What Were They Thinking

Can it be that hard to make great or even good pinot noir wines? Sure, it’s a delicate grape, a little high-strung, requiring careful nurture. Here, however, is my more than reasonable dicta to (mainly) producers in California, for whom pinot noir is a sort of Holy Grail: Lay off the oak! Avoid deep extraction! Keep the freakin’ alcohol at a sane level!

See how simple it is?

The errant pinot noirs that I’m going to mention today don’t necessarily taste bad; I don’t mean that you would spit them out in a gush of disgust. They just don’t taste (or look or smell) like pinot noir. These are the pinot noir wines that would sit before a Senate subcommittee and confess, “Yes, Your Excellency, in 2006 I did indulge in performance-enhancing substances, but my doctor made me do it.”

Now I understand that there’s no reason why pinot noir producers in California and Oregon should slavishly imitate the manner of pinot noir made in Burgundy, the grape’s natural homeland. Differences in geography, climate, soil and philosophy dictate varied approaches to farming and winemaking and of the impressionable grape itself to these conditions. I have found myself frequently defending a pinot from Russian River Valley or Santa Rita Hills from charges that it is “too Californian.” Yet the essence of the grape should and must remain intact; where a pinot noir wine is powerful, that power should be married to delicacy, and where it is dynamic, that dynamism should be allied with elegance. The world of wine has room for blockbusters; we call them syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel. Pinot noir requires finesse, a lighter touch.

Here, then, are five pinot noirs wines from four regions of California that displeased me to greater or lesser degrees, but mainly by taking on the pumped-up character of other grapes. I will, next week, post reviews of pinot noirs wines that I do, indeed, admire.

I swear, sometimes I don’t know what to think of X Winery. In some ways, I’m a great admirer. Certainly the winery’s flagship xpinot.jpgproduct, Amicus, which debuted in the 2000 vintage, is a great Napa Valley cabernet-based wine that happens to sell for half or a third of what comparable wines sell for. (My reviews of the two Amicus wines from 2005 are here.) X’s merlot and regular cabernet sauvignon are always compellingly sleek and integrated; the petite sirah is appropriately rustic and bumptious; and the blended X Winery Red Wine and the “ES” Sauvignon Blanc are consistently attractive bargains.

But I blow hot and cold on X’s chardonnay. I thought that the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Carneros, Napa Valley, was pretty much a travesty, made more so because the chardonnay that the Truchard winery itself makes from these vines is exquisite. On the other hand, the X Winery Chardonnay 2007, Los Carneros, from the Truchard Vineyard (54%) and the well-known Sangiacomo Vineyard (46%) is one of the best, most balanced and integrated, yet boldly flavorful chardonnays X Winery has made to date; I mean you just want to kiss the limestone. It rates Excellent, and at $19, it’s a steal. That’s nice and all that, but such inconsistency is disturbing.

The point here is that I feel the same way about the X Winery Truchard Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 as I did about its chardonnay counterpart from 2006. The wine ages 12 months in 90 percent French oak, of which 30 percent of the barrels were new; that might not be too much oak for some wines, but it was too much for this one, which is dominated by a strident brown sugar element, aggressive spice and downright woodiness. I expect — no, hope for –more finesse from this producer. 784 cases. Good only. About $25.
I’ll back-track for a second here and say that the Hahn Estates Pinot Noir 2006, Monterey County, did not displease me greatly, but it certainly didn’t please me a great deal either. This would be a nifty wine if it were a syrah, but it is, of course, not. Nothing wrong with the oak regimen here; 10 months in French oak, 65 percent new, seems right. The alcohol, however, is 14.5 percent, and the sweet heat and over-ripeness of alcohol really make themselves known. The wine is big and ripe, intense and concentrated, with macerated and roasted black currants and blackberries; did I mention syrah already? The texture is so super-satiny that it envelops your tongue; you feel almost as if you can’t get away from it. Not a bad wine if it were something else, but not a good pinot noir. Good+. About $20.
Spice dominates the Ventana Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006, Arroyo Seco, Monterey, from start to finish, and by the time I got to that finish, I could have been convinced that what I was drinking was a very spicy, very ripe merlot or a slightly mild-mannered syrah. Sorry, there was nothing particularly pinot noirish about this wine. It aged 10 months in French oak — we are not informed about the percentage of new to old barrels — and the alcohol is a sane 13.5 percent; no red flags there. Still, I kept hoping for something more distinctively characteristic of the grape than spicy black cherry and plum flavors and a smooth texture. Not that it tasted bad or anything; the wine was actually attractive. It just didn’t smell or taste like pinot noir, and it is, I believe, the responsibility of a winemaker, whatever his or her vision of a wine, to give us a wine that’s varietally true. Good+. About $28.
When the initial aromas of a pinot noir wine are smoke and charred beef, you know you’re in trouble. That was the case with the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2006, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, a “pinot noir” so dark and spicy, so robust and hearty, so laced with qualities of leather and black pepper, that you would have sworn it was — need I say it? — a syrah. I’m a fan of MacMurray’s Pinot Gris, which is one of the best in California, and I have usually liked the winery’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This Russian River Valley version, however, was beyond the pale. Good+. About $37.

This is the point in this post where some readers (and perhaps winemakers) are beginning to get restive and mutter, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, telling winemakers that the wines they have worked on and exercised their thoughts and talents on happen to be not varietally true? Sheesh!”

Listen: Grapes have character, and they have characteristics, and while it’s true that the character and characteristics of grapes must necessarily admit variations that derive from the soil where they are grown and the climate that influences them, they still must retain the core, the heart of their essence. Whatever its regional influences, a wine based on the cabernet sauvignon grape, for example, should be identifiable by its essence of black currant, slate, cedar and tobacco, whether made in Pauillac, the Napa Valley or the Hunter Valley. In fact, that sense of a grape’s essential nature bolstered by and integrated with regional qualities should provide one of wine-tasting and drinking’s most profound pleasures.

Some grapes are more malleable than others, as witness sauvignon blanc wines made, say, in Sancerre, Graves, Lake County and Marlborough. What a heady set of variations that geographical extent produces, yet the wines are still identifiable as sauvignon blanc. Less malleable is the pinot noir grape, whose essential (and potentially glorious) character allows only a narrow range of variations, lest it be turned into something perverse.

The word “malleable” is important, because it implies the influence of the human element, the laying on of hands in the process of turning grapes into wine. There is no such matter as a truly “hands-off” approach to winemaking, but those hands must be gentle, not manipulative, offering guidance and nurture, not forceful shaping or ego-driven intervention. The eloquence of a wine, its ability to express the natural character of its grapes, come not from the winemaker but from the grapes themselves. The winemaker’s job is to make certain that those grapes sing. When a merlot smells and tastes like zinfandel, when a pinot noir smells and tastes like syrah, when a gruner veltliner smells and tastes like chardonnay, a great and sad failure has occurred.
I was speaking of character. The Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2005, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, on the other hand, is a caricature. Far from being “classically elegant,” as the material that came with the wine asserts, this is a big, beefy, body-builder of a pinot noir, packed with the off-putting brown sugar quality that distinguishes too many pinot noirs made in California, especially if, like this wine, they have gone through 15 months in oak. This wine is deeply extracted, dark, weighty, exaggerated and, as far as reflecting its origins goes, not a success. 720 cases. About $65.

So the inaugural lunch looked pretty tasty. Seafood stew en croute followed by a “brace of American birds” — duck and pheasant on a bed of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots and spinach, with wild cherry chutney — and for dessert, apple cinnamon sponge cake and sweet cream glace. Looks like an appropriately festive meal and not too bad health-wise. Game birds are low in cholesterol, and serving winter vegetables without a sauce makes good sense.

Look at the children’s menu though: Hot dogs, cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, French fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, hotdog_big1.jpg cheese pizza, chocolate chip cookies with apple and orange juices. Wow, did there have to be four items with cheese? And aren’t cheeseburgers and fries exactly the foods people rail about as contributing to the expanding obesity of Americans, especially the poor, who tend to eat a great deal of fast-food? I’m surprised that the Obamas, who seem to be thoughtful parents, would approve this menu for the kids at the inauguration lunch. I’m also surprised at the assumption that such calorie-laden items are what have to be given to children because that’s all they’ll eat. Learning about healthy, nutritious food begins early, and it begins at home. Why not let the kids have a scallop and a little duck?

The wine choices for the inaugural lunch were good: Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Napa Valley; Goldeneye Pinot Noir 2005, Anderson Valley, Mendocino; Korbel Natural California Champagne, or “champagne.” (Korbel was one of the producers of sparkling wine allowed to continue using the term “champagne” on its labels despite the U.S. and E.U. trade agreement on wine terms.) Nothing wrong there, really, except that Goldeneye is owned by Duckhorn, so one producer provided two-thirds of the inaugural luncheon wine, and Korbel has provided sparkling wine for the past seven inaugurations. I think it’s time to break up that little monopoly.

And how about being geographically diverse, especially for an inauguration that celebrates this country’s great thriving diversity? Why not a pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley? Why not a sparkling wine from New Mexico? Or let’s include the East Coast with a wine from New York or Virginia. I think, in other words, that the wines choices for Tuesday’s lunch were too easy and didn’t reflect the thought and preparation that they could have.

Wine is made in every one of the contiguous 48 states; yes, some of the wine is much better than others, but, still, let’s have a White House that explores that rich heritage of grape-growing and wine-making in America.

Is it too obvious that I’m bucking for the job of White House wine steward? If nominated, I will run; if asked, I will serve. My nation needs me.

Hot dog image from blogs.trb.com.

Actually, it’s too late to ask that question. It’s like asking, Does America need French fries?

Anyway, I received a bulletin yesterday, titled “Five Trends in Spanish Wines” — it’s that time of year — from Wines of Spain, the image003.jpg government supported agency that helps promote Spanish wines in the United States. The trends were assembled by Bruce Schoenfeld, wine editor for Travel + Leisure magazine.

Here are the proposed trends in Spanish wines for 2009 (slightly edited for length):

I. Exploring new wine regions and grape varieties

“Viticulture, even in the old world, is never a fixed photograph, but a moving picture,” said Víctor de la Serna, a journalist, longtime observer of the Spanish wine scene and wine producer with Manchuela’s Finca Sandoval. As for emerging regions to watch, de la Serna cites: Ribeira Sacra, Tierra de León, Manchuela, Liébana and Sierras de Málaga.

II. Elegance and freshness

“There’s a definite trend toward making fresher wines, wines of great expression that are more elegant than powerful,” said José Peñín, one of Spain’s most knowledgeable and influential wine critics. Spain is a sunny country and the easy ripening of so many of its grapes give it a natural advantage when it comes to elegance and freshness.

III. Old vines

“Selling wine, you say ‘old vine’ and people go crazy,” said Sara Floyd, a San Francisco-based Master Sommelier and national sales manager for importer Jorge Ordóñez’s Fine Estates from Spain.

The naturally low yields of mature vines, like those in Spain, produce the best raw material for making memorable, top-quality wines. Many Spanish vineyards were neglected because of low yields. Through the efforts of old vine pioneers, like Alvaro Palacios, René Barbier, the Eguren brothers and Mariano Garcia, the world has come to value this rare fruit.

IV. French oak

French barrels have lately come into vogue, at least among top producers. Consumers want tannins that are softer, less assertive, and allow wines to be more complex and elegant, typical of wines aged in French oak. A secondary trend is the use of second-year barrels to complete the aging process.

V. Quality white wines

Spanish white wines have traditionally been perceived as inferior cousins to the country’s bold reds. Today, Spain’s whites are on the verge of stepping up to challenge the red for dominance – though perhaps not market share, as production of the best wines is destined to be limited.

Well, who could be against freshness and elegance — remember when Spanish reds tasted like ancient, dusty church pews? — or exploring new wine regions, or moving into the production of better quality white wines, though we’ve seen that occur in the last decade, especially with the albarino grape. Old vines, sure, why not, though I wasn’t aware that people went crazy at the mention of those words; what happens if you stand up and shout “Old vines!” in a crowded theater?

The trend that I find disturbing is the use of French oak barrels to age wines before bottling. It’s a trend that’s probably unstoppable, because many winemakers of all nationalities and regions see French oak as the only path to greatness and accessibility to the world wine markets, especially in America; the “American palate” supposedly loves new oak.

We have seen what French oak barrels did in Italy since Antinori introduced Tignanello in the 1970s. Granted, that great wines are produced in Italy now, under the influence of nontraditional grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot aged in French oak; Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia and other cult wines are among the best in the world. On the other hand, the use of French oak has also dumbed down the individuality of many Italian red wines, so that tasted blind they might as well have been made in Pauillac or Napa Valley. Some producers of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, enamored of French oak and seeing its use as progressive and “modern” (and fit for those legendary American palates), have robbed their wines of authenticity and sense of place.

Why should that happen in Spain? Think of a 10-year-old Rioja red, with the tempranillo grape’s characteristic tang of sour cherry and dried mulberry with a hint of slightly astringent allspice; why would you want to ruin those qualities with excessive oak?

I’ve been to events in the past few years at which Spanish producers proudly offered their newest wines, sleekly packaged and expensively priced, and all I could smell and taste was new oak. I don’t think that such wines are viable or necessary now. I think that American wine drinkers are sophisticated enough that they’re not searching for the latest blockbuster cult wine that could have been made anywhere.

The whole tenor of the wine world is toward smaller, more authentic, more real wines that embody a sense of their makers, their grapes and their regions. Consumers feel that way now about all sorts of products; we want to feel close to home, perhaps anybody’s home, and we want to feel as if by drinking a glass of wine we’re participating in a process that started with someone’s hands tending the vines. Oak is useful in shaping a wine, but it shouldn’t be the reason why we drink wine.

In case you were wondering, “The Next Grain” is — ta-dah! — buckwheat!

(Let’s see if next year it’s — ta-dah! — Spanky!)

Ha-ha, just kidding, but how do I know this amazing fact? Because of Food & Wine magazine’s “Special Trend Issue,” an exercise that F&W indulges in every January, the month during which many newspaper style sections and magazines that logo.gif emphasize “lifestyle issues” make their predictions about what is going to be hip, cool and happening in the coming year. Doesn’t matter that in two months everyone will have forgotten what those trends were supposed to be and go back to their dark corners to eat what they always ate and drink what they always drank.

I mean, trends are so flawlessly trendy. For example, the movie Sideways pushed pinot noir consumption in this country to unprecedented heights, because the movie’s “hero” Miles — what a loser! — preferred pinot noir wines to all others. People who before they saw Sideways were saying, “I don’t understand pinot noir, I just don’t get it,” were drinking the stuff by the gallon. Now that the back-draft from that (deeply flawed) film has finally evaporated, everyone can go back to their dark corners and mutter, “I don’t understand pinot noir, I just don’t get it,” and leave the rest of us alone.
Anyway, right off the bat, my advice to the editors and writers of F&W is: Deep-six the term “über,” as in “über-chef Thomas Keller” and “über-restaurateur Danny Meyer.” In this Nietzschean carnival of hyperbole, I suppose Helen Turley would be an “über-winemaker” and a large blue potato would be an “über-blue-tuber.” Talk about a cold, dead slug of a cliché! (I’ll extend the hand of forgiveness if they want to write “über-blog BiggerThanYourHead.”)

You might like to know that, according to F&W, the “Menu Buzzwords” for 2009 will be Frosting Shot — “Cupcake frosting sold straight up in little paper cups”; Gibralter — ” Double espresso with frothy milk, served in a glass”; Gnocchi — “Made with whole wheat, rye, brioche, black olives, dill or bacon” (no buckwheat?); Mortadella — “On charcuterie plates; pistachio- or truffle-speckled”; Sablefish — “Flaky, buttery, sweet — and sustainable — black cod.”

Personally, I plan, for 2009, to boycott any menus that use any of those “buzzwords.” In fact, I would like the word “buzzword” not to come within 3,000 miles of my eyesight, lest I squash it like a gnat beneath my ink-well. L’oeuf du ému

Other trends I will be wary of include restaurants where “customers order from touch screens that double as game consoles” — nobody has to talk to anybody! — and egg bars in gourmet grocery stores. That’s right, selected “Whole Foods locations in the Northeast and parts of Ohio” — parts of Ohio? — will stock ostrich eggs as well as the eggs of ducks, quail, pheasant and “deep-green emu eggs.” As if it’s not difficult enough standing in the grocery store in a dither trying to choose among organic eggs, free-range eggs and Omega-3 eggs from plain old hens.

O.K., here I’ll say that I actually enjoy Food & Wine magazine — but not the wine part so much because Lettie Teague is becoming the Gael Greene of wine-writers; “my friends” this and “my friends” that, sheesh — especially for the recipes, which we often use, but gee, when you combine the tendency toward archness and whimsy and aching cuteness and the almost unseemly yearning to be hip that F&W exudes, along with Bon Appetit and Gourmet, combined with the constant blurring of the line between editorial content and advertising, it’s a relief to turn to a publication like Cook’s Illustrated, which features no advertising, no color food-porno shots and no celebrity-chef-guest-contributors. It’s just a magazine for people who want to cook better. You have to love a publication that says, “We wanted to see what brand of oatmeal is really best, so we gathered 87 brands of oatmeal, including three from Bulgaria, and prepared them under precisely the same conditions in our test kitchens,” and then they tell you what the über-oatmeal is.

So, here’s this little bottle of framboise raspberry liqueur, called Chateau Monet. (This is a liqueur, not a traditional eau-de-vie.) There is, indeed, a depiction of a chateau on the label. The squat, bulbous bottle is satisfyingly old-fashioned looking, as if the producer went to some trouble to acquire bottles that resembled those used, say, in the 18th Century. “How quaint, how authentic, how French,” we think. Then we look at the back label and read: “Prepared and bottled in the USA by La Maison Coulombe, Lewiston, Me & Londonderry, NH.”

Yes, once again we have been victimized by what marketing people call “foreign branding.” Foreign branding grows from the idea, apparently inherent in American life and culture, that anything with a foreign name just has to be better than something made in America. Do you want to get a massage or a Swedish massage? Do you want some onion soup or some French onion soup? A pizza with a lot of cheese or a Tuscan Quattro Fromaggi Pizza?
The best-known example of foreign branding is Häagen-Dazs ice cream, which millions of Americans, including myself for many years, thought came from Sweden or Denmark: “Wow, no wonder it’s so good!” The company has been owned by General Mills since 1983, but Häagen-Dazs was founded in The Bronx in 1959 by Polish immigrants Reuben and Rose Mattus. The name, deliberately concocted to sound Scandinavian, is Duncan Hines spelled or spoken sort of inside-out and reinforced by some consonants and an umlaut. The first store opened in Brooklyn in 1975, and the rest is foreign branding history.

Another example, dear to the hearts of American folk and media culture, is the Ginsu Knife, heavily advertised on late-night television starting in 1978 in those unforgettable commercials that began, “In Japan, the hand can be used as a knife” and ending with a line that became embedded in common speech: “But wait, there’s more!” Far from being made in Japan, the knives, called Eversharp, were originally manufactured in Freemont, Ohio, where they were discovered by a pair of wily entrepreneurs who turned the brand into a raging success: “As Seen on TV!”

It’s no wonder that the 19th Century wine industry in American relied completely on European models and names to sell their stclair.jpg wares to consumers more used to terms like “Burgundy,” “Chianti,” “Sauternes” and “Madeira” than a product called, simply, “California Red Wine.” Varietal labeling didn’t really develop in California until after the end of Prohibition, though of course many wines continued (and continue) to exploit the foreign branding concept. This idea applies not only to wineries called Chateau This and Clos du That but to brands like Hearty Burgundy and Chablis Blanc and the old (and actually tasty) Green Hungarian, made by Paul Masson; we drank gallons of these wines, back in the day.

The EU frowns on the use of European place names on American wine labels, and a series of trade agreements have been instituted to prevent producers in America from plastering the terms Sherry, Port and Champagne on labels while Europeans will not pretend that their wines were made in the Napa Valley. (I mean, did they ever? Was there a “Napa Valley Riesling” from Germany?) The trick is that some veteran manufacturers of sparkling wine in California — Korbel and Gallo –were permitted to retain the use of “champagne” on their sparkling wine labels, you know, for old-times’ sake. That loophole seems pretty egregious to me, and also to French trade groups, which have mounted advertising campaigns against it.

“St. Clair Burgundy” label (it says in tiny type that it was printed in St. Louis) is from labeltrader.com, a fascinating site for collectors of all sort of antique paper labels.

Hopeless Wines aren’t necessarily bad; they’re just blah or disappointing. They’re wines that should be better than they are. If you drop a five-spot on some merry little sauvignon blanc from a vast appellation and it tastes like slightly perfumed water, you think, “Oh, what the hell, what did I expect for five bucks?” You drop 50 big ones on some single vineyard sauvignon blanc from the Stags Leap District, however, or a white Graves from a celebrity chateau, and it tastes like slightly perfumed water, well, there’s a disappointment, if not outrage. Hopeless Wines may even be well-made, but in a certain predictable or narrow style, often emulating or parroting an accepted fashion, in the sense that so many California cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines seem much the same in their toasty, over-ripe, high alcohol copy-catness.

Wines of Hope, on the other hand, remind us that people exist who put the vineyards, the grapes and the ultimate wine above their egos. Wines of Hope wear their purity and integrity proudly but not arrogantly. They offer such a panoply of detail, dimension and individuality that they seem not just to embody but to transcend their price range and station in life. Wines of Hope, through their individuality, give us faith in the future of wine and our wine-drinking.

The wines mentioned today are all California, all red. That’s the way it worked out.
An example of a Wine of Hope is the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa Valley. This is, let me say right now, a close to perfect cabernet. Just so you know, I’m not reaching into the past to write about this wine. It’s still available in some markets, and I tasted it a few weeks ago; the current release is the 2003. (I reviewed the ’03 on BTYH on Jan. 8, 2008.) The winery was founded in 1971 and is owned by the brothers Charles and Stu Smith, who maintain, as much as possible, a hands-off policy toward farming and winemaking. They produce annually about 1,000 cases each of riesling, chardonnay and cabernet sauvigon.

A blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon 8 percent merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 smithmadrone.gif offers deliriously seductive aromas of cassis and black cherry, lavender and leather, potpourri and sandalwood and a deep, heady mineral quality. Aged in new American oak for 25 months — 25 months! — the wine shows no trace of woodiness; rather, the fully developed, dry-farmed. mountainside grapes soaked up all the oak and put it to good use in building the wine’s beautifully balanced yet unassailable structure. Dry-farmed means no irrigation; the Smith brothers believe in letting the climate and the vineyard duke it out on their own. This is a wine of remarkable purity and intensity and superb integration of all elements. Still, it’s also a wine of rigorous intent and effect; it’s never heavy or overbearing, though grainy, chewy tannins and sinewy iron-like minerals come up like a tide, lending austerity to the finish. This would be best from 2009 or ’10 through 2018 or ’20. Exceptional. And get the price: About $39 a bottle.
Here’s another Wine of Hope, the Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006, Anderson Valley, consumed with grilled chicken back in the summer. This is a lovely pinot noir, ripe and succulent, dense, intense and satiny, and fully framed by vibrant acid, polished oak (33 percent new French barrels) and tannins of moderate grip and power. Black and red current flavors are infused by dried spice and hints of cranberry and cola. The wine is pervasively layered with elements of moss and dried leaves, briers and brambles, clean earth and minerals; one senses the connection to the vineyard, the growing of the vine in the soil, a factor undiminished by the wine’s remarkable (for a pinot noir) alcohol level of 14.9 percent. Generally, I deplore pinots charged with this much alcohol — we’re not discussing zinfandel, after all — but careful winemaking turned out a wine completely satisfying for its balance and integration. Again, I celebrate a wine that eloquently expresses the character of its grape while maintaining faultless individuality. 425 cases, and definitely Worth a Search. Excellent. About $46.

And a third example. Michael and David Phillips continue to produce one of California’s great eccentric wines in the Michael and David Petite Petit 2006, Lodi. Every time I try this blend of 85 percent petite sirah and 15 percent petit verdot, it makes me p8052.jpg laugh at the sheer audacity of its creation. The wine is about as dark as a red wine can be before it becomes plummy-black. It’s smoky and funky in the nose, ripe and meaty — sounds like the locker room at a barbecue competition — bursting with scents of cassis and black cherry, mulberry and loganberry dredged with cedar, lavender and black olive. Petite Petit 2006 is incredibly spicy, mouth-filling with juicy and luscious black fruit flavors but given form and foundation by the firmness of oak and the tautness of slightly austere tannins. Open this with steak au poivre, pork chops marinated in chili powder, cumin and garlic or braised short ribs, and just have a great ol’ freakin’ time. Excellent. About $20, though I’ve seen it on the Internet as low as $15.

Hopeless Wines? Sure, I’ll mention a couple of recent examples.

I have been impressed with previous vintages of the Obsidian Ridge “Obsidian Ridge Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Red Hills of Lake County, but I found the version for 2005 puzzling and disappointing. Before, I had noted the wine’s sturdy integrity, its glossy permeation of fruit, polished tannin and resolute acidity — a cabernet sauvignon for grown-ups — but the ’05 I tasted last weekend was as over-ripe, exaggerated and stridently spicy as an over-ripe, exaggerated and stridently spicy zinfandel, if you care for that sort of thing; as cabernet, it’s a travesty. Could 15.2 percent alcohol have anything to do with it? This gets no recommendation from me. About $25.

Tasted on the same occasion was the Buehler Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, a wine so over-ripe and extracted that it’s close to raisiny. Even as a zinfandel, I wouldn’t drink it. About $28.

What are people thinking? The word “yuck” comes to mind.

Recently, in the Tre Bicchieri awards for 2009, given by Gambero Rosso, the Italian publishing house for food, wine and travel, only one producer of Brunello di Montalcino, the venerable Biondi-Santi, won top honors. This is a marked contrast from 2008, when 15 wines from Brunello di Montalcino received the award, and 2007, when 10 Brunello wines were honored. (Thanks to Terence Hughes of mondosapore for compiling these figures, posted on Nov. 8.)

Perhaps the inclusion of only one producer of Brunello di Montalcino — and the most rigorously classic — for 2009 was a rebuke The hill-town of Montalcino to the scandal that has enveloped the region in southern Tuscany since early this year, a scandal that indicts a number of producers for blending minuscule amounts of unauthorized grapes into their wines from 2003. Brunello di Montalcino, first by custom and then codified by law, must be made only of sangiovese grapes; no other grapes are allowed. More than a million bottles of suspect Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino from 2003 were seized by authorities under order of the Siena Magistrate. The scandal coincides with calls from a handful of Brunello producers to change the 100 percent sangiovese rule officially to allow a little blending.

Brunello di Montalcino was created by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi and first bottled in 1888. The family was the only producer of biondi.jpg Brunello di Montalcino until after World War II and had, in fact, released the wine only in 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. As the wine’s prestige grew after the war, the number of producers markedly increased, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s.

The original regimen of barrel-aging for Brunello di Montalcino was a long 42 months, a procedure that resulted — no surprise — in wines of great hauteur and austerity that demanded many years, if not decades, to mellow. That requirement was lowered to three years barrel aging in 1990 and two years in 1998, though Brunello di Montalcino must still age four years before release in a combination of barrel and bottle-aging; it’s the producer’s prerogative as to what that process will be.

The recent scandal has roiled not only the Brunello zone but the entire Italian wine industry as well as the Italian and the international wine press. Though news reports occasionally mention a number of incriminated properties up to 20, the ones consistently named are Argiano, Col d’Orcia, Castello Banfi, Antinori and Frescobaldi. It’s interesting and actually provocative that the last three of these Brunello producers are regarded as “outsiders” in the clannish zone. Banfi is owned by the American Mariani family, and though they have been in Montalcino for 30 years, their wealth, their willingness to shape the landscape and their extensive clonal research stirred discontent among their compatriots. Antinori and Frescobaldi are families and producers centered in the Chianti zone, and though Florence is only 67 miles north of Montalcino, it might as well be Upper Volta to the staid Brunello families.

In the meanwhile, the scandal rocks on, though Antinori was cleared of adulterating their 2003 Brunello di Montalcino wine (Pian delle Vigne) in June and the Castello Banfi wines were released on Oct. 20. So, readers, is this a moment for LOL, OMG or WTF? Big Oops! Results are waiting on the others so accused, though Argiano went on and declassified a great amount of its Brunello 2003 and Frescobaldi is fighting the accusation in court. And, in the meanwhile, in late October, the members of the Brunello producers group decided not to change the 100 percent sangiovese rule by a vote of 662 to 30. (The scandal and controversy and the vote on Oct. 27 were covered extensively by VinoWire.)

All right, let’s face it: Brunello di Montalcino is a rare and expensive wine for collectors, just as Grand Cru wines (and increasingly Premier Cru wines) from Burgundy are, and Bordeaux Classified Growths, and vintage Port, and California cult cabernets and Australian icon shiraz wines are. This is the elite, the rarefied level where money counts, and backing up the money are high-powered auctions and temperature-controlled cellars and the sort of wine dinners to which I never get invited. As a wine for collectors, as a representative of a place and philosophy and genre, Brunello di Montalcino should stay exactly as tradition and law say it should, a wine made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes grown in a restricted area, though it’s important to remember that prior to 1968, when Brunello di Montalcino received DOC status and the requirements, under the influence of the hallowed Biondi-Santi (advocates of the 100 percent rule), were set down, it was common for producers to add a bit of other grape varieties to their wine.

Other than that stipulation, who cares? Even Biondi-Santi has called for relaxing the rules regarding Brunello’s cadet version, Rosso di Montalcino, a DOC recognized in 1995 and intended to be less expensive and more accessible than its mentor. Why shouldn’t the Rosso have a little cabernet or merlot in it?

As far as top quality wines with the flexibility for blending are concerned, the DOC already exists. The Sant’Antimo designation was created in Montalcino in 1996 precisely to address this issue. There are no regulations; producers can make wine from whatever grapes they please. Castello Banfi, for example, has taken advantage of the Sant’Antimo designation to produce a full line of single-grape wines and blended wines. Among the latter are some of its now most famous labels: Summus (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and syrah); Excelsus (cabernet sauvignon and merlot); and Cum Laude (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah). Who could ask for any more leeway in making blended wines or in fine-tuning combinations of grapes from year to year?

What can I do with this “press release” I received by email today except to reproduce it here the way it was sent to me? Perhaps no comment is necessary. Well, one comment: I promise that whoever wrote this “press release” really did spell “muddle” as “muttle.” And one more comment, actually a question: Can “Platinum Bruno’s Martini” actually cost $38? And notice that it’s no longer sufficient to be well-dressed; “chic attire” is requested.

From: Katherine Rothman [mailto:info@kmrpr.com]
Sent: Friday, November 07, 2008 10:57 AM
To: undisclosed-recipients
Subject: three unique and sexy drinks from from Bruno Jamais Restaurant Club

For More Information
Please Contact:Katherine Rothman

At KMR Communications, Inc info@kmrpr.com

***If you would like to run this as a contest, we are happy to offer two readers one certificate for any of the drinks below.

Platinum Martini



muttle four slices of orange in a Boston shaker add two ounces patron platinum tequila image001.jpg

3/4 oz peach schnapps


served up op in a double martini glass (chilled)

2) This cocktail is collaboration between Bruno Jamais and Sommelier Benjamin Maury. Bruno wanted a signature cocktail using his favorite liquor, patron platinum. He wanted something strong yet smooth. Bruno liked the way orange flavor is often used to complement tequila using liqueurs such as Cointreau or triple sec but to refine the taste Maury suggested that they use fresh orange instead. The peach schnapps was then added, blending perfectly with the orange while adding a hint of sweetness. . Initially this drink was to be served in a rocks glass over crushed ice following the tradition of the caipirinia but in keeping true to New York style they decided serve it up. Thus, creating the “Platinum Bruno’s Martini.”

Crème Brûlée Martini, traps that seductive dessert in a glass and, when topped with that grid of caramel, gently set across the image002.jpgrim, makes a spectacular presentation that leads to an equally spectacular taste.

Then, there’s the Sexy Back, which Maury says was inspired by all the lovely ladies (and their backs) that walk up to his bar. In this one a mix of citrus vodka, creme de cassis and sour mix are topped with a little Champagne for a complex, effervescent cocktail. Stop by next time you’re on the Upper East Side and try one for yourself.


Ph: 212 396-3444

Bruno Jamais Restaurant Club brings the French Riviera to the upper east side. Where else can one dine in style until 3am with delectable cuisine such as chocolate soufflé and Foie Gras? The service and décor are equally impressive. The restaurant received the “Best Interior Design” award by Hospitality Design Magazine. There is also live entertainment on Monday nights with the best of jazz and soul. On a cold winter’s night, allow debonair owner Bruno Jamais to make you feel at home and beat the doldrums of winter. With Chef Hok Chin at the kitchen’s helm the cuisine is sure to delight even the most discerning palates. Bruno Jamais and Chef Hok Chin have created a unique menu that has an Asian influence without losing its French integrity. Bruno Jamais is also the perfect place to book your private party and can accommodate up to 200 diners for a buffet dinner or 70 people for a sit down dinner. For those upper east siders who are tired of trekking downtime for an evening of fun, this exclusive venue has it all. If you are looking to see stars, celebrity patrons have included: Billy Baldwin, Joan Rivers, Cindy Adams, Chazz Palminteri and even former President Bill Clinton. Reservations are suggested and chic attire is requested. BRUNO JAMAIS RESTAURANT CLUB — The restaurant received the “Best Restaurant Design” Award by Hospitality Design Magazine for 2004.

24 EAST 81 STREET NY NY www.brunojamais.com


What’s interesting to me, or, you know, like tragic, is that websites like clubplanet.com and about.com mention these cocktails completely uncritically and even use the language of this “press release,” which has been making the rounds, I discovered, for at least a year. No wonder “journalists” get a bad name.

French culture has always been a charming and annoying nexus of elegance, arrogance and paranoia, but now the country has reached its nadir, and not all the other nadirs that came before but a new, even more significant one. In the nation that serves flag of distress as a model for excellence in wine-making, many of whose wines are honored as exemplars for the rest of the world, where the integration of wine and food into daily life seems rational and essential, in this nation, I say, articles about wine in newspapers and magazines must carry health warnings. Notice that I didn’t say “advertisements about wine in newspapers and magazines,” but articles, journalism, in other words, stories that review wines or provide overviews of wines or wine regions and so on. The purpose of advertising is, of course, to sell wine, while the purpose of journalism is to inform and educate; the line between those functions, as far as a court in Paris is concerned, no longer exists. All public utterances about wine, apparently, may corrupt the young.

To further the sense of prohibition, the French government has proposed a law limiting advertising for wine, beer and spirits on the Internet to certain sites at limited hours, and the advertising could not be by a third-party, i.e., a public relations or marketing firm. Makes alcohol sounds like pornography, doesn’t it? One result of these measures is that Microsoft Adcenter removed all wine merchants from its client list in France. Google Adsense and Yahoo are expected to follow Microsoft’s lead.

Oh, and a proposal has been made by the government to raise taxes on wine as much as 16 percent.

Most of this news goes back to the summer or first of the year, but I mention it here because (as Eric Asimov pointed out in his blog The Pour), the General Association of Wine Production in France is calling for boycotts on October 30 to call attention to the situation. No mention has been made about what form this boycott would take, but the association represents 500,000 people in the wine business, according to decanter.com.

Sacre bleu, what a state the world is in when France, long the symbol of the sensible indulgence in the pleasures of the body and mind, becomes more puritanical and politically correct than America.

To Dr. Johnson’s pithy statement that there is no end to the making of books — little did he know! — I will add that there is no end to the making of lists.

Sent to me in an email message by My Foodservice News is this “Omnivore’s 100,” a list of foods that British writer Andrew Wheeler thinks every well-schooled gourmet or gourmand or diner or serious eater should try in his or her lifetime. Apparently, this list has been all over the Internet, but its recent appearance in my inbox marks the first spam.gif time I saw it.

It’s an interesting, goofy and ultimately bizarre list, and you’ll see what I mean because, bless my little pointy head, I’m going to reproduce the whole thing for you. I mean, this is billed as a challenge, yet some of the items are no challenge at all (peanut 180px-scotch-bonnet.jpg butter and jelly sandwich) and others are if not impossible at least downright self-destructive (eating a whole Scotch bonnet pepper raw); some of the recommendations seem so obvious they shouldn’t be mentioned (gumbo) and others are plain dumb (will eating wasabi peas really broaden your culinary horizons?). Pistachio ice cream seems incredibly arbitrary; why not butter pecan or Rocky Road or rum raisin or Chunky Monkey? The problem is that anyone with some knowledge of world cuisine could probably make another list of 100 items and not repeat Wheeler’s list. In fact the whole enterprise smacks of pretension and sensationalism, as by including S’mores (#61) and Roadkill (#75) Wheeler tries for a Soccer Mom meets Anthony Bourdain effect.

So, here it is, the “Omnivore’s 100”:
2.Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwish
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth $60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephants ears or funnel cakes
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouilette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

It would take Claude Levi-Strauss to elucidate some organization or innate structure within this list. Scotch whisky and Scotch Bonnet pepper. Cheese fondue and head cheese. Root beer float and curried goat. How could Wheeler have resisted the binary opposition and resolution of Porterhouse steak and Toll House cookies? Of Hoppin’ John and johnnycakes and John Dory? Of peaches Melba, potatoes Anna and steak Diane? Of King crab claws, Queen Mother cake and Veal Prince Orloff?

Spam advertisement from nicktingle.com. Scotch Bonnet pepper from Wikipedia.

BTW, I said in the post above that Claude Levi-Strauss was deceased (now corrected), but alert reader Robert K. Bleckman pointed out that the pioneering structuralist and philosopher is alive and well and perhaps even kicking. Thanks, Robert.

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