Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Real World Wine Pairing


My mom called me early on December 24th to brainstorm about wines for that night’s dinner. As I’ve said before, she and I have similar cooking styles, and she had planned a stunning feast. Fortunately, we were invited.

We were starting with a vintage Champagne, but then she asked about the crab bisque she had made. Crab is one of the few dishes that sends me hunting for the rich Chardonnays that we produce in California. You don’t want a lot of oak character for this pairing, because the tannins will smother your tongue and prevent you from enjoying the delicate crab. However, a little of the butter character that comes from malolactic fermentation (converting apple-crisp malic acid to creamy-soft lactic) goes nicely with the crab meat. After all, we dunk cracked crab into little pots of melted butter. But you still want some acidity: Avoid the flabby Chardonnays that winemakers so often produce here in the land of overripe fruit.

My mom had a slightly older California Chardonnay, and we pondered its potential over the phone. She read the label, which said that it had been made in the Burgundian style. Lots of people say that, of course, but the rest of the label, which at least implied that it had been aged in neutral oak, sounded promising. In the end, it proved to be exactly what we hoped. The age gave it an extra creaminess, but its Russian River origins gave it the acidity we wanted.

Then we talked about the main course. She was cooking Muscovy duck breast — rich meat even when it’s not magret, the fat-filled breast of a foie gras duck — and garnishing it with a pomegranate wine sauce. I like a jammy, opulent Syrah with this combination of rich meat and syrupy sauce, and I had just the bottle: Melissa and I had visited Ridge Vineyards during our Manresa weekend, and we had bought one Zinfandel and one Syrah. I don’t actually like jammy Syrahs in general, so this one still had a lot of acidity to combat the sharp tang of the pomegranate and cut through the fat of the duck breast. But, again, California wineries tend to produce heavier, jammier wines that can stand up to the weight of this meat.

Part of the challenge of real world wine pairing is that we don’t actually have a large wine store in our basement. We have to make do with what we have. But in this case, by combining my mom’s bottles and mine, we came up bottles that worked nicely with the dishes she served.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wine Writing Cliches


John McIntyre, whose copyediting blog You Don’t Say is one of the few sites I read every day, has recently been covering cliches. First he discussed crime story cliches, then the seasonal cliches of the winter holidays.

I thought that the wine writing community should join in the fun and point out the clunkers in our field. This isn’t about outright errors, such as using varietal when you mean variety, but phrases we’ve grown tired of reading. Though not ones we’ve grown tired of writing, it would seem. (Just to be clear, I’ve been guilty of these in the past.)

Here are some I thought of. Post your favorites in the comments, and I’ll incorporate some into this post (with attribution, of course).

We believe great wine is made in the vineyard
“At least until we get it to the cellar, where we use a cultivated yeast designed to bring out different flavors; stuff the juice into new, heavily toasted barriques to add a lot of oak; and then use reverse osmosis on it to get the alcohol in balance.” This phrase is practically guaranteed to be on the label of the next midlevel wine you buy. Or on the website. Or in an interview. No one means it: They just want to pander to wine as a lifestyle choice.

pairs perfectly with (or variants)
Really stunning pairings do happen, but far less often than most recipe/wine writers would have you believe. Most wine goes with most food reasonably well. (And as an aside, if you’re going to suggest a wine pairing for a dish, the wine educator in me implores you to explain your choice.)

This Parkerism has spread to much of the wine press, and we have overused it.

rosés aren’t just White Zinfandel
This well-trodden theme about dry rosés crops up every May in what seems like every wine publication. Is there anyone with a passing interest in wine who has not heard this by now? (I assume that those with no interest in wine other than drinking it are not reading the publications that have these articles.)

rascally or rogueish as adjectives for Terry Theise
It’s not that these are incorrect descriptions of Terry, but they seem to always crop up. Reading articles about him begins to feel like reading Homer: “Prudent Penelope” and “clever Odysseus” skitter through The Iliad and The Odyssey. Find new adjectives, or give a richer portrait.

eccentric or maverick as adjectives for Randall Grahm
Ditto for Bonny Doon’s winemaker.

“pop the cork” or “uncork” when referring to anything other than opening a bottle
I often see this as a catchy bon mot — or so the author thinks — in press releases announcing some new product. Too bad that many other PR people used it first.

Katie seconds "we believe great wine is made in the vineyard and adds …

"Fruit bomb" drives me nuts (we can thank the grand poo-bah of wine, Parker, for that one). "Sideways Effect" is another...some of us want to go back to being quiet pinot-obsessed junkies w/o the hoopla!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tete de Cuvee Rose Tasting


As a wine writer, I get invited to a lot of tastings. As a person with a full-time job, I don’t go to all of them. I disregard some, hope to make some — and then can’t — and occasionally find myself at one. Then there are the tastings that get me to take time off so I can attend.

When I got a note from Schramsberg, America’s prestigious sparkling wine maker, inviting me to a tasting between Schramsberg’s wines and comparable wines from around the world, I jumped at the chance. And that was when I expected it to be a small but standard press tasting: Too many people in too small a space, industry friends chattering away while blocking the spit bucket, and a line-up of interesting wines.

When I showed up on Monday morning, after an hour and a half of hungover driving, I was one of nine people in the room, most of whom were in the winemaking business. A line of 12 glasses — it was a blind tasting — had been arrayed in front of each seat. We even had individual spit buckets.

As Hugh Davies, the company’s president, explained, we were there to taste wines from a similar class and see how they fared against each other. He and his staff do this periodically. I had signed up for the Tête de Cuvée Rosé tasting, which meant we were tasting some very nice brands indeed: Bollinger, Cristal, Taittinger, Dom Perignon, and of course the J. Schram sparkling rosés. Most were vintage bottles.

Pencils scratched out notes and glasses went up and down — and sometimes up and down again — as we quietly evaluated these prestigious pink wines. Then we gave our rankings and discussed them.

I consider myself knowledgeable about wine. I have that obsessive geek thing, and I put a lot of research into my articles, which I generally consider to be worthwhile contributions to the wine press. (Indeed, one of those pieces, about efforts to combat urban sprawl in wine regions, had made enough of an impression to get me to this tasting.) But seated among winemaking veterans, I felt like a wine novice. Adjectives poured out, fine points of balance and herbaceousness and bitterness were bandied about, and winemaking techniques were guessed at.

It was fantastic. I love this industry because I’m always learning. I jumped in as best as I could (I will say that I introduced some of them to the term petrichor) and listened to Hugh talk about the sparkling wine industry, his winery’s changes over the years, and more.

As an aside, I always urge students in my wine class to be honest about their opinions, because I can’t tell them what to think. People disagree, and it’s okay. Indeed, wines that I loved came in last place for other tasters. Wines with low marks from me came in first for others, and not always the same ones. And all those tasters disagreed with each other as well. Everyone has a unique palate and sensibility.

Except that there was one clear winner, a complex, well-balanced wine with a rich, fragrant nose and a great taste. As I said to the group, I could have waffled on 2 and 3, and 4,5, and 6 overlapped, and so forth, but number 1 was an easy choice. Most of us put it in the first or second spot. When they pulled off its bag, it was the 2000 J. Schram Rosé.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Problem With Cabernet Sauvignon


If you were to gauge our wine tastes by our wine rack, you might think we have an inordinate fondness for Cabernet Sauvignon. When I went downstairs to get a bottle last night, a cursory glance took in a Ceja Cab, a Mondavi, a Silverado, and a Judd’s Hill. And I can only get wines onto the top half of our big wine rack. And one of the shelves is half full of class wines. There were no Rieslings. There were no Sauvignon Blancs. There were no Southern Rhônes. There were no Piemontese wines. And yet these wines are among my favorites.

Why don’t I have any on my rack? Because we drink them all. (We do have a bunch in off-site storage.) But Cabernets sit for a few years before they get pulled out. My abundance of Cabernet doesn’t come from liking it: It comes from never drinking it.

The tannin-heavy, weighty grape has its place, but that place is next to heavy meats, and I just don’t have the budget for steak or rack of lamb every night. Even if I did, I like more variety in my food. To my mind, Cabernet Sauvignon does not.

On the other hand, this means that my Cabs end up sitting on the rack for a while, accruing a few of the years they need to mellow out and develop. Last night, when I made steak for dinner, we drank a 2003 Judd’s Hill Napa Cab, and its fine-grained tannins had settled down to allow the fruit — red raspberry jam and strawberries — to gush out. And there were the first hints of older Cabernet in our glasses: a thin rim of red that was more orange than purple, a whiff of tobacco and earth.

It will probably be a while before I drink another Cab, and so they will continue to pile up. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing, after all.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

1998 Michele Chiarlo "Cerequio" Barolo


I planned the meal for five years.

Actually, it only took me an hour or so. We had just bought a bottle of Barolo, the tannic wine of Italy's Piemonte, at a wine shop in La Morra. We knew precisely when we would drink it: April 25, 2008. Though it ended up being April 26. The wine would be 10 years old by then — just about coming into drinkability &mdash and we’d be celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary.

Barolo is the Piedmont’s greatest wine. Osso buco is one of its greatest dishes. I couldn’t resist pairing them: The wine’s tannins and complex flavors could stand up to the braised veal shanks and the risotto milanese I planned to serve with it.

I conveniently forgot that late April can be scorching hot in the Bay Area. After all, it had rained on our wedding day.

So how appropriate that the weather was, once again, all wrong for the plans we had made. Fortunately, our part of Berkeley cools down quickly with the evening breeze off the Bay: Even if it wasn’t the dead of winter, we could enjoy the tender meat, creamy risotto, and rich sauce.

Any time you hoard a truly special bottle of wine, you fret about how it will be when you open it. And it turns out we had good reason to be nervous. At some point in the bottle’s life — presumably before we tucked it into its temperature-and-humidity-controlled storage unit — the cork had pushed out slightly. The cork was also soaking wet.

That’s not a good sign. It suggests that large amounts of oxygen have wormed their way into the bottle, probably ruining it.

But Barolo is a tannic wine, and tannins act as a preservative. Though we prepared for the worst, the wine had a heady aroma of spicy fruit and a rich flavor. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot better than it could have been.

A warm day for osso buco and a special wine that went awry. So what went right about our fifth-anniversary dinner? The only thing that really matters: my date. Before we ate, we clinked glasses, and I said, “To five years I wouldn’t have spent any other way.” Melissa and I have eaten together, drunk together, bought a new house together, traveled together, and more in the last 5 years, and I still say today what I said three years ago: She is the person I always want to see on the other side of the table.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

San Francisco Chronicle: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc At A Crossroads


When Melissa and I visited wineries in Marlborough, I was struck by the number of winemakers who said something along the lines of “Well, Sauvignon Blanc is kind of boring.” or “Sauvy keeps the accountants happy, I guess.” I was also surprised by the wide array of other grapes that wineries were bottling. Other than the occasional Pinot Noir, we rarely see anything other than Sauvignon Blanc here. It struck me that Marlborough has been so successful with the grape that it’s become difficult to get drinkers to buy anything else.

I wrote about these observations for the lead story in the Chronicle’s Wine section. And while you all may have gotten used to these announcements, this article has a special OWF bonus: Melissa took one of the pictures they used for the piece.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Class Update: Flying Blind/Going On A Blender


The last night of Fundamentals II is always fun. I start the night with a “guess the wine” exercise. As I told my class, being able to deduce a wine from its aromas and flavors is little more than a neat party trick for most people. But focusing on a glass and bringing your experience and memory to bear forces you to think about the wine and take time with it. Too often, we scarf our dinners and gulp our wine: There is value in giving your senses a chance to do their jobs.

I tried to pour wines that were similar but different compared with wines I had poured before. A California Sauvignon Blanc instead of a Sancerre. An Austrian Riesling instead of a German version. After they put forth their thoughts and their guesses, I told them the right answer and told them what could have served as clues. Those grassy, cat pee notes are Sauvignon Blanc, but the riper fruit suggested the New World. The fact that the Riesling wasn’t sweet suggested a country other than Germany. This kind of thing takes practice: As I said, “You’ll be able to impress your friends but your liver will be shot.”

For the second part of the class, I let the students blend their own wines. Rubicon’s winemaker generously donated barrel samples of three Bordeaux varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. (This was a connection set up a year and a half ago when the class’s former instructor was Rubicon’s estate ambassador.) Each student got a generous pour of each; they had to come up with a blend, explain why they chose the proportions they did, give it a name, and figure out a marketing strategy. Some found that their blends didn’t work well; some found that their blends were great. Some emphasized the fruit character and went for a “drink it now” appeal. Others layered in the tannic Cabernet Sauvignon for a bottle that would age well and develop complexity. They were almost all able to articulate the qualities of the wine they made, in better terms, I think, than they would have used at the beginning of the class.

Finally, of course, I poured the soon-to-be-released 2005 Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon, a very nice treat from the winemaker. With their own blending experiments fresh in their minds, they appreciated the subtlety, smoothness, and complexity of the official wine.

Because we had talked about botrytis, I poured everyone a little Tokaji Aszu, the famous Hungarian dessert wine, as they filled out their evaluation forms. Even in the last fifteen minutes of the course, I didn’t let up on them: I asked for an explanation for the rich orange color, and someone guessed (correctly) that it was from oxidation. I talked about the puttonyos classification for Tokaji (these days, a measure of residual sugar, but in the past an indicator of the number of baskets — puttonyos — of botrytized grapes that had been poured in to the press) and mentioned Tokaji Eszencia and dry Tokaji.

I always have a mix of sadness and relief when class ends. The class is a lot of work, but you can’t spend six nights with the same group of people without feeling closer to them. I know what people like, where they shop, and their favorite foods. They know my preferences and quirks, and they were all excited to hear that I would have the Wine section’s lead story the Friday after class ended.

Best of all, I can hear in their comments that they are more confident about their wine knowledge. They now talk about balance, complexity, oak, tannins, brettanomyces, and more.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Class Update: A Night Of Terroir!


I started class the other night by asking how many of my students had heard the term terroir: Most had. Then I asked them what it meant, and the room quieted down. Tentatively, they began to mention the definitions they had heard while I scribbled them on the board. “Of the earth.” “The effects of soil on the vine.” “That a wine tastes like where it came from.” And so on.

As I told them, there’s no right answer. What, exactly, defines terroir is one of the most-debated topics in the ivory tower of wine geekdom. I gave them Matt Kramer’s clever definition — somewhereness — and my favorite description — a sense of place. I told them that some people say it’s whatever nature gives to the grape, but I have a more inclusive description: I don’t feel that you can separate the culture so easily. The way a vintner trains a vine. The traditional mindsets about winemaking. A Bordeaux must taste the way it does in part because the English were such a strong market for hundreds of years.

So how do you teach something that has no definition? You pour a lot of wine and talk about the factors that shaped each one.

I started the class by pouring a traditional Chablis (which is made with Chardonnay) and a rich, though unoaked, California Chardonnay. The descriptions overlapped to some extent (lemon zest, for instance) but the California Chardonnay evoked tropical fruits and had a heavy weight, while the Chablis prompted descriptions of stones and seemed more acidic. That, I told them, was the broadest stroke of terroir. Here in California, we get hot temperatures that saturate the grapes with fruit flavors and lower the acid. In Chablis, the cold temperatures and chalky soil tend to produce leaner wines with less fruit and more minerals.

After that, I poured a Sancerre and a Pouilly-Fumé. The two villages practically face each other across the Loire river, and both white wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc. The wines were similar, my students decided, but they did call out differences. This is terroir on a smaller scale and still, to some extent, in broad strokes. Sancerre has more south-facing slopes, but the chalky soil and steep slope drain water away from the thirsty vines, yielding more acidity despite the greater sun exposure. Pouilly-Fumé is flatter, and the flinty soil can leave a taste in the wine (though not in this one). (As a digression, we talked about Fumé Blanc, the California term, coined by Robert Mondavi, for Sauvignon Blanc made in a Loire-esque style.)

Next, I poured three Premier Cru Burgundies from 2005: Morot’s Cent-Vignes and his Toussaints and Xavier Monnot’s Toussaints. This is terroir at a more intimate level: different vineyards within a single region. Oftentimes in this class, students pick the vineyard bottlings as more similar than the ones from the same producer, but most of the class called the two Morots as the most similar. That didn’t exactly make a good illustration of the Burgundian fascination with terroir, but I would have sided with them: The Morots had more extraction and heavier flavors.

We closed the night with two Spätlese Rieslings from Kerpen in the Mosel. Same ripeness level, same region, but, again, different vineyards close by each other (and, I believe, on the same side of the river.) We talked about the differences and how the Mosel, along with Burgundy, is one of the few places where terroir is at its most obvious.

This week, we’ll be talking about blending and blind tasting.


Friday, February 29, 2008

Class Update


I meant to provide weekly “behind the podium” updates from my wine class, but the move to the house consumed a lot of time. Instead, I'll catch you all up on the last few weeks.

Class 2: Your Nose Knows
This class is a lot of work for the teacher, but I know — as someone who took this class several years ago — that it gives the students good tools for identifying aromas in wines. I spent the afternoon chopping a wide range of ingredients and putting them in little Dixie cups with foil covers. Lemon wedges, lemon zest, canned peas, liver, salumi, bacon, steak, chalk, and many more — I think I ended up with 70 samples. I write the name of the ingredient on the bottom of the cup. Students sniff the cup, try to guess the aroma, and then check their answer on the bottom of the cup. For those aromas that are limited to white or red wines, I put the sample into a cup and pour in a neutral white or red wine. It’s easy to recall an aroma when a person says its name — if I say, “vanilla,” you can probably conjure up its odor — but much harder to go from an aroma to its name. This is one of the hardest parts about articulating what’s in a glass, and of course the subject of infinite amusement to non-connoisseurs. “Flutter of Edam and soupçon of asparagus,” indeed.

As I told my students, I’m of two minds about the push to standardize wine descriptions (perhaps best personified by Dr. Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel). On one hand, I encourage my students to develop their own tasting vocabularies: This helps them remember wines and draws from their own experience. On the other hand, a standard vocabulary allows you to read someone else’s tasting note and make sense of it, and it allows you to articulate something meaningful to a sommelier or wine merchant.

Either way, you have to train yourself to map scents to names, and this exercise gives students a chance to start that re-education. After we smelled the samples — a chaotic flow of cups around the room — I poured a number of aromatic and typical wines and asked for descriptions. Starting from that moment, my class couldn’t get away with “citrus” or “berry” as descriptions: They had to drill down and tell me which citrus and which berry. They had to tell me if a wine smells more like citrus zest or the fruit as a whole. (The other night, one student said a wine smelled like shoe polish, and another one quipped, “brown shoe polish,” which gave the class a good laugh.)

Class 3: Faults And Flaws
“Next week,” I told them at the end of the second class, “we’ll be smelling all sorts of stinky wines.” Hardly a good sales tactic. But I think this class is one of the most educational for one main reason: I scrounge up corked bottles from local wine shops, and then I pour (hopefully) uncorked glasses of the same wine. (Because of a cold, I couldn’t smell that night, and I passed around a “good” bottle that was corked as well, which everyone thought was amusing.) Naturally, I talked about how cork taint gets into a bottle, alternate closures, what to do when you get a corked bottle at a restaurant, and so forth.

I also poured samples of flaws that might not be flaws in the right context. A brown color and nutty aroma — signs of oxidation — are flaws in a recent Chardonnay but features of oloroso sherry. A hint of nail polish is a flaw in most wines, but not in an Amarone or Valpolicella. Brettanomyces, the yeast that gives wines a leathery, sweaty, “barnyard” aroma, is a flaw to a UC Davis graduate but not to a vigneron in the Southern Rhône or Burgundy.

Class 4: Oak
From a shopping perspective, this is probably the hardest class in the entire course. I went to the store and asked for wines with varying oak profiles: neutral, lots of American, lots of French, light toast, heavy toast. This isn’t how wine merchants categorize their inventory, so they had to do some thinking. But I found a good selection.

In my lecture, I tried to emphasize that oak is analogous to spice in cooking. You can overdo it, but a little can add complexity to a wine. I talked about barrels (and printed out my article on barrel alternatives) and the different variables that could affect the wine: the wood, the toasting, the size, and the age. I talked about New World versus Old World philosophies (more oak versus less, to paint in broad strokes) and increasing shifts to an “international” palate, which tends to have more oak character.

Rather than give the students a list of oak aromas — there are tons — I told them to look for umami scents — toasted bread, caramel, molasses, soy, chocolate, coffee — and different types of spices and nuts. The class called out descriptions and I wrote them down, and then we talked about which aromas were from the oak. By the end, I think they had a good sense of whether a wine had seen a lot of oak or if it was well-integrated: They could describe wines as oaky or not even before they knew what had happened to it in the cellar. (I pour the wines blind.)


Thursday, January 31, 2008

32 Students!


My wine classes have typically had a dozen or so students. So imagine my surprise when my dean wrote to tell me that I had 29 students for my current course. And then imagine it when I showed up last night and found that I had 32. And only two of them were students from my Fundamentals I course, though a fair number had taken the other Fundamentals I section that happened last semester.

I kept thinking during class that they should give us a bigger room. Everyone fit, but it’s a tight squeeze, especially because the students occupy more space than they would in an accounting class: There's a line of glasses in front of every student. I doubt a bigger room exists, though. I looked at the list of other Berkeley Extension courses meeting on that floor, and I think we all filled it up.

It’s always interesting to hear about the wine drinking backgrounds of my students. Some are longtime drinkers, some are new. Some have a lot of knowledge, some know barely anything. Some are in the industry, some are just enthusiasts. I try to foster a good environment for asking questions, but there’s always one or two shy people: I hope they’re learning what they need.

I also find that my classes give me a good gauge on the average wine consumer’s view of the world, which is always useful for a writer. One person asked the question I often hear: How do you know that a Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc or that a Burgundy is Pinot Noir? Unfortunately, the answer is that you just have to know it; this is the big problem that European wines have here in the United States. We’ve come to expect varietals, bottles marketed as being from a single grape, because that’s how the American wine industry, under the urging of Frank Schoonmaker, differentiated itself from Europe’s. I also hear questions about high alcohol levels, French appellation rules versus American rules, corks versus screwcaps, and more.

Last night’s class focused on the taste of wine: acidity, sugar, tannins, alcohol, weight, and so forth. I bought five bottles of Woodbridge Pinot Grigio and left one untouched while doctoring the others: citric acid in one, sugar in another, tannins in yet another, and almost-pure ethanol into the last. That way the students could compare the exaggerated attributes to the basic wine and learn how each registers on the tongue and affects the wine. Then I poured our “real” wines: a 2006 Sancerre, a 1990 Vouvray, a 1997 Kabinett Riesling from the Mosel, a 2004 Marsannay, and a 2004 (I think) Napa Cabernet. We talked about how the grapes and climate affected the final wine, how wines age, and so forth. Though this class isn’t focused on educating students about wine regions, I always try to give a little information about the region that produced the wine they’re drinking.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Serendipity: A Bit Of Esoteric Wine History


I was searching the Government Printing Office’s site while researching an article, and I stumbled across the record for this 1986 document titled “Imported wines : identifying and removing wines contaminated with diethylene glycol.”

Sadly, the document’s not available online: Maybe I’ll look it up the next time I’m at the library. Because the reason why there’s a 1986 report about diethylene glycol in wine is that the year before, the international press went ballistic upon learning that a few Austrian producers in the Thermenregion had been adding that chemical to their wine. At the time, Austria followed Germany’s lead and made tankfuls of cloying wine. Diethylene glycol allowed wine makers to sweeten wine even when the grapes didn’t have enough sugar. This might not be a problem, except that diethylene glycol is related to ethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze. (Diethylene glycol is significantly less toxic.)

When the additive was discovered, it obliterated the Austrian wine industry’s international presence. No one would touch the wines for years. But that event shaped the modern-day industry: It wiped out the large producers who had relied on voluminous sales and cleared the way for small producers with integrity to enter the spotlight. It also reversed the trend toward sweeter wines: Today, Austria’s non-dessert whites are bone-dry, in contrast to Germany’s. The incident also spawned every joke about antifreeze in the wine, including the one in the first season of The Simpsons.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

2006 Movia "Gredic" Tocai Friuliano, Brda, Slovenia


Friuli, just to be clear, sits at the northeastern edge of Italy. The region surrounds the ancient city of Trieste, which balances on the tip-top of the Adriatic Sea. In the 1960s, Mario Schiopetto, whose name is about as Italian as you can find, imported German winemaking techniques to create the “super whites” that define the modern Italian style: clean, fruity, refreshing. I know where Friuli is; I’ve passed through Trieste on my way to Croatia.

So knowing all that, you might wonder why I picked a Slovenian wine for this edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly Internet-wide tasting event that this month asked us to find Friuli whites.

Borders are a funny thing. We can hope that Italy’s borders will remain stable for a long time, since wars tend to be the events that move them, but not that long ago surveyors needed to decide where Italy ended and other countries began. Working in the hills that straddle Collio, an Italian wine region, and Brda, a Slovenian one, some engineer had to make a long series of decisions about which ground belonged to which country. And one of those decisions put the line through a vineyard owned by the Kristancic family, then and now the proprietors of the Movia estate. So some — maybe all — of the grapes in my bottle of Slovenian wine are actually from Italy.

That may be the most mild of the stories surrounding Movia, today the property of the charismatic and passionate Ales Kristancic. I’ve heard that Movia, alone in Slovenia, stayed private under Tito’s Communist rule because Ales’s father or grandfather was a friend of Tito’s. To get around the problem of a privately owned winery, Tito bought up all of Movia’s inventory each year. I’ve heard that American presidents have wandered through the vineyard.

And then you get to the cellar. The standard (and useless) definition of biodynamic viticulture is “organic plus.” Movia sometimes seems like “biodynamic plus.” I’ve heard that Ales records his fermenting yeast and plays their own song back to them. He uses the atmospheric pressure of the new moon to clarify his wines. He leaves some of his whites in Slovenian oak barrels and on their lees, the dead yeast cells that drop from the wine during fermentation, for 2 years. He ages his reds for 3 to 7 years.

Clearly, Ales flouts modern winemaking. But he also makes some killer wines. I have tasted a number of them, either at wine dinners or at Jack and Joanne’s house. I have never been disappointed.

His 2006 Gredic ($19), a well-balanced Tocai Friuliano, has light, buoyant aromas of honey and flowers, wax and cheese. It spanks your palate with searing acidity but then kisses the pain away with rich flavors of peach and wax. And if you ask Jack, who drinks them often, this is the least of Movia’s wines. If you ever get the chance to order a bottle of Movia wine, do so.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

2004 Parducci "True Grit" Petite Sirah, Mendocino, California


If you don’t read many other food and wine blogs, you may have forgotten about Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly, Internet-wide tasting event. I typically forget about the event until I see everyone else’s posts, at which point it’s too late for me to join in.

But this month, one of the wines I drank lined up with Sonadora’s “Que Sirah Sirah” theme, an homage to Petite Sirah; I’d have no excuse for not posting.

Parducci’s “True Grit” Petite Sirah from Mendocino ($25) has the intense black color and blueberry aromas I associate with this grape, but the strong whiff of star anise and toast smells more like the wine’s barrel. That star anise flavor continues on the palate, with a deep black cherry taste that finishes with a hint of cough syrup on the medium finish, perhaps a by-product of the 14.5 percent alcohol. Since I normally think of Petite Sirah as a tannic, robust grape — small grapes give a higher skin-to-juice ratio — I was surprised to find a lightweight wine with subtle, fine-grained tannins and a mouth-gripping acidity. This is a wine I’d serve with grilled magret de canard, the fatty breast of a foie gras duck, especially if I had garnished it with a dark-fruit sauce.

This wine was sent to me as a sample.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Next Berkeley Extension Class: Fundamentals Of Wine Studies II


I finished teaching my Fundamentals of Wine Studies I class just last night, but the new Berkeley Extension catalogs are out, which means you can sign up for my Fundamentals Of Wine Studies II class. You don’t need Fundamentals I to take Fundamentals II: In fact, there’s often debate about which should come first.

While Fundamentals I focuses on regions, so that students know what to expect from an Austrian white or a Southern Rhône red, Fundamentals II focuses on describing wine. The first of the six classes talks about acidity, sugar, tannins, and alcohol; the second helps you articulate the smells in a wine; and so forth. Here’s the syllabus I made for the last time I taught the class. Class starts in San Francisco on January 30 and meets six times, with no class on February 20.

On a related note, Dr. Vino’s Tyler Colman will teach a one-day seminar on organic and “natural” wines.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Recent Drinks Of Note


Martini & Rossi Prosecco IGT, Italy
When I covered Champagne in my wine class, one of my students asked why you don’t see crown caps — the toothed metal hats you see on beer bottles — on sparkling wine. (You do, incidentally, if you visit a Champagne cellar. The bubble-causing secondary fermentation happens in bottle, and Champagne producers put crown caps on the bottles during the riddling process that collects the spent yeast cells in the neck.) Another student theorized that the pressure in a sealed Champagne bottle — 88 pounds per square inch, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine — might make crown caps a risky venture. A slight flick of your bottle opener, he suggested, and the vented pressure might send the sharp metal disc flying through the air like a tiny throwing star.

I didn’t have a better answer, so when Martini & Rossi offered to send me a bottle of their Prosecco, sealed with a crown cap, a week before my class on Italy, I jumped at the chance to pour it for my students. How dangerous was popping the top? Not very: The wine lacked the voluptuous foam of a sparkling wine, showing instead a light fizz and leaving the class’s larger question unanswered. My students described the simple taste as “Martinell’s apple cider,” and we agreed that it would be a pleasant enough picnic wine. This is not a Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, the ne plus ultra of this simple sparkler, but a Prosecco IGT, which means — as I hope my students can now explain — that either it’s made from grapes from a wider area, or the winemaking varied from what the Valdobbiadene rules require. ($11, I think)

2007 Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, France
Similarly, I couldn’t resist getting a press sample of Beaujolais Nouveau to pour in class on the day it released. We had covered the Beaujolais region, at the southern end of Burgundy, two weeks earlier, but I had focused on Cru Beaujolais, wine from the villages that act as subregions within Beaujolais: Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin-le-Vent, and so forth. Georges DuBoeuf singlehandedly transformed Nouveau from a quaffing wine meant to celebrate a successful harvest into a media event that dominates wine stores in the third week of November. He has given publicity to the region, but at the cost of associating it with a mediocre, industrial wine made from high-yield vines. My students quickly picked up the telltale aromas of fried banana that dominate DuBoeuf’s Nouveau, and some tried to figure out why anyone cares anything about this wine. (They enjoyed the better Beaujolais I poured earlier.) ($8-$10)

2004 Lassègue, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France
This is a surprisingly floral and light Bordeaux, but it packs a lot of complexity into the glass. I picked up barbecued beef and bread aromas alongside the bell pepper I get off of most Bordeaux, and I kept writing down new flavors as I continued to taste the wine: mushrooms, plums, dark berry, smoke, and a splash of milk chocolate on the finish. Light tannins and mild acidity make this a wine to serve with light, lean meat dishes: The tongue and tail terrine from The River Cottage Meat Book comes to mind, as do brisket, beef sausage, and rabbit stew. ($50, sent to me as a sample)

2006 Pattiana Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino, California
This wine divides my loyalties: I want to encourage you to support biodynamic wineries, where the grapes are raised in a holistic fashion. But biodynamic farming is more laborious than industrial farming, thus adding expense to the wine. Can I encourage you to pay $18 for this wine, which is at heart a straightforward Sauvignon Blanc, when it probably costs more because the winery isn’t relying on industrial cost-cutting techniques? The wine is delicious — refreshing grassy aromas and searing acidity mixed with light peach and guava aromas — but not very complex. I would encourage you to buy more expensive grass-fed beef and produce from careful growers, but there you’re getting extra flavor for your extra money. I love this wine for what it is, but I wish it were a little cheaper. ($18, sent to me as a sample)

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Vinography Book Review: Decantations


Vinography.com readers may have noticed that Alder has started to run book reviews written by guest contributors. When our mutual friend Tim Patterson, the book review editor, asked if I wanted to contribute, I decided to review the wine book I was reading at that moment. You can read my review of Frank Prial’s Decantations as of today.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Wine Gadgets The World Needs


Lore Sjöberg, who often writes humorous pieces for Wired, has put his satirical pen to paper and pondered the wine gadgets missing from the world. An automatic wine twirler? A tooth-mounted flavor sensor? A temporal acceleration device to age your wine? (He’s obviously unaware of the devices that purport to do this.)

How about his idea for a first-person Champagne shooter? I could combine my love of video games with my love of wine, though I’m not a big FPS fan.

I can’t help but point out that his use of the word “varietal” — to my mind, a misuse — illustrates my belief that we shouldn’t use the word except in its very specific meaning of a bottle marketed as being made from a single grape variety. Why use jargon incorrectly when there’s a perfectly good non-jargon term? That’s part of why culture views wine geeks as objects of derision.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wine's Carbon Footprint


I make some effort to source local ingredients for my cooking, but I gloss over the fact that my favorite wines come from Europe. Tyler, of Dr. Vino, is less willing to brush dust under his carpet. He puts thought into the environmental aspects of wine production, and he’s recently published a paper about calculating the carbon footprint of wine. Pour yourself a glass from a local winery and give it a read.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Barrel Alternatives In Today's Chronicle


Last week, one of my students asked me about a practice he had heard of where winemakers add chips to wine instead of putting it in barrel. I replied, “I’m pretty sure that the Chronicle will run a lead story about that topic next week.” How did I know? I’m the author. (My original title was “Staving Off Critics And Chipping Away At Costs,” but the silly puns didn’t make it all the way through.) Be sure to check out the photos.

Also, thanks to a tip from Jack, I submitted my first Sipping News piece about an oddly shaped wineglass. It’s not a big deal, but it was fun to do.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Epicurious Brings Rebecca Chapa On Board


One of my favorite wine teachers is Rebecca Chapa. I had her a couple of times as I studied wine, and I try to emulate her in my own teaching, especially since one of the classes I teach used to be hers.

So I was thrilled when I saw that she’s doing wine education for Epicurious. Her first topic: How to store wine, before you open it and after.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Recent Drinks Of Note


Based on feedback from my survey — I will write about that soon — I’ve decided to change my “Weekly Wine Wrap-up” into a more irregular “Recent Drinks Of Note” with fewer items. The items left won’t all be good: If I’ve tasted a particularly unpleasant wine, I may mention it to steer you away.

As always, samples are marked with a *

I didn’t write tasting notes for the most memorable wine I drank in the last couple of weeks, the Roederer Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine ($25) from Anderson Valley. It’s a good sparkler, but what made this bottle so special was the setting: the empty dining room of the new house. We finally found a moment’s pause to celebrate this big, giant step we’ve taken. (But will we merge our libraries? That remains to be seen.)

Melissa and I had a string of corked white wines in the last couple of weeks. It got so bad that she called me on her way home one night and asked if I had put a corked wine in the refrigerator. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue with the 2005 Les Jardins du Bouscassé “Le Jardin Philosophique” from the little-known Pacheran du Vic-Bilh Sec region in southwestern France. Too bad the name is so long that we’ll have paid the check by the time we finish ordering it in a restaurant, because this is the kind of white I like: searing acidity with a whoosh of rain-covered pavement. The “Philosophique” part of the name will hint to some that this wine was made biodynamically, a holistic attitude about growing vines that includes not only obvious agricultural cues such as phases of the moon but also more fringe beliefs such as magic potions buried in cow horns. (And speaking of our corked wines, one of them was from Clark Smith of wine technology company Vinovation, so I asked him why he doesn’t use screw caps. He answered.)

Melissa and I love Vintage Berkeley. The owner, Peter, has a great palate — which is to say it lines up with mine — and he finds interesting and inexpensive bottles. The 2004 Mount St. Helena Charbono from Napa is a good, solid, food-friendly red wine: musty berries, pepper, mouthwatering acidity, and a nice body. I haven’t tried a lot of Charbono, which is the same as the all-but-extinct Savoie grape Corbeau, but it’s enjoyed a minor vogue at California wineries. I can’t remember the price, but it must have been under $15.

* I’ve been impressed by the (oops) wines. We tried their Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere (many “Merlot” vines in Argentina turned out to be Carmenere — oops), and it was a nice, relatively complex wine. Good blackberry aromas with just whiffs of smoke and mint expanded into a similar range of flavors. And its $12 price tag makes it affordable even to new homeowners.

* Do you remember when the Matrix II came out, and it got panned? Melissa and I went into it with such low expectations that we ended up not minding it. That’s how I felt when I found myself drinking a second glass of the Gallo Hearty Burgundy. This wine has nothing in common with real Burgundy, but it wasn’t horrible. I won’t say it was good, but there are worse wines to drink in this world.

* And you’ll see a piece from me about this in a couple of weeks, but I’m a big fan of the Russian River Brewing beers, particularly Sanctification and Temptation. These are tart beers, which some people don’t like, but if you can handle it, seek them out.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Whence High Alcohol


Clark Smith, the head of Vinovation, has an Appellation America article about high alcohol levels in California wine. He looks at the complex array of factors that have led us to a world where every California wine has more than 14% alcohol. I see he’s listed as Appellation America’s technology columnist; it’s nice to see someone who knows all the ins and outs of wine technology across the state giving them content.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Weekly Wine Wrap-Up


Photo by Melissa Schneider

Call this a two-week weekly wine wrap-up: I never got up last week’s. Samples are marked with an *.

* 2004 McWilliams Hanwood Estate Merlot, Southeastern Australia - ~$9
One-dimensional jammy fruit and a raisiny character make for a decent but not memorable wine. Light tannins and a refreshing acidity make it food friendly, but there are better wines for the price.

* N/V Cameron Hughes “Lot 25” Sparkling Wine, Carneros, California - $20
I pictured green apples served with shortbread when I tasted this light sparkler, but another taster at the table said it had a bitter finish and a grapefruit flavor. I paired this wine with the appetizer platter I served at a dinner party.

2003 Josef Ehmoser “Hohenberg” Grüner Veltliner, Donauland, Austria - (bought on clearance)
You can taste the blistering heat of the 2003 vintage in this wine: more stone fruit and dried apricot flavors than normal, lower acidity, and a heavy, creamy weight. In the end, that was a good match for the Meyer lemon papparedelle, zucchini, and squash blossoms I served, but it’s odd to taste a flabby Grüner Veltliner.

2001 Bürgerspital Zum HL. Geist Würzburger Stein “Hagemann” Riesling Spätlese Trocken, Franken, Germany - (price forgotten)
I bought this wine for its packaging: Franken wines come in a unique, round-bellied bottle called a Bocksbeutel, which translates to “goat scrotum.” Once that topic exhausts itself, you’ll find a rush of older Riesling character in the wine itself: petrol and pine and wax, oh my. This bottle also had a bit of the nutty character that comes with oxidation. The wine isn’t very complex, but it went well with roasted pork belly.

* 2006 Groth Sauvignon Blanc, Napa, California - $19
One of my favorite California Sauvignon Blancs, this wine combines the grassiness and green apple flavors of Old World Sauvignon Blancs with the heavier weight and hints of butter aromas more typical of the New World. The short finish gives a flare of heat, perhaps from the 14.5% alcohol. Drink it with shellfish and other types of light seafood.

2004 Domaine Germain Pére et Fils, Burgundy, France - (gift?)
Pretty flowers and spices dominate this aromatic wine, and I couldn’t get over the idea that it smelled like Pez candy. Lovely mineral flavors wash the palate, and a bit of cheese rounds out the medium-long finish.

* 2003 Bridlewood Syrah, Santa Ynez, California - $40
I didn't like cough syrup as a kid, and I don’t like it as an adult. So I wasn’t fond of this rich, berry-flavored wine and its scorching hot finish, but I was happy to find some of the smoke and meat aromas so often lacking in California Syrah. Oddly, I also found green notes: California growers ripen these grapes almost to raisins, so maybe it came from the oak.

N/V Saison Dupont - $9/750 ml
One of Belgium’s best and most approachable beers, Saison Dupont offers a whiff of vanilla, a burst of flowery hops, and a wave of tingly citrus. The creamy beer tastes a bit like lemon juice, with a little hoppy bitterness and a pleasant maltiness at the end. Drink with just about anything: This beer has enough weight and flavor to stand up to all but the most overpowering dishes.

2005 Adegas D'Altamira “Seleccion” Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain - $20
Transport yourself to Spain’s Atlantic coast with this refreshing and simple wine. The green apples and minerality will fit right in with a tapas meal or a light dinner.

* 2006 Gascon Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina - $10
This well-balanced wine will seduce anyone who loves meaty, earthy wine. Bacon, thyme, mushrooms and a squirt of vanilla round out the taste, and searing acidity mixed with mild tannins make this a food-friendly drink. Pair it with roasts and rich pasta sauces.

Bonny Doon Tasting
Peter at Vintage Berkeley sent me an email to tell me that Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon, was stopping by the store to pour some of his new wines. He’s converting the whole winery to a biodynamic operation, and I wanted to taste the results. (Also, I had spoken with him by phone three days earlier on a separate topic, and I wanted to give him a face for my name.)

In the end, we bought three of the Ca' del Solo bottles: the weighty and rich Albariño, the floral and crisp Moscato Giallo, and the earthy and intense Sangiovese. I’ve long been a fan of Randall’s attitudes, but I can’t recall his earlier versions of these wines. At any rate, the new batch is delicious. But the star of the day was the 1990 Old Telegraph that Randall brought as “something special.” Seventeen years haven’t dented this all-Mourvedre wine, which still has lively fruit and mellow tannins.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

UCB Wine Studies: Fundamentals I Outline


I haven’t mentioned my upcoming UCB Extension wine class in a while, but today I made the final course outline. It seemed like a good time to remind any Bay Areans about the class, which starts on October 11 and gives an overview of the wines of California and Europe via lectures and lots of tasting. By the end of the class, students will be able to talk about a world of wines with confidence and aplomb. In a funny twist, this class got me hooked on wine five and a half years ago, so I’m looking forward to it. You can imagine my despair at only having eight weeks to cover the sprawling map of European wine regions — I’ve taught an entire six-week course on Eastern European wines, after all — but the short timeframe should focus me.

  1. The Loire and Bordeaux
  2. Champagne and Chablis
  3. Spain and Portugal
  4. Burgundy and Beaujolais
  5. Italy (with a splash of Slovenia and Croatia, perhaps)
  6. Alsace, Germany and Austria
  7. The Rhône and Provence (with a splash of Savoie)
  8. California

Sign up early; sign up often. Can’t make it? Fill out the OWF 5-year-anniversary Reader Survey to console yourself.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Plant Vines In Sweden!


It’s time for another article about the effect of global warming on wine regions. Next they’ll tell us that rosés aren’t all sweet fruit punch drinks. This time Salon is sounding the alarm. Unfortunately, the interesting news angle appears only briefly at the end of the article: “But he refuses to grow complacent or forget that his good fortune is an omen. That's why he and many of his colleagues in the Oregon hills have joined to make their wine industry the first ‘carbon neutral’ one in the country.” Wait. What was that again?

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Weekly Wine Wrap-Up


A smattering of wine and beer notes from the last week or so. * denotes a sample. Remember there’s still time to sign up for my 8-week UC Berkeley Extension Wine Studies class: Fundamentals I.

* 2005 Riboli Family Vineyard “San Simeon” Pinot Noir, Monterey, $18
This lightweight Central Coast Pinot has a rare-for-California wild, gamey, mushroomy aroma that would be even more delightful without an out-of-balance booziness, but the intense acidity steamrollers over any flavors, leaving just a wee bit of wild cherry cough syrup on the finish. Drink with delicate, light foods such as mousse patés, lemony fish, or herb chicken.

* 2006 (oops) Sauvignon Blanc/Carmenere, Chile, $12
I was intrigued by this white blend, since Carmenere is normally a red grape (the name—not my first choice for a good brand—comes from vineyards full of “Merlot” that were actually the more rare Carmenere grape). The wine lacks Sauvignon Blanc’s intense grassiness, instead offering lemon zest and minerals with a pleasant peppery spiciness. The Carmenere softens the searing acidity and adds a bit of weight to the wine. Drink with shellfish or white fish sauced with an herb vinaigrette.

* 2004 Chateau Pradeaux Rosé Bandol, France, ~$18
You won't find many rosés better than this bottle from a top-tier producer in a wine region known for its pink wines. Earthy aromas laced with nutmeg and red apple skin translate to bright cherry flavor and a thrumming acidity. It enhanced the tomato flavor in our caprese salad.

N/V “Sanctification”, Russian River Brewing, ~$10/750 ml
This homage to Cantillon gueuze lacks the full spine-tingling acidity of its role model, but it’s more than tart enough for sour beer fans. Aromas and flavors of flowers and grapefruit pith fade to a hoppy finish.

2004 “Home” Chardonnay, Shinn Estate Vineyards, North Fork, Long Island
Green apples sprinkled with lemon juice, with maybe just a hint of petrol, dominate this wine, and the medium weight, modest creamy character, and bright acidity made it a nice match for a homemade pâté de campagne with radishes, olives, cornichons, and goat cheese.

2004 Godello, Val de Sil, Valdeorras, Spain, $20 (for the 2005)
There’s a hint of "old white wine" aromas—wax and lanolin—but smoke and bacon take center stage. There's a really fascinating flavor in this wine, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Black licorice jelly bean was the closest I could get. Flowers and wax also show up in this crisp wine's flavor profile. Eat it with weighty fish or heavier appetizers.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Weekly Wine Wrap-Up


Brasserie de Blaugies, "Darbyste," Belgium - Fig juice adds its rich flavor to this tart saison beer, though dark caramel notes emerge as you enjoy the creamy mouthfeel and slight bitterness. Serve this alongside quail stuffed with figs. $10 (750ml)

2004 Herri Mina Irouléguy Blanc, France - This weighty Basque wine, made from the Gros Manseng grape, has nose-prickling petrol and pine scents and a mouthwatering acidity. (ordered from A Côté's wine list, along with an unrecorded Movia Tocai and a Royal Tokaji Wine Company dry Furmint, to accompany a variety of small plates).

Cantillon Fou' Foune, Belgium - Cantillon beer is in a class of its own, and this apricot lambic is a rare find in the Bay Area. Like the rest of the Cantillon line, this is a sour beer, though it has a more bitter finish than other Belgians. Surprisingly little apricot flavor cuts through the lemon pith taste, but the fruit rounds out the beer and adds complexity. Drink this beer with a pork shoulder roast. $10-$15 (from City Beer).

2006 Gauthier Jour de Soif, Bourgueil, France - This Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, made with organic grapes, gushes plush scents along every axis of the aroma wheel: upscale floral soap, hints of smoke and baking spices, and potpourri. Rich red fruit flavors dominate the palate alongside strong tannins and a soft acidity. Serve with a good roast chicken. $15 or so at Vintage Berkeley (I've misplaced the receipt).

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Wine Mine


Melissa and I stumbled on a new wine shop, called The Wine Mine, in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. It's been open for two months, part of a new complex of shops that have opened in an old building. Mariposa, a gluten-free bakery, sits next door.

The inventory mixes mainstream and eclectic, and seems to range around France, Spain, Italy and the New World. When we came in, they had a $1 tasting for six Iberian wines. Not quite as cheap as Peter's free tasting from a great inventory, but it's still a hard price to beat. They run the tastings every Saturday.

If you're in the area, check it out.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sex and the Simple Red Wine


Melissa and I have been working through the Sex and the City DVDs. I like the show, but something about it irks my inner wine geek.

Whenever one of the four main women orders a cocktail, she goes into specifics: "Get me a Cosmopolitan" or "This is a Staten Island Ice Tea." But when she orders wine, she's vague: "I'd like a glass of red wine" or "Over a glass of white wine and some salmon, Charlotte listened to Trey talk." I can understand why they'd avoid specific wines, but why don't they order merlots and chardonnays? (They often drink Champagne, but I assume the writers, like most people, believe that it's a generic term for sparkling wine.) The four women dine out at nice places. Does a sophisticated woman in New York order "red wine" or "white wine" in tony restaurants? Is that even possible?

I could see that Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie might order wine by the color, but Cynthia Nixon's Miranda, a partner at a law firm? I don't think so. And Kim Cattrall's Samantha is a devoted hedonist; shouldn't she know something more than red and white? (I like that the show has them drinking red wine; there's none of the "women only drink white wine" nonsense.)

Is this vinous ignorance commonplace on TV? Melissa and I never watch it, and our favorite DVDs tend to have the name Joss Whedon on them, so maybe this is standard fare. Or does the show paint an accurate portrait of a thirtysomething single woman in Manhattan during the late 1990s?

And finally, for SatC fans out there, what type of wine would you pair with each character?

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Tablas Creek Talks Closures


If you've ever heard me talk about screw caps, you know I'm a fan. But Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek, makes a more nuanced argument about closures at the winery's blog. Screw caps are great, he says, but so are corks. It depends on the wine.

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Weekly Wine Wrap-Up


In the interest of getting more tasting notes onto the site, I plan to do weekly roundups of the wine/beer I drank in the previous few days. None of these are samples, but in the future I'll mark those with a *.

2005 Bodegas Val de Sil Godello, Valdeoras, Spain - A modest and mellow white, rich with stone fruit flavors and garnished with anise and mineral notes. Serve with pâté or chicken salad. $20

2004 Clif Bar Winery "The Climber", North Coast, California - The only Clif Bar product I like, this "kitchen sink" red's plush fruit, mild spice and smoke, and scratchy tannins should pair well with summer grillables. $17

2003 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California - This weighty wine smelled of musty flowers and had a harsh oak finish — although it also had strong apple flavors and a tingly acidity — but it may have suffered in the wine rack in my apartment. $40

2006 Saracco Moscato d'Asti, Piemonte, Italy - Saracco makes one of my favorite bottles of this fizzy, fruity, floral dessert wine. Moscato d'Asti never fails to win converts when it's poured. Drink this delicate wine with custard-based desserts or as dessert on its own. $13

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Ripe Time For Fruit Wine, San Francisco Chronicle


When I suggested a piece about fruit wines for the Chronicle, I thought one of the 800-word slots in the section would be a good fit. But Jon came back with, "I think this should be the lead." Who says no to the big spread in the Wine section? So today's Wine section has a big story about fruit wine and my first lead for them (this created a bit of start for me on Wednesday). I've had a minor fascination with these drinks for a long time, probably dating to when I read Joanne Harris' Blackberry Wine and then revived by a piece in Petits Propos Culinaires. Wine snobs tend to sneer at fruit wines, but they have a long legacy in agricultural communities.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My Next Wine Class: Fundamentals I


A friend of mine mentioned that the new UCB Extension Catalog is out, so it's time for me to give you a heads-up about my next wine class. I'll be teaching the second section (starting Oct. 11) of Fundamentals I: Wines of California and Europe. This is a great starter class about wine — years ago, it was the one that got me hooked — that covers the major regions of California and Europe. We'll cover France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Napa, and more. And usually there's good side conversation about wine industry issues. Each class in the eight-week course will include a lecture and lots of wine. I always work my distributor/importer/producer contacts hard for these classes, so that I can stretch the budget to the utmost.

Sign up early; sign up often.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Terry's Latest Catalogs


Thanks to a post on Eric's blog, I see that Terry Theise has released his latest catalogs. As Eric notes, Terry writes with eloquence and passion about Germany, Austria, Champagne, and the larger world of wine. He drips fantastic quotes: You can't keep up with the shimmering pearls of wisdom that cascade off of him. I work hard for even the tiny glints of color in my text; Terry writes in rainbows as if it's the most natural thing to do.

I suppose I should mention that I have a bit part in Terry's Germany catalog this year. He and I had a friendly email exchange about my Vinovation piece—we get along well—and he reproduced snippets in the text. Terry and I agree about what makes good wine, but I am more accepting of Vinovation's role within the context of modern wine making. (I went to a recent tasting of his, and he said upon spying me, "Derrick, I was so hoping you would come." A perfectly timed pause, and then, "So you can remind yourself what real wine tastes like.")

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Croatian Wine Country Travels


My friend Frank sent out a link to his business's new blog, which chronicles the travels of Blue Danube's web designer and his friend through the wine country in the Balkans. Blue Danube is an importer, wholesaler, and retailer, so I imagine the bloggers are visiting wineries represented by Frank and his wife Zsuzsa. But you rarely get to read firsthand accounts of these wine regions, and Frank and Zsuzsa are good people worth supporting.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Art of Decanting


A few years back, I took a one-day CIA class named State of the Art Professional Wine Service. Not all the lessons stuck: To this day I have a 10 percent chance of pulling out a cork with an Ah-So opener and a 90 percent chance of shoving it into the wine. But I will never forget the moment when the teacher asked us to name three reasons for decanting wine. We called out the first two—separating old wine from sediment and letting young wine aerate—but the third eluded us. Finally, she said, "Because it's so beautiful."

That simple statement kicked off my small decanting fetish. I watch waiters and wine stewards do it at other tables, and I relish the chance to do it at home. I swirl young wines in our ship's captain decanter, peering through the garnet sheet that spreads along the bottom.

I had high hopes for Sandra Jordan's The Art of Decanting. How could I resist a whole book focused on my secret delight?

But don't bother with this fluffy book. Decanting occupies just a slice of the pages. Corks, corkscrews, glasses, bottles, wine appreciation, and more occupy the rest. Forget any depth with so many topics crowded into this slender volume. I confess that I hadn't heard the term monteith before, but that was all I gleaned from the book. (It's a large, shallow bowl for chilling wine glasses, often with scalloped edges to hold the stems.)

The book made more sense after I read Jordan's back flap bio. She designs "a high-end line of wine country-inspired lifestyle products for the home." Jordan's love for the wine world's accessories approaches fetishism. Photos of simple and complex examples of each object fill the book, demonstrating that wine, like any other hobby, has an infinite amount of gear to buy.

The pictures and presentation suggest a triumph of form over function, and the writing continues the theme. Hyperbole and overwrought prose swirl across the pages. Should they ever make an audiobook version, the publisher should recruit James Lipton to deliver the bombast the text requires. "The glass decanter is the bottle's best ally, for it receives the bottle's precious cargo and opens it to the edifying air." "The decanter stands upon the table; full now, its bounty expands, in scent and flavor, with the air." A deft hand could manage this florid text, but Jordan wings them at the reader in a constant flow, a blinding stream of gilded lilies.

I can forgive the light coverage and the ornate wording as a style choice, but I have no patience for her shoddy information. For a fetishist such as Jordan, screw caps and other new closures must seem crass, but she doesn't mention them in the cork chapter—even to dismiss them as lower life forms—despite their surge in the marketplace. She accepts without question the Riedel marketing speak about glass shapes tailored to each wine, even though controlled tests and two minutes of critical thought argue against the sales patter. (See my similar rant when the Chronicle ran a Riedel puff piece).

But worst of all: "Finally, the server will wish to smell the cork. Beware a moldy odor, Hugh Johnson cautions, which may indicate that the wine is 'corked' (or tainted by TCA, a combination of mold and other unsavory elements) and thus undrinkable. If all is well with the cork, however, then one can feel confident in moving on to the next delightful steps of wine service." Despite Jordan's attempt to bring in an expert, she misses the key word may. You can have a skanky cork atop a great wine and a musty drink when the cork is fine. The only way to know if a wine is corked is to smell it in the glass. "Sniffing the cork" is a common misconception, but Jordan's family is shoulder-deep in the wine industry; they should know better. (By the way, TCA is not "a combination of mold and other unsavory elements," but a specific molecule—2,4,6-trichloranisole—that often comes from mold. If the sentence was a victim of missing-serial-comma syndrome, then I retract this aside and replace it with a complaint about the lack of parallel structure in the list.)

The wine fetishist in your life may appreciate this glorified Wine Enthusiast catalog of accessories, but everyone else can skip it.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

House Of Mondavi At Cody's 06/28


My acquaintance Julia Flynn Siler has released her new book The House of Mondavi, an account of Napa's most famous—and perhaps most soap operaesque—family. She'll be speaking at Cody's on June 28th at 7:00pm, and you should go so you can buy a copy of the book and ask pointed questions. Here's Jon's preview of the book.

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The Subjectiveness of Smell


Slate's Mike Steinberger continues his look at the physiology of tasting wine with a probing of the nose. There's some good information there, and it reinforces what I already tell my students: You are always right about what you smell and what you like.

Steinberger, quoting a researcher, mentions the classic "white wine" vs. "red wine" experiment in which a white wine with red dye results in red wine descriptions. He also alludes to the "label" experiment mentioned in Mindless Eating, in which the same wine with a Napa label gets more praise than when it sports a Montana label, though in this case he mentions "vin de table" versus "grand cru" as the variables. It makes you wonder about the lack of bias in those wine critics who claim to taste wines blind but in fact know the grape and region before they sip.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Where Does Wine Lingo Come From?


Mike Steinberger has an interesting piece at Slate about how the modern wine tasting note, the "cherry-and-berry" style to use his term, came about. I have struggled to make my tasting notes readable, both here and in print, but I grew up in the "list all the aromas" school, and that's a tough habit to break. The old-school masculine/feminine language isn't any better, as it lacks the ability to communicate with anyone except wine geeks. This is a common subject at the Wine Writers' Symposium, where Karen MacNeil pushes us to write interesting tasting notes.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Pairing Wine With Indian Food


The Chronicle's wine section today offers a guide to pairing wine with Indian food.

If you ask about which wine to pair with Indian food, expect a one-word answer. Usually Gewurztraminer. Perhaps Riesling. Maybe Syrah.
An entire culture's cuisine to be paired with a single varietal? Ridiculous.
In fact, they suggest that Gewurztraminer isn't actually a good fit.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Heritage Cabernet, The Wine News, June/July 2007


When my editors at The Wine News asked if I wanted to do a piece about heritage clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, I agreed and then thought, "I wonder what that means." After conversations with UC Davis, Silverado Vineyards, Rubicon, and Mondavi, I learned all about these particular vines—the only heritage Cabernet Sauvignon—that formed a crucial part of Napa Valley's history. UC Davis has transformed them into virus-free clones. Interesting stuff, which you can learn about in the June/July issue.

I haven't received my subscription copy yet, but it may be in stores. The issue focuses on California, as do most of the wine glossies this time of year, when the Napa Valley Auction sits on the horizon and all the publishers make their way to Meadowood. Articles about Monte Rosso, Paso Robles, and Spring Mountain also appear in the issue.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Wine and Food Pairing, Redux


At brunch with some other bloggers yesterday, I mentioned that I have just a few rules about pairing wine and food. Upon hearing me rattle them off, Elise suggested I post them. But looking at my old SFist post on the topic, I realize that my rules haven't changed. Read that first, especially the part where I say to not sweat it.

Some other bloggers at the table brought up points that I don't cover in the post. Clotilde asked about regional pairings, and this is a guideline I tend to follow, but I find it a rough rule. For one thing, only Europe and maybe South Africa have a long enough history of native cuisine and wines to pair. But even in Europe, wine making styles have changed over time. The traditional wine of Sancerre, after all, is a red, not the more common white of today. Bordeaux used to use Rhône grapes in varying amounts. Are you talking about a classic Barolo or one made in the modern, international style? A Chianti or a Super Tuscan? And is the chef keeping close to the traditional form of the dish, or using it as a springboard for a new concept? Regional pairings can be surprising: I consider Port and Stilton a regional pairing because the British controlled Portugal of the 600-year-old alliance and old trade agreements between Britain and Portugal, and the fact that the British control its most famous wine houses.

Amy added that you can make a choice to contrast the flavors in the wine with the food or make them comparable. I do this without thinking, based on my mood, so I tend to forget about it as a rule.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Clark Smith on Sweet Spots and Food


After my Vinovation piece came out in The Art of Eating, the magazine received a small flood of letters, some of which are published in the current issue. One of those came from Mark Anisman, who asked how a wine's sweet spot did or did not change in the presence of food. A wine's sweet spot is the alcohol level at which it tastes the most balanced; for any given wine, there may be 3 or 4 such spots, scattered about the field of possibilities.

Anisman argues that Vinovation works in a vacuum where food is not considered, even though most people drink wine with food. I agree that this is a failing of wine criticism, but I do wonder how much cellar work—which is how I would label sweet spot evaluation—is done with food in hand.

Anisman left a similar comment here, and I posed the question to Clark. He posted his response, with my original email, on his blog.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Rediscovering À Côté


I recently took a friend I hadn't seen in a while to Oakland's À Côté. I don't remember the last time I went, but I knew they had good tapas-style food and a good wine list.

They don't have a good wine list. They have an excellent wine list. I can't think of any East Bay restaurant with a more interesting selection. I'm not sure I can think of a Bay Area restaurant that tops it. I ordered a bottle of dry Furmint from the Royal Tokaji Wine Company. I noticed they also had Királyleányka on the list, a Hungarian wine that no one carries. When Melissa and I returned a couple of weeks after I took my friend, I couldn't contain myself as I read through the options. And they offered many of them by the glass.

Here is a wine buyer with passion. Choosing just one glass for our light dinner (a Mondeuse, the major red of the Savoie; when was the last time you saw one of those on a list?) was a challenge. But as Melissa points out, we can go back. I intend to, if only to support someone willing to offer wines so far outside the mainstream.

If you like interesting wines, swing by À Côté for a banquet of possibilities.

And the food's good, too.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Reminder: Wines of the United States


Why am I calling my wine writing colleagues around the country? I'm getting their thoughts on the best wineries in Texas, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, and the other states I want to include in my Wines of the United States class through Berkeley Extension. It starts June 12 and runs for four weeks. There's still room; sign up and find out what the country has to offer in the way of great wine.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

WTN: Cocchi Barolo Chinato


The Cocchi Barolo Chinato didn't make sense. Oliveto put it on their list of dessert wines, but Barolos are big, robust, dry reds you drink with osso buco. When the waiter brought the bottle, the label said it was from Asti, but the famous city and the vineyards of Barolo, a pretty and well-heeled hilltop town, sit 30 miles apart from each other.

Melissa and I asked the waiter about the clash of concepts, and he dove into the restaurant's database for answers. The Asti-based producer buys Barolo wine and adds quinine. And rhubarb. And gentian. And secret spices. (K & L's web site says "secreted spices." I hope that's a typo). "Ah," I said, "it's like vermouth, but with Barolo."

And I didn't like it. It had raging aromas of menthol and cumin, anise and tobacco, It had a medicinal taste and a bitter finish. Melissa, who didn't mind it, compared it to gin. She wonders if I prepared myself for a dessert wine and ended up reeling under the very different digestivo. Maybe in a different context, with different expectations, I would like the wine more. But I won't rush to the store to add it to my rack.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Where Are The Snobby Wine Professionals?


I recently noticed this quote in Amy's review of Educating Peter. She voices a sentiment that I think many people share:

Here's the thing I hate about wine, the attitude. You know what I'm talking about. Wine should be something we enjoy and yet it easily slips into something that intimidates instead. Of course it's not the fault of the wine. It's the people who write about it, sell it and pour it who use it as a weapon against the unsuspecting. I haven't actually met any intimidating winemakers, although it may just be a matter of time.

I think at this point I know a good number of wine professionals. I've interacted with wine writers, sommeliers, retailers, importers, and distributors. I've met asses, hypocrites, and wackos.

I've met plenty of wine snobs, too: all of them have been wine consumers who want to show how much they know. I've never met a wine professional who tries to intimidate consumers about wine.

It just doesn't make sense. Those of us in the wine industry—at least every person I've met—entered it because the passion for wine grabbed us and wouldn't let go. We want to share that passion like newly converted zealots. On a practical level, we don't want to intimidate wine drinkers because they are our bread and butter. More drinkers equals more reasons to hire wine writers or sommeliers.

The image of the imposing sommelier is a fixture in our minds, and I'm sure they exist. Somewhere. I don't doubt consumers feel intimidated by wine: Everyone has this silly notion that they should know something about wine before the sommelier approaches. Before I became interested in wine, I always just said, "Hey, I don't know what I'm doing; I'd love to hear your advice." I still say that, when faced with a wine list I can't breach, like the Italy-heavy list at Incanto. Every sommelier and wine merchant who hears me pounces on the opportunity to educate me. Education is what we writers and those who work face-to-face with the drinker always want to provide.

So where are the intimidating wine professionals? Have you met any? Have I just been lucky? Or am I oblivious to the intimidation? No need to name names, but I'd love to hear your stories. I think the intimidating wine professional is a myth in this day and age. Prove me wrong.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Do I Love Wine That Loves?


My friend Phil reminded me about the Wine That Loves line of wines. The idea is that you buy a bottle of wine to go with the food you're eating. The labels show you the food that the wine loves, with bottles for pizza, chicken, steak, pasta with tomato sauce, and fish.

At first I liked the idea. It might entice infrequent drinkers to explore wine more. It would take the fear out of pairing wine and food, and would remind shoppers that wine belongs on the dinner table, not in the isolation chambers of tasting notes in wine publications.

But I wonder if these wines dumb down shoppers. A Wine That Loves bottle doesn't give the buyer the tools to pair wine with food. It simply says, "Here's the answer." Where is the education? How does the shopper grow from Wine That Loves Chicken to ordering another, different bottle later? Does Wine That Loves Pizza love ham and pineapple pizza as much as it does peppers, olives, and sausage? Of course the Wine That Loves company would probably be happy with you buying more of their bottles, and not expanding your knowledge.

On top of the dumbing-down problems, I disagree with their sommelier's choices. A white wine with grilled salmon? I'd choose a light, fruity red, unless the sauce steered me back towards a weighty white. Pinot Noir with salmon is the classic counterexample to the tired "Red wine with meat, white wine with fish" mantra. He also goes against the wine experts who have taught me about acidity, saying this about Wine That Loves Pasta With Tomato Sauce:

The right wine for this acidic dish needs to be low in acidity. If the acidity is too high, the wine will clash with the food resulting in an unpleasant sour or tart taste.
I've always learned that your wine should have more acidity than your food, lest the acidic food make the wine seem flabby. That's why it's hard to pair wines with salads and pickles. And he fails to mention that tomato sauce has sugar in it as well. How does that factor into the Love?

Has anyone tried these? Are the wines any good? Did they go with the food as well as they promised? What are your thoughts about wine and food pairings?

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Monday, April 16, 2007

WTN: 2004 La Cabotte, Côtes du Rhône


For my current wine class, I don't limit the wines to ones I already know. Because the class is about sensory analysis, I choose wines that I know will illustrate certain characteristics. So each night's batch is something of a crap shoot, though I buy or beg from people I trust.

As I poured the last wine of the night on Thursday, the 2004 La Cabotte Côtes du Rhône, I asked my students to describe the aromas. Earlier, I had set up 70-80 vials with isolated scents—from green apple to liquid smoke—to help them solidify associations between scents and vocabulary. Freshly equipped, they poured out adjectives for this intense wine: smoke, soy sauce, tar, deep black cherries, a bit of bacon fat.

And then we went through an analysis exercise, reinforcing the first class's lessons on acidity, complexity, balance, and weight. I have the students rate these aspects on simple low-to-high scales. They discussed the slightly coarse tannins, but also talked about how the flavors came through despite the tongue-shriveling grip. We talked about good structure because this wine illustrated it nicely.

And as we talked, we all came to the same conclusion at about the same time. This was a good wine. Complex, well-balanced, and heavy without being overbearing. Then I told them the price, $10 at Paul Marcus Wines, and they started scribbling down the name. I went back to the store and bought 4 bottles for our rack. (A friend tells me that it's also available at Berkeley's Whole Foods, which for most items means that you can also find them at other Bay Area Whole Foods stores.)

Food Thoughts
This wine's weight should steer you towards medium-heavy dishes. It could probably handle a steak, but I'd prefer to pair it with stew, roast chicken, or duck. Especially duck: The wine's acidity and tannins could slice through the fatty flesh, and the intense fruit flavors would complement the dark meat. Braised meats, sugo, or sausages would work as well. I'd decant the wine for half an hour or so before drinking it.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Wines of the United States, UCB Extension


A new UC Berkeley Extension catalog is coursing through the mail as you read this. You all know what that means: the announcement for my next wine class. This summer, I'll be teaching a 4-week course entitled Wines of the United States. The school offers Wines of California and Europe, but I wanted to show my students some of this country's other wines, which can be hard to find here in the middle of California's behemoth wine industry.

Here's the schedule I pitched:

  • Class 1: Texas and the Southwest
  • Class 2: The East Coast (New York and Virginia, among others)
  • Class 3: The Midwest (Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan)
  • Class 4: The Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho)

Sign up early; sign up often.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Psst! Hey, you! Want some cheap Brunello?


Jack sent me links to a guest blogger's posts at Brooklynguy's Wine and Food Blog. Deetrane is a wine bargain hunter, and found a great source for bottles well below market value. But you'd be right to suspect a wine source who provided awesome deals as long as you met him on street corners.

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this tale of intrigue and suspense.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Send in the Clones


How distinct are Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti? The leader of a tasting group I've joined posed that question with a blind tasting of four wines, two from each appellation. Both regions sit in Tuscany, and both make wine largely from Sangiovese.

There are environmental differences—Brunello di Montalcino is arid—and soil differences—Brunello has more limestone and sand—but Brunello's reputation rests on the Sangiovese Grosso, a "superior" clone that Ferruccio Biondi-Santi isolated in 1888.

You clone propagate a grapevine clone by grafting its budwood onto another root system. Grape growers look for the vines that perform best, either in the vineyard or the cellar. Maybe one vine thrives while neighbors sicken. Maybe one produces a better cluster. Maybe one creates distinct flavor in a wine. Keep selecting, and over time you have a plant with a DNA fingerprint that stands well apart from its kin.

Guess who's researching an article about clones?

Does Sangiovese Grosso deserve its status? Within our small tasting, we found nothing more than subtle distinctions. The two Chianti Classicos, from 1996 and 1997, had a less balanced acidity but a similar earthiness to the 1996 and 1995 Brunellos. I thought both Brunellos were complex; only one of the Chianti Classicos got my nod. They differed only at a debatable level. One member of the group, who has more experience with Italian reds than I, noted that these were still young, even with a decade or more of life behind them. Maybe we should try the tasting again in another five years.

My favorite wine was the 1995 Casisano-Colombaio Brunello di Montalcino. It had the old-wine earthiness that I love, with enough acidity to liven up the palate without sending a shiver coursing down the spine. The cocoa powder finish was a bit short: That's my only complaint.

For now, at least, my tongue can't tell Brunello and Chianti Classico apart. But sign me up for any rematch.


Friday, March 16, 2007

WTN: 2002 San Antonio Winery "Heritage," Central Coast


This is a meaty wine.

Oh, it has other aromas and flavors: cherries, pepper, a bit too much alcohol on the nose. But meat—beef stew, let's say—was the term I kept returning to as I swirled and swooshed the Rhône blend and felt its tannins enshroud my tongue. I almost chewed the wine; it could use some time in a decanter.

San Antonio Winery has been in Los Angeles for 90 years. The city has given the winery, the last in Los Angeles, landmark status. It survived Prohibition by churning out sacramental wine. It has seen vineyards become rail yards and waterways become streets. It has shifted and changed to keep up with a capricious public.

The winery has expanded as well, though not so drastically as the city that now surrounds it. New brands have been added, and a Piemontese restaurant named Maddelena has arisen. But the family remains the same, descendants of the original owner who traveled from Lombardy to America to find a new start.

Food Thoughts
This wine's dense tannins and meaty aromas will stand up to a rich and complex main course but will overwhelm subtle flavors. Braised beef, duck ragú, and wild hare would all work. Or serve with the lamb you're eating at Easter dinner.

This wine was sent to me as a sample. You can buy it directly from the winery.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Clinking Glasses


Why do we clink glasses during a toast? It's not to prove the wine isn't poisoned, says urban legend debunking site Snopes.com. Read their explanation of this tradition.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Fair Savoie


My first significant piece for the Chronicle, about the wines of France's Savoie, appears in today's Wine section. (I also contributed to the holiday gift guide last year.) The piece is part of their new "Essentials" series, educating readers about lesser-sung regions and grapes. I had hoped to follow the Priorat Essentials, so that I could quip that I had written my Savoie piece by filling in the antonyms of key concepts: Alpine climate instead of Mediterranean, mostly white instead of mostly red, inexpensive instead of super pricey, oddball grapes instead of world-famous ones, lean and elegant instead of heavy and powerful, little oak instead of lots. For you web readers, don't miss the tasting notes.

I was also amused to see Michael Bauer's handout for his "How To Pitch" break-out session at the Wine Writers' Symposium; he included my query for this piece as his first example of a good pitch. I don't think he told the participants that I was able to pitch so casually because I had worked with Wine Editor Jon Bonné when he was at MS-NBC.

I'm happy to say that more Chronicle pieces are already in the works.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pruning at Meadowood: A Writing Exercise


Note: Prior to the Wine Writers' Symposium, participants had the option to prune some vines in the Napa Valley Wine Reserve, the 50-acre vineyard at the entrance to Meadowood. Members of the Reserve can participate to whatever extent they like in wine making—sort of an upscale Crush Pad. The winery's caves even have carved-out spaces where members can store their wine libraries.

After the pruning lesson, we went inside for a writing exercise where we talked about the morning. This is mine, and I've left it unedited except for what we did in the session.

I mean no offense to the Meadowood staff or the many hard-working folks in Napa. I actually enjoyed myself and found the exercise educational, but I was struck by the observation that the posh life was never far away. I couldn't avoid the obvious metaphor. Alder, who writes better first drafts than I, shared the more common view of the morning.

Snap. My pruning shears squeeze shut, a branch falls off the vine, and a glistening drop of sap oozes from the wound. The vineyard manager walks up and eyes my work. "Not bad," he says, "but cut this shoot a little closer because you want the one that's nice and straight, not the one that's crooked."

I pretend, for just a moment, that I'm learning the secrets of grape growing and wine making from polished experts. The sun is shining, it's a cool-but-not-too-cold day, and I'm deciding which shoots to prune from a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vine, a plant that will in a few months produce the country's most expensive wine grapes.

But in fact, I'm a modern-day Marie Antoinette, playing in a little garden outside a palatial retreat, my Versailles the luxurious Meadowood resort in St. Helena. I'm just one of countless would-be wine makers who tromp through these 50 acres, working as much or as little as I choose to produce a custom wine.

The Disneyland atmosphere tints the day. My pruning shears glisten with a suspiciously new sheen; the staff, waiting out of sight like the Magic Kingdom's security guards, will clean the tool after I leave. The fruit I've helped shape will be brought into a winery so clean you could dine on the floor, so manicured that the stainless-steel tanks have been custom designed to mimic the large, conical oak fermenters in the next room. Should a drop of rain threaten my city-dweller's garb, the voluptuous Meadowood umbrellas cluster by every door. I'm half-surprised there aren't animatronics or little trolleys that we can ride in.

Perhaps it's not Disneyland after all, but just Napa, an area where migrant pickers pluck the fruit owned by dentists and movie directors who used their fortunes to become winery owners, who "make" wine by hiring knowledgeable staff. Perhaps my morning of wine making was an authentic Napa experience after all.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Notes on Notes on a Cellar Book


As a buying guide, George Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar Book is useless. He recalls the wines he's enjoyed in 60 years of drinking, but you'll never get to taste the bottles. It's bad enough that he mentions the '69 this or the '72 that, but these are years from the nineteenth century, not the twentieth.

As a window into wine appreciation 80-100 years ago, however, this book is fascinating. Offhand comments remind you that oidium, phylloxera, and Prohibition were current events. Wine came from "shippers," and you bought it by the cask. German wine was called "hock," after Hochheim in the Rheingau. England was the center of wine criticism and the export market everyone wanted to be in.

But the armchair time travel isn't just between the lines. Saintsbury opens with chapters on sherry and port, topics often left out of today's general-purpose wine books. His choice wasn't odd; England imported these wines by the boatload as a residual effect of British imperialism—to this day, most major Port companies belong to English families. Bordeaux and Burgundy, on the other hand, share a chapter. Aside from Champagne, the rest of the wine world is dealt with in a chapter entitled "Hock, Moselle, and the Rest." Saintsbury suggests wine and spirits as cures for specific diseases, and gives glimpses of his and other cellars where you'd find beer casks and containers holding a mix of port and sherry, combined when each had gotten stale in the decanter. And he has none of the prosy tasting notes we're so used to seeing. The modern tasting note is a fairly recent invention; Saintsbury merely praises the virtues of different drinks. Even I, who hates the blandness of modern tasting notes, wanted to know how those wines tasted.

On the other hand, it's easy to draw modern parallels to Saintsbury's opinions. He argues that wine's proper place is alongside good food and charming company, an early version of the romantic wine writing we find today. He rails against England's temperance movement, much as we shake our heads at states where you can't purchase wine on Sunday. He takes shots at the blanket opinions covering all wines from a single vintage, a silliness that persists to this day.

At least, that's what I think he says. My inner wine geek enjoyed the comparison of connoisseurship then and now, but my inner writing geek noticed how the definition of good writing has changed in the same period. Clauses and tangents interrupt the text like facial tics. Saintsbury assumes that his reader can blithely translate French or Latin phrases, know the meanings of uncommon words, and understand shorthand allusions to poets and other contemporary writers. I often had to re-read sentences to make sure I had followed his meaning through the maze of asides. On the other hand, Saintsbury might find my "cut all that you can" style terse and staccato.

My mission as a wine writer is to make the subject approachable to more people. But I admit that a part of me enjoys this glimpse of a more elite wine scene. Elaborate parties, with true ladies and gentlemen bedecked for dinner. Tables laden with crystal. Clubs where members sipped sherry and played dominoes. But in the end, I'm happy to draw the curtains over that window and look out my own, where everyone gets to play the wine game.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Beaucastel, Old and Young


This site has provided me with a wealth of new friends, but it has also connected me with old ones. Some, from my high school days, have found their way here after searching for my name. Others have jumped to this page from somewhere else, recognizing my face as they landed.

My friend Fred, whom I know from my days at BMUG, found his way here and dropped me a note to say hello. He, too, has been bitten by the food and wine bug, and he recently sent me an invitation to a tasting at his house. His friend would be pouring older and newer vintages of Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and did I want to come? I jumped at the chance to taste these legendary wines, bottles from one of the most famous producers in one of the world's most famous wine regions.

Old wines, the good ones anyway, present a rare treat; you've probably heard "wine is a living thing" from wine lovers like me, but an old bottle drives the point home better than a thousand blog posts. The fruity aromas of youth fall off and become something new and extraordinary, something that you wouldn't have predicted: They're so different that wine geeks reserve the word "bouquet" for these scents. Of course they can also be a crap shoot. A 40-year-old wine has four decades of potential mishandling under its capsule. Maybe the wine wasn't stored well for some portion of its life. Maybe the cork allowed a little too much air into the bottle. Until you sip the wine, which no doubt cost you a pretty penny, you don't know what you'll get.

Here are my tasting notes for the evening. The whites were all Château de Beaucastel Roussane Vielle Vignes. The reds were the Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the same winery. Beaucastel uses more Mourvedre than other producers in the region, but other than that the grapes could be any of the 13 allowed in the appellation. However, It's a safe bet that there's some Grenache in there, as well as Syrah, and probably Cinsault. (Note: Beaucastel also flash heats the grapes to 176° Fahrenheit before pressing, which they claim extracts more flavor and color and allows them to press without sulfur.)

The Whites
1988 - My goodness, I love white wines that age well. This well-balanced favorite of the evening was a charming mix of mature and young, like a bank executive with a giggle. The wine still had a thick, clear edge with a well of light gold in the center, but the nose had the heady wax aromas of bottle age. I teased out subtle tropical fruit aromas and a soft stoniness. "Wow!" say my notes of the ferocious acidity that hit my tongue, a refreshing quality I might have expected from a bottle just out of the winery's cellar. Flavors of wax and stone lingered for a nice long finish. But don't let this wine sit in a glass for too long, as its flavor fades fast.

1999 - This wine was more restrained than its older brother, offering subtle aromas of wax and smoke, and an almost watery body, with modest acidity. I didn't find it very exciting.

2004 - I liked this young wine, which had an aroma I often get from German wines and which I write down as Honey Nut Cheerios. I also noticed a slight cheese aroma. The light-bodied wine has a menthol quality on the midpalate, with a nice long finish that has just a hint of the waxy aroma that so dominated the '88.

The Reds
1966 - My favorite red of the evening was an Energizer Bunny of a wine. Even after an hour in the glass, the wine's complex nose oozed salumi, offal, and paprika. There was a funky smell—I wrote "skunky, but in a nice way"—that defied easy description, as most complex wines do. The wine still had a good acidity, and not surprisingly the tannins had become feather-light over the last 40 years. The flavor was as complex as the nose, adding a mushroom finish as a final flourish.

1978 - "Burnt coffee" was a dominant comment from the tasters at my table, even from the one coffee hater in the group, me. As with the 1966, I got salumi aromas, which might come from Brettanomyces, or "brett" for short, a yeast that produces "barnyard" scents. These can add complexity in small amounts, but in large quantities are usually considered a fault. The finish for this wine had a bit of vanilla, but mostly a strong mineral element. Great acidity and solid tannins suggest that it still has room to mature.

1985 - Speaking of brett, this wine had plenty, though it never crossed into unpleasantness. In fact, I gave it a +, my "this is a good wine" mark—the 1966 got a *. Sweat, leather, and salumi all showed up in the aromas, alongside a warm earthiness. The wine still had nice fruit, tasting of baked cherry with subtle leather. Mild tannins and only a decent acidity make me wonder how much longer this wine will mature.

1990 - Add more brett to the mix as this wine opened. But the first sniff was all smoke and meat, with a leathery flavor. The tannins were still quite strong, though not in an unbalanced way, and the finish held both mushrooms and the heat of slightly unbalanced alcohol. Regardless, it warranted a +.

1995 - This relatively young wine had aromas of raisins and dust. I thought I noted a hint of volatile acidity, but I left it with a question mark, never able to recover the vinegar or ethyl acetate aromas I first noticed. Flavors of smoke and wintergreen faded to a meaty finish. Interesting enough on first sip, the wine lost all its character within an hour of being poured into the glass. A stark contrast to the 1966, which was still delicious.

2001 - Lots and lots of raisins and strawberry jam—"Don't you mean raspberry?" joked the young woman next to me—dominate the nose, though forest floor and pine contribute in subtle ways. On the other hand, flavors of dried cranberry and button mushrooms came through on the palate, ending in a raisiny, hot finish. There's good structure here, so maybe I'll tell you what it tastes like in 40 years.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

What Every Boy And Girl Wants


Looking for the perfect Valentine's Day gift? How about a cool six-week-long UC Berkeley Extension wine course in San Francisco, starting in early April? You might think this is a hard gift to find, but you'd be wrong. Click the link, pull out your credit card, and taste wine with me.

I'm putting together my syllabus, and I wanted to share the top-level class descriptions with you so that you can see how much fun you'll have.

  • Class 1: Your Tongue Tastes...
    Discover how different amounts of acid, sugar, tannins, and alcohol affect the taste, feel, and structure of a wine. Then taste typical store wines, and describe where each one falls on the line of acidity, sweetness, tannin, and alcohol levels.
  • Class 2: ...But Your Nose Knows
    Smell through countless vials, and try to identify the items hidden within. Smell some of those items immersed in glasses of wine. Then smell varietal wines typical of their grapes, and identify the scents in the glass.
  • Class 3: Pew! What Is That Stink?
    Learn to identify some of the most common faults in a bottle of wine. Learn that one wine's fault can be another's feature.
  • Class 4: How Much Wood...?
    Learn about the effect of oak on wine. Taste wines made with French, American, new, and old barrels. Compare to wines made in stainless steel tanks, and learn how barrels are made.
  • Class 5: Become A Terroirist
    Terroir, the idea that wine has a sense of place, is one of the industry's big buzzwords. Is it real? Or is it bunk? You'll taste similar wines from different geographies and learn how the complex mix of soil and sun can shape the fruit.
  • Class 6: Go On A Blender
    Make your own Bordeaux blend. You'll have varietal wines from each of the major Bordeaux grapes, and you'll have to mix them to your taste.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

The Perfect Guide to Choosing Wine


For those who like tongue and cheek, see Todd Levin's guide to choosing wine.

When the waiter arrives with your wine, you'll obviously need to remind him that his station is beneath you by barking demands while he pours, like, "Keep it coming, Robespierre," or, "Don't forget that I can buy and sell you, you miserable cur." Then, when your server has completed the pour, it is customary to raise your hand as if to strike his face.

via Phil

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

WTN: 2005 Hook & Ladder Winery, "The Tillerman," Russian River Valley


"Real musicians have day jobs," read a bumper sticker I once saw. So do many wine makers, who squeeze their vinous passion around the edges of a full-time job like carry-on luggage in an overhead bin.

Cecil De Loach managed that packing problem with room to spare. While he worked for the San Francisco Fire Department, he founded De Loach Vineyards, which eventually produced 250,000 cases of wine a year. He presided over the Sonoma County Vintners Co-operative along with a number of other organizations, and he sat on the Board of Directors for the Wine Institute.

No one seems to have told De Loach that he can slow down now that he's retired from the fire department and has sold the megawinery that still bears his name. He started Hook & Ladder Winery in 2004 to spotlight his Russian River vineyards, and he runs it with careful attention to sustainable practices.

The 2005 Tillerman White, a mix of grapes from across De Loach's holdings, is a reasonably balanced, friendly fruit salad of a wine, lush with aromas of tropical fruit, apples, and strawberries. I also found Swiss cheese and tiny hints of caramel and smoke in the swirl of scents from the glass. Flavors of pineapple, the light taste of unripe peaches, and a bit of pine lingered for a medium finish. The alcohol was a bit out of balance, with a little heat on the finish and an acidity that turned bitter as it lingered. Drink this wine young.

Food Pairing
This wine's weight suggests either a heavy fish or poultry as a protein. Its midlevel acidity could cut through a light cream sauce but would suffer in the face of a vinaigrette or salsa. The current of tropical flavors, not atypical for California Chardonnay, makes me think of a coconut-cream sauce. Alternately, you could pound out the chicken breasts, slather them with goat cheese, roll the meat, tie it, bake it, and then serve slices of the cooked roulade on a couscous mixed with apples and raisins.

I received this wine as a sample.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Catherine Finishes Writing About My Class


Catherine's been posting tasting notes from my Wines of Germany and Eastern Europe class. She posted about the last two classes, Hungary and Croatia, Romania, and Slovenia. I found a moderate amount of wines from these regions, some good and some less so.

There's still time to sign up for my Spring class, Fundamentals of Wine II (note that you don't need to take Fundamental I first). It'll be a fun course, so buy a seat for yourself and 15 of your closest friends.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Spit Like A Pro


A co-worker pointed me toward this Slate article about professional wine-spitting technique. I am not a great spitter, but I can feel Steinberger's piece tugging at my obsessive streak.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Varietal Is The Spice Of Life


When I started writing about wine professionally, an editor corrected my use of "varietal" as a noun, preferring "variety" instead. My computer's dictionary also considers "varietal" to be an adjective and not a noun.

But it's not hard to find the noun in the wine press. Farmers grow this or that varietal. Wine makers blend varietals to create a wine. I recently saw an example of the usage, and wondered about its evolution.

I wrote to Harvey Steiman at Wine Spectator, asking if the magazine allowed the noun and when it gained acceptance in the style guide. He answered with an explicit definition for the noun, one backed by Merriam-Webster and The Oxford Companion To Wine, which I think most writers forget: "A varietal wine is named after the predominant grape variety used to make it." If your local winery bottles a wine and calls it "Pinot Noir," then the wine itself is a varietal. It's not made from the Pinot Noir varietal.

But a bottle of red Burgundy, made with Pinot Noir, is not a varietal because the grape's name isn't on the label. It's the marketing of the wine that matters, not the ingredients. German wines and their kin are often varietals, and I suppose blanc de blancs transforms a bottle of Champagne into an all-Chardonnay varietal.

And of the generic usage, The Oxford Companion To Wine snaps, "The word is increasingly misused in place of vine variety."

When did the noun appear? Merriam-Webster dates it to 1950, but without a citation, while the Oxford English Dictionary lists John Storm's 1955 Invitation To Wines as the earliest instance. No matter who first moved "varietal" from an adjective to a noun, nobody argues about who brought the term to the public's ear. In the 1950s, says Steiman, The New Yorker ran articles in which wine expert Frank Schoonmaker "encouraged California wineries to quit marketing their better wines as 'Burgundy' and 'Chablis' and instead market them as 'varietals'." The argument was only new to the general public: He was saying what Maynard Amerine of UC Davis had said to California vintners since the 1930s.

Five decades later, that advice has split the world of wine. American and other New World consumers want to know the grapes in the bottle. If the wine isn't a varietal, we expect to find, somewhere on the label, the percentages of each grape in the blend. Meanwhile, France's wines have suffered in part because New World consumers who define their tastes by grape variety struggle when faced with most French labels. Wine drinkers who love Sauvignon Blanc don't want to learn that Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé will provide them with their favorite grape.

Be careful, then, when you change an adjective into a noun. You might just change the world.

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