Friday, August 22, 2014

How Not To Learn Anything About Wine

Read junk like "How To Not Embarrass Yourself While Talking About Wine." Wine is simpler than most people believe and more nuanced than a lot of writers want to admit. You don't have to be able to score the third movement of any of Beethoven's symphonies but you should be informed that his music genre (classical) also includes the vastly different styles of Mozart and Wagner.
I am going to pick on the article linked above but have no agenda against the author, Jonathan Cristaldi. He "is the deputy editor of The SOMM Journal," and may know what he's talking about but this type of wine writing is a huge disservice to the consuming public. It seems to offer absolutes but these are few and far between in the world of wine. It is, unfortunately, becoming the norm in this short attention span world.

Let's take a look at the nine points in the article:
First, ignore the clickbait in the introductory paragraph, they lead to articles only vaguely about their link words - "wine philistine" takes us to a guide to making prison wine, for example.

1)  Don't say you'll just drink anything
Agreed. However, the simplistic notion of 'because I like this, I'll like that' will help almost no one. Black coffee drinkers won't necessarily enjoy pinot poir. A better piece of advice here would be to pay attention when you drink some wine and make a few mental notes to describe those you enjoy. "I like wines that are lighter and crisper, like New Zealand sauvignon blanc."
Also, don't hesitate to ask for a taste, whether you're at a restaurant or a party.

2) Don't guess on the grapes
The example given is of a tasting room employee trying to stump a guest. I have never seen this happen except with wine professionals where this is a fairly classic game I have always called "Stump the Chump." Mr. Cristaldi is correct that if you are confronted with this in a challenging manner you should not support the winery.
You also should not be afraid to state an opinion. This is a critical element of developing the confidence to describe what you want.

3) Don't be a grape racist
Remove the word 'grape' and I fully support this point!
"This is an immediate tip of the hat to any discerning wino who is looking to sniff out the defensive novice. Declaring war on a wine because of its color will warrant a barrage of questions and humorous jabs at your expense from any wine aficionado within earshot." 
Unfortunately, a-holes like this exist. Mr. Cristaldi paints a picture of pretentious wine nerds like sharks sniffing for blood or lions looking for a weak antelope. If you are surrounded by these people you shouldn't make up stories to cover your dislike of red or white wine you should hang out with a different crowd.
I always encourage trying new wines but at some point you can certainly surrender to liking red or white exclusively if that's what your palate wants. Pushing people into lying about why is disingenuous and also exactly the kind of bullying Jonathan decries at the end of the quote above.

4) Remember that Bordeaux is not a grape
An oddly specific reference that should also include any number of other old world locations where the place name is featured on the label, not the grapes. Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Brunello, Chianti, Rioja, etc. should also be mentioned. Or, if he wished to avoid a laundry list he should at least say that Bordeaux is not the only wine with this potential confusion.

5) Don't say you prefer 'dry' reds
"Eyes will roll immediately because all wine pros know that most red wine is dry." 
Yes, most red wine is dry. Yes, you should also refine your explanation since some wines are more fruity than others, giving the impression of sweetness, even though they are fermented to dryness. This is good. However, Jonathan completely ignores the growing segment of wines that are being made to be sweet, or at least off-dry. This is bad. The category is bigger than ever and I would much rather say I like dry wine and take my changes than say I like a more fruit-forward style and risk getting something sweet.

6) Know your Champagnes vs. sparkling wines
Again, he uses an implied threat, this time in the form of "an age-old lecture"and then uses "Champers" to describe champagne. No one serious enough to lecture you about describing sparkling wine as champagne would then use the word "Champers."
I will now pick on him for a pet peeve of mine, admittedly very nerdy. Champagne, the place, should be capitalized while champagne, the actual wine, should not. (Sorry about that one...I'm in therapy to let it go)
The final recommendation, to be safe and "talk about the bubbly" is good advice.

7) Don't announce an arbitrary price limit
He does admit you should "[t]alk about your ideal a bar or restaurant" so I have no quibbles with this section.

8) Don't fear the wine list
This is brilliant and the explanation that follows is perfection!

9) Quit hating on Merlot and sniffing corks
It's still okay to hate merlot (yes, small 'm' is correct). It's safer in most cases. There are still lots of merlots being made that lack any sort of character or complexity. For my palate, I need to pay a lot more to find a merlot that tastes good than I do for any other grape. Merlot is welcome in blends but not so much on it's own.
The whole cork sniffing thing ignited some controversy in the comments section - go ahead, read it, I'll wait. Mr. Cristaldi's analogy to sniffing a dog's butt to see if it's male or female is amusing but off base. We don't sniff something else on a dog to determine that either. We do use our noses to find a corked wine and I find that sniffing a cork can help remind me to pay close attention.
A cork can smell of TCA (tri-chloro-anisole, the bacteria that leads to corked wines) and still be fine. However, in most cases if the cork smells like wet cardboard you will have a problem and I routinely smell them because the amount present in the wine can be much more subtle...and therefore harder to detect.

My biggest gripe with the article is not the opinions expressed. My issues stem from these opinions being expressed as facts with no room for interpretation or presentation of other ideas. Make it an op-ed piece and it can stand alone...or post my responses as the con side.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lynch Bages Face-Off

Tasting a classic like Lynch Bages 1982 once is special enough. Getting to do it three times in three months is even better. Having two of those bottles, from different cellars, at the same time felt a little like winning the wine lottery.
Heading north for a lot of the summer was part of my plan, incorporating lots of old Bordeaux into that time continues to surprise. I named the first post, A Rare Opportunity To Try Some Old Bordeaux, since it was, especially on a rooftop in Manhattan. Then the 4th of July brought out another chance to sample more of the case my father received as a gift for officiating a wedding (More Old Bordeaux with Family). A trip to Massachusetts to visit family created A Very Happy Surprise when we opened a Chateau Latour 1955...and another when we discovered it was in amazing condition. I felt spoiled and lucky and the tastings felt a little less rare, though excitement always builds when trying old wine.
Then came August. My time up north was winding down. My Uncle Jim brought up a treat from his cellar and we made plans to taste. When he told us it was a Lynch Bages 1982, Dad smiled. He had one of those as well. So, we stood them up and pulled the corks the next day. 
One came out cleanly, the other crumbled a bit. No major mess of cork bits in the bottle, and we skipped decanting.
I swear by giving young wines a chance to breathe and rarely decant old wines for fear of them falling apart too quickly. Stand older bottles up a day or two before opening and pour carefully. Unless you have an outrageous amount of sediment you won't have any issues until the very end of the bottle. Never filter wine if you can avoid it (more on that in another post).
My father's bottle was a gift, so we did not know when it was purchased, or where, or whether it moved around during its life. Jim's bottle had been in his cellar, unmoved before coming to Maine this year. The price tag was still on the bottle. Price and date are clear and easy to read.

His bottle had a better fill, clearly lower than when bottled but nothing to worry about. The wedding gift wine was just below the neck (almost exactly like the one from June). We started with the wedding bottle, thinking Jim's would turn out to be superior and we could have it second. 
Lynch Bages 1982 - Wedding gift - I recognized a lot of the same things from the first bottle we had in June (in case you don't want to scroll to the top, click here). The wine was soft, lush and long with that old Bordeaux brick aroma and impressive color. The core of red was a gradual fade to the edge of brown.
Cedar, some earth notes and a distinct whiff of fresh cellar dominated the nose. I did not get so much of the brown sugar or the iodine that appeared in the previous wine but this one exhibited more palate feel. I noticed subtle fruit but mostly the aromas echoed their presence. There was a dirt element and it was not quite chewy but tannin was noticeable. I could feel almost a clay note on the palate. Again, the sense of a bit of a hollow note appeared about halfway through the finish but it was thoroughly enjoyable and only became less so in comparison to the other bottle.
Lynch Bages 1982 - Jim's - The core of red was immediately noticeable and more pronounced. The first showed a more consistent color throughout, but this red was vibrant and differed more dramatically to the slightly orange edge. (The pictures hardly to it justice).
It also was lush and soft and long on the finish but had more happening. There was still that exciting edge of liveliness and acidity that I treasure in wine. The first began to fade, where this one filled out nicely and got much plumper in the middle and finish with about 15 minutes open. It even showed some spicy character that I associate with minerality, almost like what I expect from a Graves wine. Tannin was present but very subtle. What dominated was dark red fruits and that amazing zing of minerality and wet gravel that did not appear in the other bottle at all. The clay note I found this time around appeared here too but it was fresher and more appealing than the somewhat dirty (again, only in comparison) version of dirt/clay in the wedding gift wine.
We were all very happy and the order was correct. Returning to the first made it seem dull and lacking. The bottles emptied quickly and then we moved on to a 1997 Brunello with dinner. The first few tastes of this was very disappointing after our high water mark of the Lynch Bages face-off.
We all won in that contest...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Tale of Ancient Counterfeiting and Is Fraud Changing Today's Wine Culture?

Wine counterfeiting continues to dominate the news, at least in the wine world. The whole Rudy Kurniawan thing has captured much more attention than anything since the bottle of Chateau Lafitte purchased by a member of the Forbes family that was supposed to have come from Thomas Jefferson's cellar. (See some of my earlier posts, Wine Fraud and Lessons for You and More on Counterfeiting and Foiling Counterfeiters).
Even I was shocked to see this post by Steve Heimoff about a writing from Cato the Elder on how to make grapes taste similar to a more specific and (I assume) better wine. Although this seems less like counterfeiting and more like trying to make a Philly Cheesesteak or Shrimp Po-Boy in a place they are not native, it does seem to be on a large enough scale that perhaps there were nefarious goals.
At any rate, the problem has existed for a long, long time and is unlikely to disappear while insane premiums are being paid for select bottles.
The other article that caught my eye today was about the effect this publicity has had on some people's impression of the wine world. I have always enjoyed tasting older wine and share my experiences here often because they are unique and maybe you have an old wine you should drink. Perhaps it's to demonstrate that while older wines are potentially rewarding, many disappoint. The takeaway, I hope, is to enjoy what you can and share with friends and family. I do not desire to brag or one up anyone.
Mike Steinberger, writing on Wine-Searcher, wrote Rudy, Fraud and Wine Snobs and it is worth a few minutes of your time. In case you don't click right away, here is a sample:
"In the wake of Kurniawan’s arrest and conviction, however, all those blowout dinners don’t seem nearly so inviting. It turns out that, really, the only thing the rest of us were missing was the opportunity to drink fake wines and to be publicly humiliated when the truth was revealed."
Great sentiment and amusing takeaway! My mantra has always been that trophy wines are for people who are unsure of themselves and have more cents than sense. A $20 wine can be twice as good as a $10 one but a $1,000 bottle of wine can not be 100 times better. So, the reward per dollar spent decreases exponentially as you climb higher and higher into the rarities market. I rarely buy Burgundy anymore but I never stopped buying Cru Beaujolais: they are reasonably priced, complex and interesting, they do not require patience and are much easier to find...Mike Steinberger echoes that sentiment.
If you do too, keep coming back for wine sanity, always available right here.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Very Happy Surprise

I probably should expect the unexpected more often. Especially when an extended trip north brought my daughter and I to Aunt Pammy and Uncle Charles' house. They live here:

a gorgeous, tucked-away, passively solar, quiet masterpiece. It was designed by my Uncle Andrew, a not so mad genius, who is no longer with us. His legacy remains (in more places than this) but it was my distinct pleasure to visit this spot again for the first time in twenty years.
I knew there would be some happy exploration for my daughter because my aunt has immersed herself in art, poetry, family lore and whimsy...she also teaches yoga. My Uncle Charles is a lover of life with an amazing depth of intelligence, a quick wit and seems closer to being at one with the planet than most anyone I've ever met. Perhaps it's because he's a woodworker, creating art like this. Or this. Or, maybe my favorite, which reminds me of something simple and pedestrian like a doughnut and also something complex and ethereal, requiring a Neil deGrasse Tyson explanation for us ordinary folks. Charles also rollerblades.
I felt fortunate to get some real connection time with them. Being able to spend a day in and around this amazing house, exploring, playing, learning, sleeping, eating and drinking was a lovely bonus. But let's get to the last of those, since that's what really prompted me to write this.
Roast chicken was on the menu for dinner and I stopped at their local wine shop to look for an appropriate bottle that would pair well if we opened it or age well for a few years if we didn't. I selected a St. Innocent Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011, one of my favorite producers and one of my favorite vineyards from a vintage that is for lovers of finesse and balance and wines that showcase the place they're grown. We opened that and it was fairly tough right out the bottle but 30 minutes let it open up and begin to strut its stuff.
As always with Mark Vlossak's wines I found structure and suppleness. He somehow manages to find richness and intensity without ever sacrificing the inherent nature of the grape itself. His Pinots taste like Pinot, not Syrah. Although the wines are accessible in their youth, they are among the most age-worthy Oregon Pinots (see some of my earlier posts about some 2006s and 1998s and another 1998). The Shea 2011 was brilliant but paled in comparison to the unexpected surprise that came next.
Uncle Andrew was a collector of wine and hunted around regularly to find some overlooked gems. Many of his treasures remain, some cellared by my Uncle Jim (need a program to tell the players?). We pulled out a few, including a 1969 Romanee-Conti Echezaux that had a very low fill (and isn't from a great vintage to begin with). Then Charles pulled out something that made his eyes light up. A moment later mine did too.
Wow, is the only word. 1955 Chateau Latour! With a good fill (above the neck, almost like it had been re-corked at some point)!! A nearly 60 year old First!!!
The cork was covered in mold and dirt and I managed to break the it in half even using an Ah-So, which is great for older corks. It usually extracts brittle closures brilliantly, wedging down the sides and slowly moving them up and out without the inevitable crumbling cork caused by the intrusion of a corkscrew worm. At least we didn't have lots of floating cork pieces.
The color was impeccable,

and we got very excited about this wine. The core of red was only slightly faded on the edge. It had certainly lightened over the years but was not washed out or oxidized in the least. The aroma was subtle but perfectly previewed what appeared on the palate. The fruit was sweet and juicy, not sugary but in a ripe fruit way. There were fine tannins on the back end that stood out a bit but then the finish washed over them nicely. Some earth notes, like a clean cellar, appeared in the middle and the finish echoed the sweet entry and also added some brown sugar notes. Again, this was not sweet and sugary but, to my palate, was an unmistakable brown sugar note. The wine still retained bright acidity and the finish was long, long, long! It lasted for minutes. It worked well with chicken and even broccoli - stems and tops.
What an impressive wine, amazing to see such an old wine perform so wonderfully and I would have been lucky to share it with anyone but with the family assembled, it became a very happy surprise that I will remember always.

Friday, July 25, 2014

More on Counterfeiting and Foiling Counterfeiters

Here are two pieces on counterfeit wine to go along with my earlier post, Wine Fraud and Lessons for You...Yes, You!.
Counterfeiting has been in the news a lot lately and with Rudy Kurniawan's sentencing around the corner, it will get even more press soon. As it should. The practice has ramped up to new levels as obscenely high profits can be made while status-hounds (almost always men) chase rare wines.
Alison Griswold's piece for isn't exactly a how-to guide but it does explain how many fakes are made, and how hard it is to verify if the bottle (and the wine within) are the real thing. Who knew there was a market for empty bottles of old Bordeaux? Maybe my family could justify buying some old Bordeaux if we sold the empties from these recent tastings - Part I and Part II.
I love the mention of testing for radioactive elements in wines bottled before we produced a particular kind of radioactivity. I would imagine there are few opportunities to employ this option but it's a fascinating concept.
The other piece to explore is about as complete an analysis of methods of authenticating wine as I have ever seen. Elin McCoy on shares some cutting edge techniques used by wineries are to verify if the wine is the real McCoy (couldn't resist). These include, embossing gold (yes, real gold) onto bottles, special paper, marking inks used to print the labels, unique capsules covering the cork, holograms and more. It's a fascinating, well worth a click.
All of these amazing efforts will, almost certainly, have work-arounds from criminal enterprises.
Enjoy the reads.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Wine "Glasses" for the pool

Summer in New Orleans will never appeal to me. If I could leave shortly after Jazz Fest (May) and return in late September I would. This year hasn't been too bad. There have been many days where I could breathe deeply and fully without wishing for gills. The pool still feels cool and refreshing (rare for this time of year) and I have been spending a lot of time out there.
Glass and pools do not mix. My landlord's warning about this was unnecessary...but appreciated. Beyond the obvious risk of bare feet and pieces of broken glass I am the guy who always finds the last shard. No matter the toweling, mopping, vacuuming, down-on-your-belly-flashlight-searching, I discover one last piece, sometimes weeks later, embedded in my foot. 
I resisted buying "glasses" made of synthetics because I feared the wine wouldn't taste, or smell, the way it should. However, serving wine for another summer in plastic Mardi Gras cups was even less appealing and I caved.
Govino got my nod for a test drive and now my recommendation! They are shatterproof, though I do think you could break them with a little effort, and did not smell of plastic even immediately out of the package. Impressive. While I maintain a dislike of stemless wine glasses, these are ideal for wine drinking anywhere you don't want glass. The pictures on the home page show some Bocce balls in the background which appeals for my Maine visits where we play cross-country Bocce - no groomed courts for us thanks.
They do give a little if you press them but they are sturdy and I never feared they would collapse or fall over. They can not be packed flat and they do not nest inside one another but a little jostling won't break them and having them at a pool is fine. A friend recommended avoiding the dishwasher as they will warp a bit from the heat, I took him at his word and did not experiment.
I am thrilled to be able to drink wine pool-side out of a proper-ish wine "glass" but these would be great for camping, the beach, picnics, etc. Thanks govino, these are winners.

Govino also makes decanters, flutes and now a beer "glass" too. There is also a "cocktail glass" which is nearly indistinguishable from the wine version - a little shorter and with less capacity but I would opt for the wine version and stick with it.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

More Old Bordeaux with Family

Spending my Fourth of July in Maine is a treasured tradition of family togetherness, lots of lobster and plenty of silly games. Wine has gradually taken a bigger and bigger role with sparkling wine nearly always accompanying our steamers and lobster nights. People pay more attention each year to what corks are being pulled and I am often asked which wine I am choosing for the meal.
Last year we wiped out our collection of sparkling wines. Once we learned they weren't being saved for a special occasion, there was a mad dash of chilling, popping and drinking! Here are the two posts from that fiesta - a reminder not to wait too long and a fantastic surprise
This year we continued digging into a case of old Bordeaux given to my father for officiating a friend's wedding. This was an even rarer treat in Maine and we had a cold, rainy day, due to Hurricane Arthur, that seemed perfect for opening some reds. We were also grilling monster porterhouses that looked like the real world version of the meat that tipped over the Flintstones vehicle...more kismet for some big red wine.
The bottles has stood for more than 24 hours so the sediment would settle.
[The bottle pictures were taken a few days later.]

We started this process in the kitchen with more than twenty people in attendance. I was soaking wet from a lengthy match of cross country Bocce and was also trying to watch a horse race with one of Ms. Wright's stable running. However, I was not about to pass up an opportunity to taste more of these wines!

We started with the Chateau Duhart-Milon-Rothschild, Paulliac 1968:
The fill was very low on the wine, noticeably below the shoulder, but anytime you can try a wine almost as old as you it's exciting. My notes were short. The wine was brown and tired. I thought the nose was interesting for a moment or two, with some old brick aromas and hints of brown sugar and  it drew me in, but the palate was dead. Not surprising at all based on the age, quality of vintage and the fill. Still, I am always optimistic that any bottle possesses the possibility to amaze, so disappointment followed. 

Chateau Rausan-Ségla, Margaux, 1985:
The cork was clean but reeked of cork taint. I was not optimistic. Turned out great! The nose was just okay at first but the palate was really solid. It also showed enough life to have us stash about half the bottle for 20-30 minutes later. 
The edge was brown, moving to a slight orange and then to a decent core of red. The nose kept coming around, it had some old dried fruit but also pretty raspberry and hints of darker fruits too. This was the style of the 1985 vintage I remembered so fondly! 
With time (about half an hour) the nose displayed more appealing character and nuance. Happily, mineral notes and even some gravel emerged as well. This was my favorite of the night and a truly delicious bottle.

Chateau de Marbuzet, St. Estephe, 1983
The wine was not as brown as the 1968 but did not exhibit the core of red that the 1985 so proudly displayed. The nose was similar to the 1985 but had much more presence right out of the bottle. There was a significant tannic bite on the finish, much more than the Rausan-Ségla, as if it were stubbornly clinging to a life that had clearly passed it by. The tannin was subtle but very, very present. The overall impression of the wine was short and tough, supporting the no surrender liveliness of the tannins. It reminded me of a boxer who thinks there are still a few fights left when, in fact, there may not even be a few rounds in the future. The de Marbuzet wasn't unappealing but it was far from sexy. It wasn't polished or refined, like the 1985, but rustic and wild, like a run-down cabin in the woods. It was drinkable and moderately enjoyable but not very rewarding.

Chateau L'Eglise Clinet, Pomerol, 1982: The color was fantastic! Nearly opaque at the center with a nearly purple core - the color of a much younger wine. The nose was immediately appealing, if a bit standoffish, I knew it would relax and open up soon. Intense dark fruits like plum and cassis showed in the middle of the palate. There were plenty of tannins here too but, unlike the Marbuzet, they were integrated and had the luxury of still fresh fruit to keep the wine balance. It was a big crowd pleaser, it was huge and people loved it. The weight and intensity remain, as expected with this massive vintage, and this wine has some life left in it.
I prefer the seamless beauty of the Rausan-Ségla 1985 for my palate but I would be happy to have another glass of this 1982 at any time. The difference is a little like red Burgundy versus Napa Cabernet. Palates hew to one or the other more often, even if they appreciate both.

We still have a few bottles of some of these to try again and a 1980 Mouton Rothschild which I fear will have more aural cachet than oral cachet...but finding out for yourself is the fun part!