Thursday, January 29, 2009

Two Zinfandels in New Orleans

On a recent visit to New Orleans, my family and I decided on a whim to dine at Dante's Kitchen in the Riverbend area. One of my customers from years ago and always one of our favorite laid back fine dining bets. Emmanuel Loubier, E-man, has serious chops in the kitchen. He came from Commander's Palace, but never quite seemed spit and polished enough for that operation. He has it all when it comes to cooking, it's just that he always looks a bit disheveled and has more of a 'take me as I am' approach to the world that works better in his own place than a Brennan restaurant. My favorite way of expressing my love of Peristyle when Anne Kearney was still in the kitchen was that I would recommend the chicken. I never eat chicken in fine dining restaurants, why bother, you can cook good versions at home. I ate Peristyle's chicken nearly every time I went there. It was the only restaurant in town where I ordered chicken. Peristyle still exists, but Anne Kearney is no longer in New Orleans, and now the only chicken I'll order in New Orleans when fine dining is at Dante's, cooked under a brick (yes, really) by E-man.
The crowd was a bit older and perhaps more sophisticated than I remembered. Although someone at teh table behind us apparently ate a head of a shrimp, so maybe I jumped to conclusions prematurely. Neil McClure greeted us at the door, and took a minute to register who I was. Can't blame him really, it had been a few years and my beard has been reduced to a goatee. He kindly fit us in on a Saturday night with no reservations and decided we were a great excuse to open a bottle of Turley Zinfandel 2006, I think the Dusi Ranch from Paso Robles. Neil poured us some and its juicy, heady aroma leaped from the glass and he reminisced about his time in Portland, Oregon. E-man joined us for a few minutes and we also spent time talking about his relatively recent visit to the Rose City. He brought back a passion for sourcing ingredients locally and even lists the local products available that night on a blackboard. Lovely to see more 'localvore' mentality about vegetables and greens, not just seafood, in New Orleans.
We used to drink a lot of Turley when I worked for Wines Unlimited and the wines were more reasonably priced. They are completely over the top, nearly distilled essence of berries, high alcohol (although they usually carry it well), and enough extraction to completely overwhelm most food. But damn they're awfully fun with blue cheese and ribs! Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
When my appetizer (could have been a meal) arrived, the Prince Edward mussels in a dark beer and Stilton broth, we tried the Turley with it. Certainly a serviceable match, but even that intense dish was dominated by the incredibly ripe intensity of the wine. I am not positive it was the Dusi Ranch, but it matters not. Turley wines all have the same profile, some nuance from appellation to appellation, and vintage variation, but the thick richness and super-ripe fruit, bordering on sweetness, remain constant.
I liked the idea of Zinfandel with mussels and the broth, so I ordered a glass of Ridge Three Valleys 2006. Blended with some Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Grenache, this is Ridge's most reasonably priced Zinfandel and a relatively new addition to their portfolio (first vintage 2001). Ridge always shows balance, restraint (admittedly relative when discussing Zinfandel) and some structure. The pairing was fantastic! Dark fruit with hints of wildness showed its Zinfandel nature and the expression of that fruit seemed more freshly picked than the jammy Turley. Just enough dryness on the back end to keep it honest and the saltiness of the Stilton played nicely with this wine.
The broth clearly determined the match, I do not generally recommend Zinfandel with mussels, or any other shellfish for that matter. It was a happy discovery and a reminder of the general uselessness of Turley wines at table. The Ridge carried through wonderfully with my pork shoulder (no chicken that night) with green peppercorns while the Turley still stomped on the dish. I suppose if you're eating food you don't like very much Turley might be just the ticket. Maybe we should have had some on Salisbury steak day in school.
Do try a Turley wine some day, they are the prototypical hedonistic wine experience, just don't expect it to go with your dinner. Unfortunately, due to their small production, high ratings, and the winery's bizarre insistence that a high percentage of the wine go to restaurants, the wines can be hard to find and many retailers put punitive prices on them because they can. The 2006 Dusi Ranch on an Internet search was available for prices ranging from $45-$120! Ridiculous. Try to find the Old Vines version of Turley Zin, usually more reasonably priced at $30ish.
The lovely Ridge example should be available for $18-$22, although the 2007 is released at the winery, so the 2006 might not last much longer. I have not had the 2007 yet. This style of wine can pair with pork, beef, especially stir fry (that soy works wonders with Zin), and all sorts of mushrooms and meat off the grill.
If you live in, or visit, Dayton Ohio, got see Anne Kearney and Tom Sands at Rue Dumaine. The bar is a nearly exact reprodution of Peristyle's and the menu takes me back to happy times spent in Tom's genial hospitality with Anne's subtle, magical creations. I think it's the first time I have envied anyone on Ohio...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Lazy Retailers

Well, another week has passed and I still have not gotten out to do any tasting this year. Why not you ask? Especially now that I'm unemployed? Despite the huge number of retailers in the Portland area most do not submit their specific tastings to the newspaper nor do they update their websites often enough.
There is a section in Tuesday's Oregonian called FOODday and, among other things, there is a section for wine tastings. Why anyone would turn down a free listing for an event in their store is beyond me, but there are people listed every week only saying that a wine tasting will occur on Friday from 4-7pm, for example. No announcement of the wines, or theme. In some cases a theme is announced and a tasting fee mentioned, but not the specific wines. I suppose the hope is that people will show up no matter what. You can certainly call for details, but why make customers take an extra step? No wonder some of those tastings are less than effective. A recent listing for a shop I had never heard of does not match the event listed on their web site. A second listing for the same week has times that do not match - 2-4 or 5-8. Take your time, choose carefully.
Retailers take a bit of a risk in posting/e-mailing exact lineups because it can be easy to simply skip the event. I have skipped two weeks of one of my favorite tasting events in Portland because the wines didn't stand up well to the terrible traffic I fight to get there.
Even the supposed 'best' shop in Portland (the emperor has no clothes in my opinion) lists their events, but no price. What if I get all the way there and it turns out to be $30? One retailer, still open, still lists tastings from 2006 on their website! Only a handful post fairly specific wines and prices to taste while keeping that section up to date on their website.
I don't want twenty newsletters coming to my inbox, and I'm in the business. I want to be able to know where to go for what appeals to me and how much I'm going to spend. Oh, and I'd like all of this information more than 24 hours in advance. Sounds reasonable to me. How about it Portland?!?
Grocery stores are the worst offenders. Unless you shop there regularly there is no way to find out about any event going on in store, even then it can be a challenge. Perhaps that's their goal, but I would much rather have someone come to my store and buy only wine, rather than that same person not come through the doors at all.
I don't expect people to take out ads, but you are missing opportunities to get the wine drinking public in your door, potentially spending money.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ken Wright Barrel Tastings

On Monday January 12th I was fortunate enough to be invited, by a friend and ex-customer, to attend a barrel tasting of 2008 Pinot Noirs made by Ken Wright Cellars. Through the kindness of my friend, I was there last year as well.

Barrel tastings can be tricky. The wines are sometimes going through malolactic fermentation and can be gassy to the nose and even spritzy on the palate. In another few months they would be much easier to assess accurately, but early tastings such as these can still be very educational. (The winery offers futures on their Pinot Noirs, meaning you taste barrels, pay for cases now and get delivery in about a year, hence the early presentation).

For me the education was not about purchasing cases for a store or restaurant, but to get a bit of an early feel for Pinot Noir in that vintage. Sometimes tasting is not about a full taste or aroma evaluation, but about an overall impression and texture. That can be worthless to many people, and potentially misleading to others who may reach conclusions that are inaccurate. Armed with knowledge about a vintage however, the tasting can be amazing for confirming beliefs based on weather and some comments from winemakers and growers.

2007 proved to be a challenging vintage and Ken's address to the attendees was lengthy and filled with details. Many questions followed. "2007 was the most challenging vintage we've ever had", Ken told us. Those tastes from the barrel reflected the vintage; I found them challenging to assess. Of the five wines tasted a year ago, I found four of them mostly closed, prickly to some degree and generally tough to evaluate. The 2007's, from other wineries, that have been released over the last few months have proven to be pure, bright, focused wines, lacking some deep, dark fruit, but most show good ripeness and are nowhere near as dilute from the rain as many feared. Ken's will be very good, I have no doubt, but I have not tasted them out of bottle yet.

Monday's tasting of 2008's in barrell at Ken Wright Cellars proved to be opposite my 2007 impressions. The most open, easy to assess Pinot Noir from 2007, Carter Vineyard, was the tightest, gassiest of the day. The remainder, McCrone, Abbot Claim, Canary Hill and Freedom Hill, were lovely, surprisingly accessible and showed plenty of pure fruit notes. The McCrone and Abbot Claim, in particular, I found to be enjoyable, to the point of wondering whether I could grab an empty bottle, fill it and take it home to drink that night. Ken's talk about the 2008 vintage? Short and to the point, "2008 was easy." There will be elegance, length, ripe fruit, great acidity, and wonderful potential for longevity. It may go down as one of the most exciting vintages in Oregon history. Some of that is attributable to the weather and some of that speaks of the experience gained by those making wine in this cool climate region.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Year Thoughts

Wow, it has been quite a while since I have posted anything here. After 16 years in the wine business I should remember not to start new projects going into the busiest season, aka OND. In addition to that predictable mayhem, I resigned from my current job - yes even during this economy - to try to get off the treadmill that represents the world of the route salesperson.
December brought record snowfall to the Portland area, essentially shutting down the city, cancelling hundreds of flights and even halting much public transportation. Just before Christmas I left for New Orleans for time with family and then Mexico with more family.
That helps to explain the lack of time I have had to post reviews, but even more so, I just had no time for wine tasting in order to gather information for posting.
We are currently experiencing massive flooding on the coast, in many locations in Washington, and even some close to Portland; twenty miles of I-5 are currently shut down with no detour available because the east-west roads are flooded as well. I read the paper this morning and saw a man walking through his home knee deep in water. It reminded me of Katrina in New Orleans and the disastrous flooding.
What does any of this have to do with wine you ask?
While it is nice to enjoy properly aged wine, don't wait too long. After cellaring a bottle for years, a certain aura is often attached to said bottle that causes one to wait for a special occasion. Now that we have passed the major holiday season and enter the New Year, I would like to suggest that you can create a special occasion simply by opening a special bottle. Get some simple foods together and invite some friends over, perhaps they'll bring something special as well.
Nearly twenty cases of wine I had aging were mostly destroyed by heat. They were in refrigeration cellars, but there was no power for over a month and a half while temperatures hovered around 90 degrees. I foolishly did not even bring one solitary bottle when we evacuated.
So many beautiful wines not enjoyed or shared. With the exception of the bizarrely expensive collector only wines, there is nothing special about a bottle of wine until the cork is pulled.
Laissez Les Bons Vins me first.