Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Great Wines

So much of the allure of wine is the aspirational component of it. Not in the financial sense, of course: I personally have a problem with anyone who buys wine for the so-called trophy factor, displaying it with care and attention to its angle and lighting and the perfection of its label...and then never drinks it, holding onto juice that was crafted with care and love for the one purpose that these hoarders eschew: Consumption.

No, what I’m talking about is the aspiration that almost all wine lovers share: To experience a great bottle. And just like music lovers covet the chance to see a favorite reclusive performer in concert--ever talk to anyone electrified by the experience of having seen Sly Stone or Glenn Gould live?--so, too, do devotees of the grape live for those all-too-rare days when corks are popped on the bottles they’ve only read about.

With this in mind, check out this link to the Quarterly Review of Wines. In their words, they “turned to some of [their] experts to inquire about their choices for the top ten wines they have tasted from the 20th-century.” Its as aspirational a list as you’ll find, and composed of wines that many of us may never have the chance to experience. But it’s a fascinating listing nonetheless, and implicitly asks this question: Which wines in your personal collection will rank among the greats either of all time or, more importantly, your personal favorites?

It’s all about aspiration, no matter how big or small your personal wine budget may be.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

It Better Be Tasty...

From the department of potentially insane expenditures comes the news, posted today on Decanter.com, that whiskey distiller Gordon & MacPhail has released what they’re calling “one of the oldest whiskies bottled in the world,” according to Decanter.

The article continues: “The single malt is part of Gordon & MacPhail’s Generations series, which also includes five single cask bottlings of Glenlivet from 1954, 1963, 1974, 1980 and 1991. The Glenlivet 70-year-old – 100 decanters of 70cl and 175 decanters of 20cl – are on the market for £13,000 and £3,200 [or, by today’s exchange rate, $21,037 and $5,178] respectively.”

Here’s the question, then: Is it possible for anything--a wine, a spirit--to be worth this kind of expenditure? Or is it one of those instances in which, if you’re considering a purchase of this magnitude, the money really doesn’t matter all that much?

Personally, I’d just like a taste...

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alcohol Levels in Pinot Noir

If there’s one topic that has caused more controversy than almost anything else in the wine world in recent years, it’s the level of alcohol in pinot noir. Of course, the “booze wars” have been an ongoing issue for some time now, but with pinot’s current popularity occasionally running head-on into the vogue for wines that have a bit more octane, so to speak, it’s a topic that has flared up fairly regularly.

In today’s New York Times, wine columnist Eric Asimov recounts a recent incident at a pinot conference in California involving some of the biggest names in the business. Take a look at the article, linked up right here. We’d love to hear what you think in the comment section below.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Decoding Barrel Tasting

En primeur is upon us: The season of tasting barrel samples of the next Bordeaux vintage has arrived, and with it all the hubbub that accompanies this first look at the juice itself.

Of course, tasting barrel samples is quite different from experiencing the real thing; an entirely different mindset and metric is brought to the task than it is for tasting the finished product. The question that most wine professionals are asked fairly regularly, then, is this: How do you do it? How do you know what you’re looking for at this early stage in the game?

Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth, who has taken over Bordeaux-tasting duties from the departed James Suckling, posted a fantastic blog yesterday morning that answers the question and sheds some much-needed light on an often mysterious process. As en primeur gears up, it’s a great guide to understanding what you’ll be reading in the coming weeks.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Beauty and Emotion of Cahors

My guess is that you won't be able to watch the video below, from GrapeRadio.com, without craving a dark red glass of wine and a hearty meal. We'll let the footage speak for itself: It's a beautiful homage to Cahors, the joys of the table, and that magical intersection of wine, food, and emotion. Enjoy.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cynicism Down Under

We all know that greed can, and often does, lead to cynicism and outright dishonesty. But a recent report on WineSpectator.com tells the story of a whole new low. The article begins:

“Faced with strong demand for a highly-rated wine, an Australian winery has simply created more of it. Wine Spectator has learned through an investigation that Schild Estate, a family-owned winery in the Barossa Valley whose 2008 Shiraz placed in Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines of the Year in 2010, found itself running low on supply and decided to purchase, blend and bottle additional wine under the same label.”

The report goes on to note that, though this is “technically legal, the decision raises questions about the winery’s integrity and philosophical issues of what defines a wine’s identity.”

In fact, I tend to think that there is no question about what this does to a wine’s integrity: It destroys it, and, frankly, undermines the very thing that sets so-called “real” wine apart from the mass-produced juice that masquerades as decent wine behind often cute labels and appealing ad copy.

When Wine Spectator asked about what had been done, Schild’s General Manager said, “The last sourcing was from a local grower, and it has been matched as closely as possible to the original blend."

By this logic, there really is no importance of terroir, nothing that sets apart one vineyard from a neighboring one, just so long as they’re near each other. In fact, just for fun, let’s play this out to its logical conclusion, what philosophers and logicians call reductio ad absurdum, or taking a point out to its logical end point, where things generally, as the Latin cognate implies, get absurd. Here we go:

Chateau Petrus is the same as Vieux Chateau Certan because they’re near each other. Therefore, they taste the same.

Richebourg, Romanee-Conti, La Grand Rue, and La Tache all produce identical expressions of pinot noir, because they’re neighbors.

Chevalier-Montrachet, Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, and Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet all produce chardonnay that tastes exactly the same because...you guessed it: They’re right near each other.

What Schild has done is bad enough. But how they’ve tried to justify it is despicable, an insult to a thousand years or more of viticulture and winemaking, and to the consumers who gave them their money and their trust. They’ve taken advantage of the often blind enthusiasm consumers have for highly-rated wines, and they’ve taken a serious chip out of the excellent work the Australian wine industry has done to convey the fact that it is a country of wonderful diversity of terroir and wine-styles.

The team at Schild should be mortified by what they’ve done. It will take a long time indeed to undo the damage they have caused.

[NB: None of the second-blend wine has been sent to the United States. If you've purchased any wine from Schild, you have nothing to worry about when it comes to the juice in your cellar. This is a philosophical problem for American wine-lovers, not a literal one.]

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Piccini on the Rise

This past Friday evening, at our weekly wine tasting at the Piscataway store, I was thrilled by how positively customers responded to the Piccini’s Sasso al Poggio 2004. After all, it wasn’t one of the “easier” wines we were tasting that night--its complexity, its mellowing tannic structure, its increasing maturity, all could have proven a bit unexpected.

But nearly every time a guest took a sip, the response was the same: Pursed lips, scrunched-up eyes, and a knowing nod of the head: Ooh, was a typical response, this is good.

I completely agree. Piccini, as an excellent article in the new issue of the Quarterly Review of Wines notes, has been leading the way toward ever better and more affordable Tuscan wines--work that has allowed “Piccini to become one of the leading producers in Chianti Classico,” the article notes.

Take a look at the complete article, linked up above, for a glimpse into what it takes to become one of the most important producers in a region with no shortage of standouts. And keep an eye out for even more from Piccini, which is quickly becoming a favorite among connoisseurs and casual consumers alike.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Cognac Primer

Spring may be on its way, but the nights are still chilly here on the east coast. And few things are better to warm up chattering bones than a nice glass of Cognac. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a victim of its own popularity: Everyone knows what it is, but few consumers really know much about it--where it comes from, how it's made, etc.

I came across this excellent video on the Grape Radio web site. Unfortunately, I can't seem to embed it into the blog right now, but it's definitely worth clicking over to and checking out before uncorking something nice to celebrate the arrival of the weekend.
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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unnecessary Wine Gadgets

As a golfer and wine-lover, I’m no stranger to the urge to purchase the latest gadget or gizmo. I’ve learned over the years, however, that the payoff is generally much greater for golf gear--from hula-hoop-looking devices that ostensibly help keep your swing on plane to laser beams that shoot out of the top of your club to help groove a smoother, more linear take-back. I’ve inherited a love of these things from my father, whose own collection may one day find a home in the Smithsonian. (And for the record, in all fairness to him, he still regularly beats me on the course, out-driving me off the tee and out-performing me around the greens. If there’s a better justification for the swing-aids he owns, I cannot think of one.)

With wine, there are just as many tools you can purchase, but as far as I can figure out, precious few of them actually make your wine taste better. (Decanters and aerators aside, of course.)

I bring this up because a ridiculous bottle-opener has just been recalled (see the photo above), and no matter how hard I work my way through the logic that might have led so many people to purchase this ridiculous thing, I still can’t wrap my mind around why it was even considered in the first place.

Here’s the pitch, taken right from QVC’s web site:

Get your hands on the newest (and coolest) way to uncork wine bottles with the skybar air-pump opener. A perfect gift for wine lovers and party hosts at a palatable price point, this unique gadget uses forced air to quickly remove corks...How does it work? It's simple: just insert the pin into the cork (the pump automatically centers the needle and hugs the bottleneck) and pump the handle--done! The cork slides right off the pin with the ejector disk...No more contending with inconvenient corkscrews, levers, gears, batteries, or gas cartridges. skybar is known for innovation, functionality, and sleek styling, and this set delivers.”

Pins? Air pumps? Ejector disks? All to remove a cork?

According to the magnificently named Injury Board Blog Network, “A large number of reports of injury while using a wine bottle opener have prompted the recall of the dangerous product. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced today that Sunbeam Products, Inc. is recalling 159,000 Skybar Air Pump Wine Opener brand wine bottle openers because the product is causing the bottle to break during the opening process. According to the CPSC release, consumers have reported 52 incidences of the wine bottles breaking while the consumer used the product, resulting in 22 reports of injuries such as cuts to the hands.”

The real news here, however, is that despite the huge gains in sophistication that the American wine market has made, people still insist on wasting their money on gadgets they really don’t need. Personally, I use an old-fashioned waiter’s corkscrew. The Rabbit is also handy for home use if you really want something more elaborate, but in general, my advice is to stick with the standards for your wine life.

Golf gear, however, is a whole other story...

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Fight Against Fraud

Wine fraud is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around long enough that it’s generally considered to be one of the motivating factors for the inclusion of geographical distinctions on French wine labels--unscrupulous shippers and merchants trying to take advantage of the prestige of certain place-names by passing off lesser wine as something better has always, it seems, been a problem.

But now, with advances in technology, producers, negociants, and merchants have increasingly effective ways to fight back and ensure that the juice in the bottle is actually what the label claims it to be.

Yesterday, Decanter.com reported that “Bordeaux first growth Chateau Margaux will incorporate an anti-fraud seal on all bottles leaving the chateau from this week. The strip - known as a Prooftag - runs between the capsule and the bottle, and has a reference number and a unique pattern, both of which can be tracked on Chateau Margaux’s website.”

The articles continues, “This move comes in addition to existing anti-fraud measures employed by the estate, such as a laser-etched bottle, a vintage-specific bottle mould, individually numbered and bar coded bottles and cases, and special ink used on the labels and foil.”

Of course, this doesn’t do much to help collectors verify older bottles they’re considering for purchase with confidence beyond the assessment of an expert, but it’s a step in the right direction, especially when you purchase new bottles from a trusted retailer.

For further reading on wine fraud, check out this article from a 2009 issue of Wine Spectator.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Tales and Tails of Kangaroos

The following quote, taken completely out of context, seems to have nothing to do with wine. And yet at stake is a fortune--literally--in wine sales. Here it is:

“Dozens of species of marsupials live in Australia...”

The obvious question, then, is this: Why should we care?

Because for the last couple of weeks, the wine world has been in a tizzy about a huge lawsuit unfolding right now. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The producer of Yellow Tail, the nation's best-selling imported wine, is suing the maker of Little Roo for trademark infringement. At issue: whether the kangaroo on Little Roo's label is a knockoff of the wallaby on Yellow Tail's.”

This has potentially huge implications for the so called critter-label wines that so many consumers are so enamored of. The entire story is linked up right here. I’d also recommend taking a look here, at the Journal’s interactive label-matching game. Fun, and kind of upsetting at the same time.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Great Wine, Greed, and Truth in Drinking

Among wine lovers, certain bottlings enjoy a mythical, almost mystical status: Cheval-Blanc '61, Lafite '82, and Petrus '47 immediately come to mind when considering the wine pantheon of the last century. And it’s the last bottle, reputedly the greatest Pomerol ever produced, that concerns us today.

In January, Mike Steinberger published a piece on Slate.com dealing with this and other wines that most people will never have a chance to see in person, much less taste. What makes the article so interesting is its dealing with the intersection of connoisseurship, investigative journalism, and that oldest of all motivating factors, greed.

As with so many stories about counterfeit wine these past several years, this one involves Hardy Rodenstock, the man who may or may not be responsible for the presence of countless fake bottles of great old Bordeaux, including the so-called Jefferson bottles made famous in the excellent Ben Wallace book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

Rather than paraphrase Steinberger’s wild ride of a column, I’ll just strongly recommend carving out 15 minutes of your day to read it. While it may deal with wine that most people will never lay a single taste bud on, it’s fascinating stuff, seriously entertaining storytelling, and in unexpected meditation on the nature of greed, reputation, and how the pleasures of the senses are affected by them. It’s linked up right here.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wine Review Wednesday: Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Oakville

After skipping Wine Review Wednesday for a couple of weeks, we're back this one with a wine that I'd call absolutely necessary for any collection--or dinner table, for that matter.

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Oakville

What a beautiful, glass-staining garnet color, even 6 years into its life. The nose shows lots of deep, dark currants, black cherries, licorice, birch bark, and a touch of bonfire. On the palate, it’s a plush pleasure to drink, with that licorice, birch bark, smoke, and dark cherry coming through, joined by black tea. This is starting to take its turn to a more secondary expression of itself, and it’s wonderful for it. Still, I’d recommend holding it for another 2 - 3 years in order for it to really complete its evolution into a fully mature wine. On the finish, baseball glove leather and a hint of dried brown spice and menthol peek through. Complex and fabulous, with plenty of life ahead of it.

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