Friday, April 29, 2011

Best Sommelier 2011

Break out the Champagne: Last week, the American Sommelier Association crowned the best sommelier in America for 2011--Alexander LaPratt of DB Bistro Moderne in New York. It’s a fascinating competition, with test-taking, blind tasting, and service components. There’s even a cigar-pairing requirement! Check out the video below, and make sure to read some of the articles at the bottom of the ASA’s page linked right here.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wine Review Wednesday: April 27th

It’s been a while since I’ve posted notes for Wine Review Wednesday, so we’re back today with a number of wines that have really hit their mark lately in my tastings.

Pali Chardonnay “Charm Acres” 2009, Sonoma Coast

Smells like apricot cream and brown butter, like pear and baking spices: Delicate and evocative at the same time. There’s also homemade caramel corn here, as well as baked pear and vanilla, all of which stretch out from the mid-palate through to the finish. Rich, very drinkable, and appealing. Nicely made.

Robert Mondavi Winery Fume Blanc “To Kalon Vineyard I Block,” Oakville

A vivid, beautiful rich gold color presages a nose of buttered popcorn with white grapefruit, cashews, peppermint, and cedar: This is a massively rich, aromatic style, yet still with its feet firmly rooted in the terroir and varietal. With air, flowers come out too, as well as dried pineapple, smoke, and charred earth. On the palate, this small-production white demonstrates amazing concentration without a heavy-handed texture; flavors of sweet citrus, papaya, sun-warmed hay, persimmon, and a touch of honey flash throughout. The oak sweetens it up, especially on the candy corn- and mango-tinged finish, but this is a wonderfully integrated whole with impeccable balance. This is that rare sauvignon blanc that’s easily age-able for another 5 - 6 years, but it’s almost too tempting to not pop open right now. Still, another year or two will really allow all the moving parts to come together even better than they already do. Delicious, soulful, and worth the effort to find it.

Robert Mondavi Winery 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, this is a plush pleasure to drink, with that licorice, birch bark, smoke, black tea, and dark cherry coming through, and evolving to baseball glove leather, dried brown spices, and menthol on the nicely complicated finish. 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. Excellent.

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2007, Napa Valley

Astounding from the first sniff. The nose is wildly expressive yet still gives a full impression of the structure it shows on the palate. It smells of some kind of mythical graphite cream, of crushed wild berries, currants, cedar, licorice, and cherry liqueur. On the palate, its structure for longevity is fully apparent--the tannins sweet and ripe--promising 20 years of life. Smoky plums, grilled berries and cherries, sappy fruit that’s perfectly balanced by acid: The fruit here is addictively sweet, but never devolves into caricature; it’s just exuberant and lush and detailed. On the finish, there’s an almost floral whiff, a beam of minerals running down the spine, these fleshed out with cherries. This is amazing, and nearly irresistible right now, though I’d drink it from 2013 - 2025. One of the best vintages of this wine I’ve tasted in recent memory.

Michael David Winery Old Vines Zinfandel “7 Deadly Zins” 2008, Lodi

A nose of smoky oak and cherry, coupled with licorice root and cream, lead to a palate of sweet vanilla-infused wild-berry creme brulee, lingering sweet spiciness, and wild summer berries flecked with a bit of thyme. Big and packing a punch, it’s a surprisingly lithe wine for all its power. Perfect for barbecue. This is another excellent value from this producer.

Tamas Estates Double Decker Red 2008, Central Coast

Pleasant juicy oak and ripe berry fruit define the nose here, and are softly complicated by big ripe strawberries and vanilla. The palate is consistent with the nose, featuring lots of sweet strawberries, a bit of boysenberry, milk chocolate, and vanilla. Straightforward, gulpable, and a nice wine for when you really just want something to drink. Light and pleasant.

Cecchi Bonizio Sangiovese di Maremma 2009, Toscana

Primary cherry, green olives, and oregano notes--a very nice table-wine style, and a classic expression of Italian sangiovese with its balance of fruit and earthier notes and its vague hint of flowers. The palate is as straightforward and pleasant as the nose, with fresh, food-friendly acid balancing out the ripe fruit (cherry, strawberry) and gentle, subtle wood notes. Fun, and perfect with pizza.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Cocktails are for Grown-Ups

I received a terrifying email from a colleague of mine in the Wine Media Guild this past weekend. Grub Street San Francisco, just this past Friday, reported on what it’s calling “a newish category of lite booze...‘vodka,’ ‘rum,’ and ‘tequila’ made from orange wine and agave wine.”

It continues: “The so-called advantage? These babies clock in under 24% alcohol, or 48 proof — the legal limit for a beverage served under a beer-and-wine license in California and a number of other states.”

Every week, I personally receive dozens of press releases about new fermented products, and the majority of them are pretty interesting: Specialty spirits, artisanally distilled concoctions, and the like. But once in a while, I’ll receive information about a product that would never pop into existence without the evil-genius work of some food and alcohol scientist with a will and a really bad idea. These low-alcohol concoctions seem to fall into the category of the latter.

My personal opinion is pretty straightforward: It’s a crime against nature and your liver (not to mention your poor, abused taste buds) to subject them to these lab-created abominations. Drink a grown-up cocktail, or order a Shirley Temple and get on with your meal.

Hemingway, Sinatra, and every other respectable devotee of the cocktail are all spinning in their final resting places as a result.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Jess Jackson

Yesterday, one of the giants of the wine world passed away. Jess Jackson, who had more of an impact on American wine than almost anyone in the past 50 years, died at 81 years old in California. As reported, “During nearly three decades, Jackson launched or acquired more than 30 wine brands in California, Italy, South America, Australia and France. Combined, they currently produce more than 5 million cases annually. In addition to Kendall-Jackson, the labels include La Crema, Stonestreet, Cardinale, Arrowood and Matanzas Creek in California, Villa Arceno in Italy, Yangarra in Australia and Château Lassègue in Bordeaux.”

It’s impossible to overstate his importance to the development and growth of the California wine industry, and his contributions will continue to be assessed for years to come. The Wine Spectator has an excellent piece on Jackson, as does his own Both offer comprehensive, moving portraits of a man who will be missed by wine lovers everywhere.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Napa Valley, Wine Travel, and Your Personal Goals for Winery Visits

There’s a thought-provoking article in today’s New York Times Food Section on the nature of tasting wine in Napa, as well as of the juice itself. Jay McInerney reports that, although “it's the most familiar, most visited wine region in this country, it's also a place where much remains hidden—shrouded, if not in mystery, then by thousands of acres of Cabernet vines.”

The range of experience that visitors can have in any wine region that’s also a popular tourist destination, Napa included, poses a number of fundamental questions about what you want to accomplish with the visit. As with anywhere, it’s possible to bounce from winery to winery, swallowing the pours of each wine you’re offered, and learning little beyond how well your liver can handle the onslaught of juice.

The other experience--and the one that Napa does so well if you make the effort to take advantage of it--is both educational and emotional: Tasting on location, with the people responsible for the various bottlings, can be one of the most illuminating wine experiences you’ll have. The trick is to make sure you avoid the pitfalls of the former and take full advantage of the latter.

With springtime finally here, and vineyard visits looking more appealing than ever after the winter so many of us have slogged through, it’s an important distinction to keep in mind.

Note: Next week, we’ll return with Wine Review Wednesday, and focus on a number of high-end Napa bottlings.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Santorini on Screen

I recently received two wine samples from Santorini, and will be posting my tasting notes on them in the next couple of weeks. But for now, I wanted to link up an interesting news item that appeared on last week. They report that “a new film about the Greek island of Santorini has been selected for the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival”...yet another instance of wine finding itself ever more the interest of the wider population, as opposed to just oenophiles.

According to the report, it deals with “a small winemaking community on the island and its battles to stop vineyards being sold off for development.” A link to the film’s web site can be found at the bottom of the Decanter piece and right here.

As an aside, the wines of Santorini--and so much of Greece, for that matter--are very much on the up-swing, and I expect you’ll be seeing and hearing much more about them in the coming years. I’ve had the chance to taste a number of them, and have been very, very impressed with both their expressiveness and food-pairability. (My report for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet can be found right here.) If you have the chance, seek them out; they will more than reward the effort.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Weekend Homework Assignments

For your weekend reading, a few highlight articles, columns, and blog posts from the past week.

The Wall Street Journal reported on a recent study that seems to imply that most people, when tasting blind, cannot really tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. The Journal reports: “The blind taste test served more than 570 [people] a range of cheap and expensive wine, including merlot and chardonnay, and found that only 50% of those asked could identify correctly which ones were expensive (around $50 a bottle) and those that were budget wines (around $6 a bottle).”

There are, of course, huge problems with a study like this one, and massive assumptions that have to be made by its very nature that will always skew the results in the desired direction. has a great rebuttal, linked up right here.

Then there this fantastic article in Sommelier Journal about Late Bottled VIntage Port, one of the more misunderstood yet immediately enjoyable and food-pairable styles of the great sweet wine of Portugal. It’s a longer read, but well worth the effort. Best, as always, to work your way through it with a glass of Port by your side.

Finally, The Wall Street Journal’s wonderful piece on vermouth is a must this time of year. Their opening salvo says it all: “If you think you don't like vermouth, you're wrong.” Click here to read why, and have a great weekend.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

En Primeur Discussion

I just came across this piece on It's an excellent discussion about the nature of en primeur, and the ways in which it affects everything from popular perception of the wines to their prices to the relationship between the producers, the trade, and the press that covers them.
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Monday, April 11, 2011

Glenmorangie Tasting Notes

Last Thursday evening, Wine Chateau Piscataway hosted a spectacular tasting of Glenmorangie single-malt Scotch. It was, as expected, a de facto master class in the range and expressive power of some of the best single malts, a tutorial in how different woods affect the finished product, and a reminder--as if we needed one--of what makes single-malt Scotch, and Glenmorangie itself, so exciting. My tasting notes are below.

Glenmorangie Original 10 Years Old

Moderate smoke and cocoa notes on the nose, a touch of seaweed, and warm cream. On the palate, it’s bracingly fresh and spicy, with dried fruits and a finish that speaks of smoke, grilled bread, and spice.

Glenmorangie Lasanta 12 Years Old

More brown spice, cinnamon, and a hint of nutmeg aromatics. With air, creamy, nutty milk-chocolate emerges. On the palate, it’s sweeter initially, but then the spice comes around. There’s an appealing finish here with an unexpected whiff of red berry behind the salty, spicy Sherry flavors that linger nicely.

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 12 Years Old

Nose of sweet cream and hints of the vaguest sensation of Raisinettes, honey, and toffee float above the glass. These lead to sweet-souled flavors of honey, just-baked pralines, and cloves. A great single-malt for a cold day.

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 12 Years Old

Very pure and clean on the nose, with a linearity to the honey notes, as well as a hint of orange blossom, orange oil, and lemon-jelly candies. The flavors here are so overtly delicious that it’s difficult not to throw back the first glass as a shot. It sings with toasted multi-grain bread on the finish, orange creme brulee, lemon honey, and fresh nuts. Effusive.

Glenmorangie Astar

Smells just like cinnamon cream and the burnt-sugar top of a perfect creme brulee, cut nicely with a touch of dried tropical fruit and iodine. Smoky seaweed defines the palate, and leads to a salty and iodine-y finish livened up with a touch of caramel. Very complex and rewarding.

Glenmorangie Finealta Private Edition

Looks like liquid amber. Really peat-y on the nose, with a touch of nori and rubber (but in a very good way). There’s nothing flashy here, just a beautifully self-possessed single malt. This broad-shouldered Scotch is wildly complex once you get into it, with everything from smoke and seaweed to honey nougat and pink peppercorns. All of these more masculine notes, however, are given a reprieve with a pronounced florality on both the mid-palate and finish, as well as dried pineapple and orange blossom. Just amazing.

Glenmorangie Signet

Very fruity nose, yet with a sense of restraint born of long cask-aging, just like the best long-aged Ports and Sherry. The perfume of dried tropical fruit, whole-grain bread with honey warmed up in the toaster oven, as well as warm cream, leap to the fore, and lead to a fresh, wildly complex palate of brown baking spices, whole vanilla pod, cardamom, and honey-whipped butter. There’s a touch of seaweed on the finish, along with milk chocolate, toasted nuts, and praline. Gorgeously balanced, subtle, and dangerously easy to drink.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Food Republic

Food Republic, a new online food, wine, and culture magazine for men co-founded by Chef Marcus Samuelsson and featuring writers from all over the food-and-drink universe, made its debut less than two weeks ago, and in that short amount of time has already become a serious source for coverage of news, trends, and other information that serious eaters and drinkers should know about.

I bring this up not only because it’s definitely a site you’ll want to bookmark and return to often, but also because I’ll be contributing a food-and-wine pairing column to it, which, especially for readers of this blog, will be a very handy addition to the wine coverage provided right here. My first column is about a spectacular, perhaps unexpected pairing: Bollinger Rosé Champagne and Shanghai-style soup dumplings. Check out my original tasting note here on, and then click over to Food Republic for the pairing suggestion. After that, try the pairing yourself--it’s ridiculously delicious, and totally unexpected for Champagne to work so beautifully with a dish like that.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Roussillon on the Rise

For all wine lovers, there are certain regions and appellations whose bottlings speak to us with a greater sense of clarity, a more intense sense of pleasure, than others. Personally, I have a number of them around the world, and yesterday I had the chance to spend several hours with approximately 20 different wines from one of my favorites: Roussillon.

Roussillon doesn’t yet have the fame that it absolutely deserves, but yesterday’s tasting and lunch with Export Manager Eric Aracil and the team from SOPEXA at New York’s Le Cirque, to kick-off the Roussillon Wine Council’s first American campaign--its full name is the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Roussillon, or CIVR for short--demonstrated how important it is for more consumers to familiarize themselves with Roussillon and its utterly delicious wines.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be dedicating an entire post to my tasting notes from yesterday, but for now it will have to suffice to say that my overall impression of the wines was 100% positive. They are among the most expressive and food-friendly I’ve tasted lately, and the combination of a fabulously diverse range of terroirs, geology, and geography, as well as dedicated, passionate producers, means that each and every wine we tasted yesterday was intimately tied to a very specific piece of the earth.

From wildly refreshing rosé to crisp, white-fruit-and-licorice-scented whites to reds whose flavor profiles ran the gamut from briny all the way to densely fruited and reminiscent of Austrian sachertorte, and then on to sweet wines like Maury and Rivesaltes Ambré, both the range and quality of the wines was remarkable. And having the chance to taste them alongside the excellent food prepared by Le Cirque served to deepen my understanding of not just how wonderful the wines of Roussillon are on their own, but also how brilliantly they work at the table.

The wines of Roussillon, then, may not share the fame of some other parts France yet, but the quality and expressivity is there in abundance, and I have no doubt their recognition and market share will continue to grow. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Roussillon is on the rise, as this spectacular tasting and lunch showed.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

What is the Nature of Wine?

To be honest, I’m not sure of the etiquette of responding to a comment on a blog by way of a new post altogether, but the remarks, by my friend and colleague Miguel Lecuona, about my “Great Wines” piece earlier in the week, seem to warrant something more serious than the usual rhetorical nod of the head and moving on to the next subject.

This is primarily a result of the confluence of two key factors: The subject being discussed (it’s of huge importance to wine-lovers everywhere) and the trenchant manner in which Miguel addressed it.

To begin, I’d like to offer some clarification to my remarks in the original post. My issue is not with treating certain wines as trophies. In all honesty, if I had the space and the funds, I’d certainly display my most prized bottles. As a wine lover and wine collector, I of course appreciate the pride that comes from showing off the bottles that you most covet. Rather, my issue is with collectors who purchase the wines for the sole purpose of display, without ever intending to open them up, and who hold onto the bottles until they have more in common with vinegar than anything they’d want to swirl and sniff and savor. That, to me, seems to defeat the purpose of the wine having been created in the first place.

Miguel makes an interesting point when he compares “the aspirational collector who displays wines...[with] the collector who displays art, watches, guns, books, big game, or whatever they're into.” And, indeed, there are similarities there--but only to a point. Visual art’s raison d’être is to be displayed; there’s nothing else you can do with it but admire it, study it, etc. It can’t be consumed, and as long as it is treated properly, it will continue to serve its intended purpose forever, or close to it. Watch collectors, too, tend to wear their prized possessions, even if it’s just once in a while. Maybe that vintage Patek Philippe gets taken off its display stand only for weddings or other events of the sort, but generally, it’ll get worn once in a while...or had been worn at some point since it left the factory in Switzerland. Same with the other examples: Books get read, even if it’s a digital version; guns, even the most prized antique ones, were ostensibly shot at some point; and big game serves the same purpose as any other work of visual art on display.

It seems to me, however, that there’s a significant difference when it comes to wine. Yes, displaying it can be a beautiful thing, but to do so without ever having the intention of consuming it seems to miss what its essential purpose is, which is to be consumed. (Even if the producers' main objective in creating it was motivated solely by profit, which, either way, seems inextricably linked to the quality of the product itself, and the pleasure it will ultimately bring when it gets consumed.)

Now, I would never argue with Miguel’s contention that “the reason some fine wines sell for what they do is because [they] offer something more than mere consumption. The 2008 Lafites are now worth 10x more to the Chinese than they are to me. It's a $2000 bottle in Hong Kong! The businessman who can give the gift of Lafite in China honors his guests, and also demonstrates his own power (or his prescience if he bought them at $200).” But we have to ask ourselves why these particular wines fetch such prices and command such respect in the first place. And the answer, I think, is that they generally have a history of performing at a higher level, of providing greater pleasure when consumed and therefore possess and confer more prestige, than their lesser counterparts. So while that hypothetical Chinese businessman may never have tasted, say, a 2008 Lafite, he knows that it will be valued, and confer honor on the recipient of such a generous gift, because of its reputation for excellence and its long, illustrious history. Nothing about it is based on a hypothetical; rather, that chateau’s pedigree is inextricably tied to its history and performance right now. Lafite’s etching an “8” into its bottle is smart business, as is Mouton’s label-art, but neither would mean a whole lot were it not for the juice in the bottle. (Plenty of producers feature original artwork on their labels, but none approach the level of prestige of Mouton’s.) To use Yellow Tail, as Miguel did in his comment, an “8” etched into that bottle would have precious little impact on its desirability. Why? Because it’s not Lafite. Or Latour, or Margaux, or DRC, or any of a dozen other producers whose products have proven their worth, and justified the passion with which people covet them, as a result of what they have historically provided when the corks are popped and the wine consumed.

Over the years, Miguel and I have shared several great wines--I remember one particular Bacchanal of an evening for which the wine list included Margaux 1983, Leoville Las Cases 2000, Leoville Barton 1995, some older Figeac, and more. I even recall trading--like kids with really expensive baseball cards--a bottle of Gaja Sperss 2003 for a Cos d’Estournel 2003. And while that bottle of Cos is still resting in my cellar, I fully plan on opening it one day, when it’s reached the level of maturity that I’m waiting for, with friends and family...just like we did that evening at Miguel’s house. It’s display-worthy, of course, and I do show it to my friends when they come by. But the fact that it’s being displayed is just a temporary step along the road toward its being consumed.

I will, however, agree unequivocally with one observation Miguel made: I absolutely started tearing up when I first walked into the vineyard at Cheval-Blanc. And yes, my Facebook profile photo is of me walking through the vineyard at Chateau d’Yquem. (In fact, Miguel took the photo!) And while I respect Chaddsford, and very much believe in supporting the local wine producers wherever you live, it’s history is unarguably different from that of the great growths of Bordeaux. But using those photos doesn’t imply that I wouldn’t drink their wines if I had them in my collection. On the contrary, popping the corks and the drinking the juice will actually afford the wines the chance to achieve what they were initially crafted to do: To end up in the bottom of a glass and be consumed.

(Finally, to end on a perhaps anti-climactic parenthetical, we could argue the nature of “intent” for an inanimate object for years and not come to a conclusion. When all is considered and tallied up, my real issue is this: Not drinking a bottle of great wine seems an awful waste. It is, of course, the owner’s right to do whatever he or she wants with the bottle--drink it, display it, blend it with ice cream and fruit and make a really expensive smoothie--but to never experience the wine itself seems anathema to the long history of wine and its essential nature as a consumable product.)

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