sales of that versatile but neglected variety. Certainly the wineries will benefit from the publicity.

Well, Readers, I frequently haul out the fact that I have been writing about wine for 25 years, which, of course, when the year ticks away, will change to 26 years, but it occurred to me that in this very month, that is the month of July, now almost over, that is, 25 years ago in July 1984, my first newspaper wine column appeared in The Commercial Appeal. I was teaching college English at the time and still learning a lot about wine through reading and tasting (and I’m still learning). The feature editor of the newspaper then, Mary Alice Quinn, agreed that the city needed a local wine column, and so the thing was launched on July 11, 1984. Two years later, she offered me a full-time job, and in August 1986, I made the leap from academia to journalism.

Anyway, I went down to the newspaper (where I no longer work; I have to get a visitor’s badge from security) today and searched for my first wine column on microfilm. You know, it’s not bad, a little naive and overenthusiastic, perhaps, but certainly a great fledgling effort. I won’t reproduce the whole column for you, but I will tell you what I wrote about.

First comes a group of Bordeaux red wines from 1981 that I had recently tried at a blind tasting. My recommendations for accessible examples at decent prices were — check these figures! — Chateau Lynch-Moussas ($10 to $13) and Chateau Branaire-Ducru (about $20).

Then I provided notes on a miscellaneous range of wines: Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982 (about $9), a terrific quaff; the fabulous Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980 (about $10 for a half-bottle); the Coteaux du Tricastin Vin de Syrah 1981 from Domaine de la Tour d’Elyssas (great value at about $5); another wine from Coteaux du Tricastin, this one a 1979 bottled by the Union des Vignerons de l’Enclave des Pape, which I said was old, tired and worn out and hence to be avoided (about $3.50); the lovely Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 (about $9.50); and two sparkling wines from Shadow Creek, the Brut Cuvee No. 1, which won my hearty approval (about $10) and the “disappointing” Brut Cuvee 1981.

The column ran once a month into the Fall and then went to every two weeks and within six months was running every week. In 1989, it was picked up by the Scripps Howard News Service and distributed to newspapers around the country. The rest, as they say, is history; well, actually, that column itself is history, as they say.

I’m not going to wax nostalgic or philosophical on this occasion. I’ll just say that I concluded that first column, 25 years ago, by saying, “Well, that was fun,” and damnit, it still is.

Insanely celebratory image from graphicshunt.com

Valentine’s Day this year coincided with Pizza-and-Movie Night, which we would not forgo, of course, and besides, we learned long ago never, ever to dine out on Valentine’s, because restaurants are over-crowded and rushed and never at their best. 23157.jpg Still, we had to have some champagne to celebrate, so I hightailed it to our neighborhood retail store and bought a bottle of the A.R. Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996. Only the best for LL and me!

Blanc des Blancs means that the champagne is made only from chardonnay grapes; most champagnes are a blend of chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir. Grand Cru means that the grapes came only from the highest rated vineyards in the region. Vintage 1996 in Champagne is usually described as “extraordinary” and “superb.”

The A.R. Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996 is a highly individual wine. The color is a radiant medium gold with a faint green tinge; the froth of tiny bubbles swirls tempest-like up the glass to break at the surface. The bouquet offers guava and quince with a hint of pineapple backed by roasted hazelnuts, almond skin and fresh biscuits. Twelve years have added substance to this champagne without rendering it heavy or ponderous; think of it as dignity and gravitas buoyed by a sense of fleetness and delicacy. Acidity is citrus-clean and apple-bright, paving the way for a scintillating limestone element. The finish brings in buttered toast, roasted pears and cloves. This champagne should continue to deepen and darken its spicy, toasty hues through 2012 to 2015 or ’16. Excellent. I paid $68; prices around the country range from about $55 to $75, a bargain for the quality and considering that it’s champagne..

Opici Import Co., Glen Rock, N.J.

Wine is often brought into the realm of charitable events to up the ante because of its (supposed) glamor, allure and Napa Valley Wine Auction — or Prayer Meeting sophistication. Sometimes wine is used primarily to attract people to receptions or dinners, and sometimes it becomes the object of veneration itself, auctioned to bidders who pay extravagant sums for great vintages or special bottlings because the money goes to worthy causes. Other times, it’s the so-called wine lifestyle that invokes the generosity of bidders who are promised lunches and dinners at prominent wineries in California with accommodations in winery guest-houses with “the best view of the Napa Valley.”

No harm done, of course; nonprofit organizations and foundations have to raise money some way, and if their fund-raising events provide flash and fun as well as the opportunity to drop wads of dough on the needy and those who help them, well, bless their bones. Such an effort, for example, is the well-known Napa Valley Wine Auction, held every June and a lollapalooza of a blow-out event if ever there was one, which raises millions of dollars for healthcare, affordable housing and youth services in the Valley.

I have noticed, however, that even when wine is employed as a lure to get the well-heeled and beneficent in the door, the logo.gif product itself often takes a secondary role. This is no big deal, of course; the object is to raise money. I couldn’t help noticing this phenomenon, though, Friday night when I attended a dinner on the second night of the “Wine, Women and Shoes” fantasia that benefitted Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. “Wine, Women and Shoes” was created spontaneously by Elaine Honig, founder of Napa Valley’s Honig Vineyard and Winery, as a gimmick that might attract women (and their husbands and boyfriends) to charitable functions. Now the movement has grown to he point that 20 “Wine, Women and Shoes” events around the country have raised $2.5 million for women’s and children’s causes. Honig left the winery in January 2008 to devote herself full-time to the organization.

Anyway, I found myself in pretty heady (not to mention sleek and well-turned out) company Friday night at the Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar about 15 minutes from my house. (This is a national chain that mounts an ambitious wine program.) In fact, a longtime acquaintance in the local wine trade said to me, “Who are these people? I’ve never seen them at wine tastings?” I replied, “These aren’t wine people. These are rich people.”

The program was simple: A four-course dinner accompanied by wines (two each; 22 altogether) from Oakville Ranch, Cornerstone Cellars, Domaine Carneros, Grgich Hills, Chateau St. Jean, Peju Province, Reynolds Family, St. Supery, Titus, Garbrielle Collection and Patz & Hall. Representatives from the wineries — many of them owners or winemakers — were on hand to talk about their products. About the time the third course was served, an auction began of wine and winery visits and travel packages.

Now let’s be honest. Most of the people present Friday night weren’t particularly interested in either the dinner or the wines. Their purpose was to shine amongst their well-dressed peers, to engage in hugs, kisses and general hilarity and to join enthusiastically in the game of out-bidding each other in displays of fiduciary prowess — all to benefit Le Bonheur.

My purpose, on the other hand, was to suck up juice. (Yes, I was a charity-case, myself, having been invited as a guest.) I’m familiar with these wineries and had already tasted some of the wines, but I was happy of the opportunity to try a few that had not made their way to me or that I hadn’t tasted in a while.

The dinner, I’m sorry to say, was no great shakes. The best course was the second, Peppered Scottish Salmon on a Napa Peppered Scottish Salmon on a Napa Cabbage Slaw with Sweet Pepper Emulsion: Best Dish of the Dinner Cabbage Slaw with Sweet Pepper Emulsion. Also good was the Roasted Butternut Squash and Caramelized Shallot Bisque, though, in a trite device, served in a large cocktail glass. (I understand that the kitchen then has to wash only one vessel, not a charger and soup bowl.) Beef Tenderloin on a Roasted Garlic Hash brown with a Grilled Red Onion Demi Glace, however, was an exercise in meat and potato banality that could have been turned out in any kitchen (not mine!); one expects more of Fleming’s, which tends to do a great job with meat. Worst of all was a small plate of three uninteresting “artisan” cheeses plopped down on each table with no explanation from waiters as to what they were and no bread or toasts on which to eat them, though, oddly, served with olives and strawberries.

So much for that.

The scheme was that waiters would pour wines for the room, which was sort of divided into thirds, and alternate, so that each table would get to try each wine. That system broke down within about 10 minutes, and it was every man (as it were) for himself. The result was that I wasn’t able to taste all the wines I wanted, though I was happy with what I did manage to snag.

Picture this: Table-hopping, laughter, back-slapping, announcements, a surprise belly dancer for someone’s birthday, and a general mounting of the levels of noise and joie de vivre, the auction increasing in excitement, with bids (by the time I left) going up to $15,000; and then me, taking pictures of food, tasting wine, chatting with my attractive and eloquent table-mates (these were wine people), elbowing waiters to say, “Hey, pour me some of that, please.” Sure, it was fun.

Here’s what I tasted:

From Chateau St. Jean, the nicely balanced and tasty Chardonnay 2007, Sonoma County (Very Good+, about $14, an incredible bargain).

From Domaine Carneros, the delightful Brut 2005 to start the festivities (Very Good+, about $26); and the lovely, rich, warm, spicy and delicately structured Pinot Noir 2006 (Excellent, about $35).

From Oakville Ranch, their Chardonnay 2007, Napa Valley, always one of my favorite Napa chardonnays, this version boldly rich but exquisitely balanced (Excellent, about $46); and the Robert’s Blend 2005, a powerful, deeply earthy and minerally, wild and warm expression of the cabernet franc grape (Excellent, about $90).

From Cornerstone cellars, the superb Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, so solid, forceful and deep, yet beautifully balanced (Excellent, about $85).
2007-jenkins-ranch-pinot-noir250.jpg
From Patz & Hall, the Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2007 (Exceptional, about $55), of which my first note is “lord have mercy!” One could not ask for a more perfect model of the grape’s potential sumptuousness and strength wedded to classic lightness and clarity. And it was terrific with the salmon.

From The Gabrielle Collection, the Equilateral Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Very Good+, about $40), deep and dense, smooth and harmonious. This producer also makes the Vertex Just Red, a terrific $15-quaffer.

And the Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Excellent, about $65), the essential Napa Bordeaux-style cabernet, gorgeous but broadly fleshed out with earth and minerals and a foundation of austerity. This needs from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 or ’18.

There you have it. You can see from these wines how generous the wineries were with their donations, and of course Fleming’s was generous in turning over most of the restaurant on a busy Friday night.

No, I didn’t pony up big bucks for the evening’s charitable cause; we ink-stained wretches have little more to contribute than our wit and charm.

Ah, Charity! Ah, Life!

Image of the Napa Valley Wine Auction from napavalleyregister.com.

Numerous people, perhaps millions, will rush out tonight in a mad abandoned attempt to bring a dismal year to a close and welcome a year that has so many expectations attached to it that if it had any sense it would stay in its cave and never come out. If ever a year was required to be All Things to All People, 2009 is it. So good luck.

New Year’s Eve requires bubbles, and assuming that you’re not going to go out and get so drunk in your search for oblivion that you don’t give a good goddamn about what you slosh into your mouth, here are some recommendations.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Say you’re hosting a party the size of which would accommodate the complete cast of The Wire (including Snoop, Chris and laurier.JPG Omar), what you want is something decent, tasty and affordable to purchase by the case. Turn to the non-vintage Domaine Laurier Brut which, despite its French name, is from California and one of the better products of Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Corp. This sparkling wine, made in the traditional champagne method, is a medium gold color and offers a consistent and satisfying up-rush of tiny bubbles. Aromas of wheatmeal, lime and almond blossom presage a wine that is spare, clean, lively, citrusy and close to elegant. Very Good and a bargain at about $12. That’s the suggested retail price, but you find this sparkler discounted as low as $9.
Image from insidebayarea.com.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________
rotari_rose.gif
Looking for more character at a higher but still reasonable price? Try the delightful “metodo classico” non-vintage Rotari Rosé, a blend of 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay from Italy’s northeastern Trento region. The color is an entrancing pale copper-salmon; the bubbles insist on pin-point persistence. The wine is unexpectedly (for the price) rich, meaty and earthy, with a bouquet of spiced apple, melon, blood orange and almond skin. The effervescence is giddy; the acidity clean and crisp; flavors tend toward fresh bread, lime and limestone, with the stony aspect increasing on the finish. Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $14.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________
O.K., well, let’s forget all the freaking fiscal austerity and pretend that, as the old song from the Depression goes (you know, the ttg006.jpgother Depression), we’re in the money, and that maybe tonight’s festivity is aimed at a small group or even just two. It would be fitting, then, to open a bottle of the Taittinger Brut Millésimé 2002, a cool, elegant Champagne — half and half pinot noir and chardonnay –that will leave you feeling optimistic and (fleetingly) wealthy. The color is pale gold with a shimmer of silver; the bubbles are classically tiny, like seething flecks of celestial ore. Aromas of warm bread, dried spice, lemon pie and meadow honey draw you in. The texture is exquisitely poised between crisp nervosity and creamy lushness, with flavors packing hints of baked apple, lemon curd, crystallized ginger and orange rind wrapped in toasty bread, all of this subdued to the resonance of liquid limestone. A Champagne of tremendous breeding and finesse. Excellent. About $90.
Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Since New Year’s Eve is the biggest champagne and sparkling wine night of the year, let me append some tips on proper serving.

1. Champagne and sparkling wine should be served chilled, straight from the refrigerator.

2. They should be consumed in tall “flute” glasses, not the shallow “coupe” glasses said to have been modeled on one of Marie Antoinette’s breasts. I wonder which one.

3. Never try to open a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine with a cork-screw. Strip off the foil capsule and untwist the wire cage that surrounds the cork. With a dish towel or napkin over the bottle, grasp the cork in one hand and the bottom of the bottle in the other. Extract the cork by twisting the bottle, not the cork.

4. Now matter how plastered you are or how much hilarity you anticipate, NEVER push the cork out with your thumbs, hoping for a loud POP, a gush of foam and a cork careening about the room. The pressure inside a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine is enormous, and the cork will rush out at great speed and force, enough to damage an eye.

5. Champagne and sparkling wines are versatile enough to be served with all sorts of party foods and dinner courses, but the best beverage to go with caviar is chilled vodka.

Say you’ve been really good this year, or pretty damned good, or you tried to be good and achieved the 80th percentile. I mean, that’s not so bad. It wouldn’t get you into graduate school on the GRE, but in terms of human behavior in a wicked world, even pommard.jpg that level of goodness deserves some reward.

Or say that this was a year of good things. You ran the race, closed the deal, finished the book, beat the rap, and you want to give something impressive (but not a boat) to your trainer, your partner, your agent, your lawyer.

Look to one (or some, what the hell) of these “Twelve Great Wines” reviewed in this Featured Article on KoeppelOnWine.com. Prices go from about $45 to $350, so there’s a wide range of sassicaia.JPG choice. The regions are California; Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone Valley in France; Tuscany and Alto Adige in Italy; and Hungary, in case geography plays any part in your selection. I’ve included two labesl here as a hint about the kinds of wines these “Twelve Great Wines” are.

What makes these wines great?

Well, the fact that they are unique, pure and intense expressions of a place and a grape (or grapes); that they embody every principle of balance and harmony and completeness along with some wild eloquence, some extra element of personality and character; the fact that they are downright delicious as well as profound, and it’s true that some of them won’t really be ready to consume for another five to eight years.

So go for it! Reward yourself! Make someone else happy! Isn’t it about time?

And on Friday will come, on this blog, a case of wine for Christmas giving or getting or drinking, 12 bottles each under 20 dollars. I’m working on that now.

For Ken & Terry.

So, finally we’re having seasonable weather in Memphis, after a horrendous August and a hotter-than-usual September. It’s a Sunday Afternoon Lunch beautiful, clear, slightly warm Sunday afternoon, and we’re still on the screened porch, reading The New York Times and watching the dogs gambol about the backyard or collapse on the grass, as if fallen from an airplane, to snooze in the sun. Maybe a little lunch would be appropriate, not really lunch, but something halfway between lunch and a snack.

So I go into the kitchen and start putting things together. When we were in New York last month, we went to Buon Italiano in Chelsea Market and stocked up on meats and cheeses (and a jar of ravishing lime blossom honey). I slice some sopressata, some speck and some coppa, slice a baguette, put some nicoise olives and roasted red pepper on the platter. Pour some olive oil — the bright, rich Prato Lungo from Long Meadow Ranch Winery in Napa Valley — in a little bowl. East Side of Our Yard, with Dog Fences

We need wine, of course, so I open a bottle of the Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico 2004 (about $23).

This is pretty damned perfect. That’s the east side of our backyard, seen from the porch, with three tall, pale, slender sycamore trees that we love.

The salumi are wonderful, probably the best we’ve ever had. The speck is dense, almost lush in texture, like prosciutto in flavor but darker and more intense. The sopressata is hard, nutty, spicy; it’s great on pizza. The coppa is smoky, Volpaia Chianti Classico 2004 ripely meaty and earthy.

The Volpaia Chianti Classico 2004 is indeed classic, a delicious melange of vivid black currant, black raspberry and plum flavors with spiced tea, potpourri, lively acid and grainy, chewy tannins. The wine sees no new oak or small barrels, aging 14 months in Slovenian casks for subtle wood notes and a robust structure.

Back in June, I gave LL a birdfeeder for her birthday, which I set up near the west side of our screened porch. Watching the birds come to the feeder, observing their habits and manners and colors and the playing out of status — they’re like dogs that way — have given us hours of amusement and pleasure. We have house finches, cow-birds, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, blue jays (the court jesters), mourning doves and so on. About the third week of September, though, most of the birds vanished. What’s up with that? I mean, they’re already south. How far south do they have to go?

We still had our two pairs of cardinals, though, the brash crimson males with their black masks and conical hats, the kings of our yard, and the softer, more muted females. They are monogamous and non-migratory.

Anyway, so here we are, a brilliant Sunday afternoon, a nice snack and wine, the newspapers.

Then there’s a commotion, over to our left, in some shrubbery. Four of the dogs — Tessa, the fifth dog, has to stay in her own yard because she and the boss-dog, Grace Slick, have terrible fights — are circling around, jumping back and forth, barking. Grace Slick, queen of the dogs, with Rose, bird-killer Suddenly, LL cries, “Rosie, no!” and there’s Rose, the small black chow, running around, shaking something that looks like a limp red rag in her mouth. We rush out of the porch and run to where the dogs are watching Rose, who leaps back and forth shaking what is, of course, one of the male cardinals. Too late for the bird. I get a shovel from the garage, shoo Rose away — she doesn’t want to give up her prize — scoop up what is hardly recognizable as a bird now, and drop him in the trash bin.

Well, this is really sad. Now there’s a cardinal widow; what will she do? Somehow, considering this day, I can’t help thinking about Dutch still-life paintings from the 17th century, those intricate marvels of bountiful hedonism, overflowing with fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood, carafes of wine, silver platters and goblets, heaps of flowers, unalloyed tributes to the pleasures of the body. But there’s always a tiny detail that gives us pause: A moldy lemon on the fruit tray; a fly, rendered in such exquisite detail that you can almost hear it buzz; a few wilted flowers in the bouquet, all serving to remind us that in the midst of life’s generous offerings and pleasures, decay, dissolution and death still reign supreme, that everything organic, living, material comes to the same end, including dogs, birds and us.

Still, until all the food is eaten and all the wine consumed, until all the lovely Sunday afternoons vanish, and dogs and cats and birds are forgotten, and music is silent and poems are unread, and we ourselves have vanished and are forgotten — until that day, we’ll keep on exactly as we are.

Castello di Volpaia wines are imported by Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Ca.
The website for the olive oil is longmeadowranch.com.

When we were in New York last month, it was unseasonably and oppressively hot for the first couple of days. Then, on Wednesday, it cooled off wonderfully, turning crisp and fall-like, a perfect day to tromp around Chelsea and look at art. Which we did until about 1 o’clockwhen, famished for lunch, we dropped in at Tia Pol Bar de Tapas, a narrow, deep store-front tiapol_01.jpg establishment where on this fine day that French doors to the sidewalk were flung wide open.

Chelsea may have been the center of New York’s contemporary art world for more than a decade, but it’s still tough to find a place to get a decent lunch. We have eaten at Empire Diner, right across the street from Tia Pol, many times and were heartily tired of it. Likewise Botino, the old stand-by of the Art Crowd.

So it was a great pleasure to take two stools at the corner of the marble-topped bar at Tia Pol, close to the open front of the restaurant, where we could sit and watch the world and the traffic and the walkers and their dogs go by. Turns out there’s a three-course prix fixe lunch for $16. We couldn’t pass that up! Since there were two choices for each course, we ordered everything. And glasses of sangria, red wine chilled with a few ice cubes and containing a modest amount of diced apple and lemon, so the sangria was completely not sweet and not overwhelmingly fruity. It was incredibly refreshing.

Now the $16 three-course lunch is, one understands, a simple affair. First, gazpacho or blistered gernika green peppers tossed with sea salt. Second, squid with rice in a squid ink sauce or a “po’boy” with crisp squid, aioli, tomato and lettuce. Third, a Fuji apple or a dish of ice cream. Simple, yes, but well-prepared and tasty all around, even to that fresh, crisp Fuji apple.

You can see it the top image that the gazpacho was an attractive reddish-orange color and that it was pureed almost smooth, tiapol_02.jpg except for a couple of pieces of tomato; it was delicious. The roasted and blistered peppers were hot, salty and earthy. Squid in its ink is not the most photogenic dish on earth, as you can see, but it was tasty (and fairly chewy), while the sandwich was pretty hearty and down-to-earth. The apple, the vanilla ice cream. Everything was delightful and well-worth the price.

Next time you’re doing the art tour of Chelsea — and don’t take that assignment lightly, we covered only two streets that day — treat Tia Pol as your canteen and oasis. I know that we’ll be back.

Tia Pol is at 205 10th Avenue. Lunch is noon to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner is 5:30 to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to midnight Friday, 6 to midnight Saturday and 6 to 10:30 Sunday. Call (212) 675-8805 or visit tiapol.com, where the lunch and dinner menus are displayed.

Well, readers, friends, detractors, what-have-you, BiggerThanYourHead was launched in early December 2006. Nine months later, in the middle of last week, we passed the 100,000 mark for hits. In fact today, the hit-log stands at 105,555. I know, it’s not YouTube or MySpace or Gawker — or The Pour — but it feels pretty good to me. I wanted to say thank you to everybody who read and continue to read and especially to those who leave comments, because blogging is all about call and response. So keep those cards and letters coming in and tip up a glass of great juice in honor of all wine-lovers tonight. Cheers!

Six of us gathered last Tuesday for dinner at Falai, a small, sleek, irresistible Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was my second visit, having eaten there back in March. The diners were LL and me, our friend Julie (with whom we stayed for falaishot_01.jpg part of last week), Terence Hughes of mondosapore fame and his longtime partner Ken, and Gabrio Tosti, the irrepressible owner of the fine little (mainly) Italian wine store De Vino, one block north of Falai on Clinton Street. We were joined later — hours later; it was a long riotous meal — by Gian Luigi Maravalle, proprietor of Tenuta Vitalonga in western Umbria, whose plane was late and whose luggage was lost.

Chef at the restaurant is Iacopo Falai, whose talent is for taking traditional ingredients of northern Italian cuisine, adding a sly inventive touch here and a sly inventive touch there and coming up with food that is delicious and memorable without being cute and tricky. After quite a bit of discussion and diplomacy, the table decided to order the prix fixe menu; here were the choices — Antipasto: Polenta Bianca (chicken liver, dried dates and wild mushrooms “Vellutata”) OR baby octopus with fresh celery, string terry_01.jpg beans, Granny Smith apples, American caviar. Pasta: Gnudi of ricotta cheese, baby spinach, brown butter, crema di latte, sage. Carne/Pesce: Manzo (petit filet, butternut squash and orange puree, blood orange fennel salad) OR Branzino (potato-wrapped sea-bass, leek, white asparagus, huckleberry sauce). Dolce: passion fruit souffle. Four courses for $55. Some members of our party tried to negotiate a menu without the gnudi, and the efficient, amenable and incredibly, infinitely patient manager Jiordona — pictured here with Terry Hughes (in his usual serious mood) — even offered such a deal at $50, but in the end, everyone got all the courses.

We began by quickly downing a bottle of the crisp, floral and delightful Ronco delle Betulle Tocai Friulano 2005 from the restaurant’s wine list ($44). After that, we consumed five bottles, two that I brought and three brought in by Gabrio. The first of Gabrio’s wines — and we pretty much scarfed this down too — was a new rosé, the fresh, delicate and tasty Whispering Angel 2006 — everybody who thinks that’s a terrible name raise your hand! — from Chateau d’Esclans in the Côtes de Provence; Sacha Lichine bought the property in 2006. This dry rosé offers whispers of crushed raspberries and strawberries and feathery hints of stones and dried flowers for pleasing effect. The high-concept label is attractive, the wine retails for about $22, and it’s the only rosé that Gabrio sells.

We drank these gentle opening salvos during talk and bread — Iacopo Falai is a former pasty chef, and the breads are excellent — and appetizers, of which the octopus got best marks. You can see from the image how great the plate looked. The baby octopus_01.jpg octopus was exceedingly tender — it’s boiled first and then grilled — and the curl of celery and the slender batons of apple provided crisp contrasts in texture and fresh flavors. Not that the Polenta Bianca was any slouch. Indeed the combination of the creamy chicken livers and slightly crusty polenta with the sweet fruitiness of the dates and wild earthiness of the mushrooms was heady and flavorful, but the dish was definitely rustic compared to the finesse of the octopus.

Next came the gnudi, a carefully shaped oval-like nest of ricotto cheese and shredded, cooked spinach bathed in a nutty brown gnudi_01.jpg butter sauce with a touch of cream; leaning against this delicate construct was one sage leaf. Rich and creamy, these gnudi disappeared into our mouths in about three minutes, leaving us wishing that they had not vanished so quickly.

I picked up a bottle of Domaine Leccia Petra Bianca Patrimonio 1998 ($25) at Crossroads Wines & Liquors on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues at the suggestion of Nicolas Palazzi, who is French through and through yet bears the name of his father and honorable ancestors from Corsica. The Palazzi family owns Bordeaux properties in Cotes de Bourg, Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves, and Nicolas lives in New York nine months a year trying to market the wines. Anyway, he and I are email correspondents, and he, mindful of his Corsican heritage, had delved through the stock at the totally eccentric and treasure-filled wine store, found this wine and sent out a bulletin. “Petra Bianca” refers not to the wine’s color — it’s red, made from 100 percent niellucciu grapes — but to the chalky clay soil that nurtures the vineyards of Corsica’s Patrimonio region. The wine was imported by Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, Ca.

I’ll confess that I didn’t love the wine, though it was very interesting. It opened with whiffs of cedar and eucalyptus, scents of walnuts and walnut shell, dried spice and brown sugar, the sign of a mature red. In the mouth, the wine was dense and chewy, formidably tannic and sporting a startling hit of acid. It smoothed out and became more palatable in 15 or 20 minutes, but the whole time it was in my glass I kept thinking, “What happened to the fruit?” Of course, it’s nine years old; it would be instructive to try more recent vintages.

By this time, of course, our entrees had arrived. When I dined at Falai in March, I had ordered the manzo, asking for it to be cooked to medium rare, but what came to the table was medium or more. This time I ordered the beef rare, so it came to me at a perfect medium rare temperature and rosy-red color. The preparation at the end of the winter included parsnip puree, red wine-cooked shallots and wild mushrooms and a Marsala-truffle sauce; more in keeping with the season — and it was hot in New York last week — the petit filet came with a butternut squash and orange puree and a blood orange-fennel salad. It was a sumptuous yet completely balanced and appropriate presentation. I did not, alas — or I don’t remember, alas — tasting the branzino.

Next we opened the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo 1998 from Guiseppe Quintarelli, who is often called the “Master of the Veneto” or the “King of the Veneto.” This is the kind of wine that at first sniff and sip you say, “Well, here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” meaning that in completely the best way. This wine also came from Crossroads and cost about $76; it was imported by Robert Chadderton in New York. Despite the name, the wine has nothing to do with the merlot grape. It is, essentially, a sort of super-Valpolicella, made from corvino grapes (taken from a single hillside vineyard) in the traditional ripasso method in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation on the skins of the dried grapes used to make Amarone wines, thus providing additional strength and tannin. Nothing tannic here, however; the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo ’98 was lovely, smooth and mellow, subtle and supple, composed of black cherry, currant and plum flavors deeply infused with dried spice, potpourri and black tea with touches of moss and clean earth. What a treat!

Not to be outdone, Gabrio rushed back to his store and returned with a bottle of the Merlanico d’Orta de Conciliis 2000, a Vino da Tavola (two-thirds merlot, one-third aglianico) produced by Lombardy’s Barone Giulio Pizzini Piomarta; the importer is Vignaioli merlanico.jpg Selections in New York. The price at Gabrio’s store is $150. This is, frankly, a stunning wine, deep and rich and flavorful, and it gets deeper and richer and more flavorful as moments pass. It opens beautifully, warmly in the glass, offering notes of cedar and tobacco, leather, toasted hazelnuts and wheatmeal, black currants and plums with hints of wild berry, earth and minerals. Retaining considerable tannins, the wine is dense and chewy, packed with spicy wood, yet generously supplied with black and red fruit flavors, that wane as the large and fairly austere finish takes over. And what a match for the medium rare beef filet!

By this time Maravalle had arrived, sans luggage and sans vino for us to try, so again Gabrio rushed over to his store to get confine.jpg something from Tenuta Vitalonga. He returned with a bottle of Terra di Confine 2004, a blend of 80 percent montepulciano grapes and 20 percent merlot. As Maravalle pointed out, this is a young wine from young grapes, planted only four years ago, so we were not surprised that the wine was bold and brash, wild and robust, bursting with currants, plums and dark-chocolate-covered raspberries nestled in dense, leathery tannins. Another wine destined for pairing with hearty red meat dishes, it sells for $25. I would try it from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 or ’14. souffle_011.jpg

Were we finished?

With wine, yes, but not with dinner, because dessert came, a sumptuous, luxurious, yet light-hearted passion fruit souffle.

And then we gathered our gear, our notes, our bags and shuffled out of Falai, by far the last to leave, hoping against hope that we wouldn’t have hangovers the next day.

Falai is at 68 Clinton Street, near Rivington. Call (212) 253-1960.
De Vino is at 30 Clinton Street. Call (212) 228-0073 or visit de-vino.com.

The top image of the restaurant, shot from behind the small bar area looking toward the back, is by Jeremy Liebman for New York magazine. The rest of the images in Falai were shot by LL or FK.

« Previous PageNext Page »