Friday, December 23, 2011

Retail Flashbacks

Being in New Orleans around Christmas and not being in the wine business has left me disconcerted. I miss being involved with education and leading tastings but am thrilled to not be driving all over town keeping retailers' shelves full of my products. However, the aggravation of wholesale has nothing on the twisted world of retail where my career began.
I was reminded of the unpleasantness today while I ran a few errands...yes, errands, not last minute present stressing but run of the mill errands. It was so far removed from my nearly two decade long December routine of little sleep, few, if any days off, and the inability to make my brain function properly, that I found myself having retail flashbacks all day long. Muzac versions of Christmas classics should be banned.
The best year was the first one, as a stockman, because I got overtime. The end of the day was the end of the day, no work followed me home. As manager, opening and closing the store guaranteed brutal hours. Receiving a salary meant I actually made less per hour than stockmen and cashiers I managed. I actually did the math one night...and almost didn't bother coming in the next day.
As a customer service rep, long hours continued while I put in order after order. We had a system in place for multiple gifts to be passed along to some entry clerks but since they were part-time my decision was to input my own orders. Mistakes would come back to me no matter what so I did my best to limit them.
The store operated from nine to seven and that's a reasonable amount of time to be on duty during the busy months. However, opening, closing and typing orders took another two hours on a good day. Basically we moved in for the month of December.
Outside the store, dinner became the most important priority since lunch rarely happened. The constant flow of people made breaks nearly impossible. I thought about taking up smoking because, somehow, not matter how busy we were, the smokers regularly enjoyed a few minutes of peace and quiet.
Quiet was the best, no droning hum of mingled conversations, no store pages calling you in two directions (if you were lucky, instead of three or more) and most of all, no freaking Christmas music!
During my younger years the tradition for Christmas Eve involved Santa coming to visit the house before his night of work began. One present, just a taste of the magic to follow the next morning, was allowed. Later years brought church and some fancy dinners but my years in retail always meant closing down some bars.
Since days off rarely happened and everyone had off on the 25th, since the store was closed, a groups of us went out and thoroughly polluted ourselves. Despite the soreness of feet and complete exhaustion, enough energy returned that wrestling became an unscheduled part of a few very early Christmas mornings.
Being thrown out of a bar on the 25th was a badge of honor for a bit. Less so another year when we realized that we were so boisterous and, I guess, frightening that a homeless man actually left his warm spot near the dart boards of a favorite 24 hour watering hole in favor of safer, if much colder, environs.
I grew to hate Christmas (no doubt the vicious hangovers that followed the eve's debauchery played a part). Now we're back on speaking terms. Guess I'm glad I didn't open that retail wine shop after all...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Support Your Local Retailer

As someone who came very close to opening his own wine shop one of my big concerns revolved around online wine sales. I'm not talking about club shipments of a bottle or two a month. While those bottles would certainly cut into my sales they also encourage exploration. Many customers see low prices online and salivate until they see the shipping charges. Even more disappointment awaits if you want overnight or two day shipments - the only way you should ever ship wine. Those delivery trucks are not temperature controlled.
For reasons to be especially mindful of shipping, see my earlier post about online wine
Let's get beyond that and consider the unique world of wine and your access to it. Sure, some of the deals offered online are fantastic. Pay attention to vintages though, as I have found a handful of usually highly rated, expensive wines offered at insanely low prices...from less than stellar vintages. That does not mean they will be undrinkable, or even a bad buy at the cut rate price but it does mean you should temper your expectations. No one sells an $80 bottle of wine for $25 unless they tried some other price points along the way and still had no success.
Remember that you can not taste these wines. If it's a producer you know and enjoy, give it a whirl but if you're flying blind you may end up spending a lot more buying these "bargains" instead of wines you like available on shelves nearby.
You also can not ask questions or get a recommendation or easily return a selection you don't like. Some will credit you for corked bottles but most do not accept returns of unopened bottles for any reason even if you feel like paying to ship it back.
Your friendly neighborhood retailer hosts regular tastings, many completely free of charge, can answer questions, get you wine the same day and should remember you, your likes and dislikes. If they can't or won't do those things, then go somewhere else. Please do not read this missive as a call to support weasels and chuckleheads. Quality retailers exist everywhere and I promise you can even find some that offer wine at a reasonable rate when you consider other perks they might offer.
A couple in Portland, Oregon mentioned to me one night (not realizing I was in the business) that they loved coming to tastings at a particular shop but always bought their wine at a lower priced chain store nearby. I nearly needed EMS. Guess what folks, the retailer whose wine you love to drink, who gives you access to exciting wines, who teaches you about what you're drinking will be out of business if you only buy wine elsewhere and then you'll be reduced to tasting at the chain store from hired demo companies with people who know little about wine and offer only generic grocery brands and I'm only sorry I won't be there to hear you admit regret or see you crying in your assembly-line wine.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wine Gift Advice

Gift giving intimidates the best of us.  Once in a great while the perfect gift idea combines with the time to give it and proves to be at least as well received as expected.  More often, some portion of that trifecta does not happen quite right.  I can sense those moments and only hope for enough success that the recipient does not injure themselves forcing a smile to his or her face. 
A present of wine appeals on many levels but brings a special level of intimidation with it.  The stress level created about buying wine for an aficionado lands somewhere between that generated before meeting your potential in-laws and that dream about showing up for a final exam without studying...and also being naked.  Relax. 
Buy wines you enjoy and include a favorite cheese with them or even a favorite recipe for pairing. Unless you exclusively drink white zinfandel or buy only wines from the closeout bin, the effort will be appreciated.  Even serious wine collectors enjoy experimenting or at least need something for guests.  If you can share a story about visiting the winery or enjoying a bottle it will mean so much more.  Unless he or she is a total ass, your personal touch will mean a lot.  If he or she is a total ass, why are you giving them a gift anyway?
I think spending a lot of money on a special bottle you have never tried and may or may not be to the liking of your recipient is a much riskier proposition than a few moderately priced bottles that mean something to you.  
Don't waste time tying to figure out their favorite producer they probably have plenty already. If you are adventurous, share the adventure.  If you play it safe with standard grocery store brands, stop it!  Get out of your comfort zone and try some new wines, you may find yourself the recipient of a great gift as well...the world of wine.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month) Part Two

The white show is all A.N.'s this month. Her honorable (?) mention manages to describe a gewurztraminer (98 points) as having, "hints of vanilla, iodine, espresso and bourbon." Glad those flavors aren't in my glass.
White winner: A.N. reviewing Henri Schoenheitz Gewurztraminer Alsace Holder Selection de Grains Nobles 2005 $61/500ml 94 points
"Refined and focused, with exotic cardamom, incense, myrrh and cumin notes accenting flavors of pear gelee, quine paste, candied lychee, smoky mineral and tarragon." The rest of the review actually makes sense and does not read like someone trying to show off the depth and breadth of their culinary knowledge. Myrrh? Really? Couldn't you save that for December?
Another sweep in the red category by J.M. Impressive efforts throughout with inspired wackiness like "singed iron" which he featured in three reviews (one is our winner) and "The long, supple finish just lets the fruit smolder." Nothing I like better in a wine than burning metal and scorched fruit.
Red Winner: J.M. reviewing Chateau de St.-Cosme Gigondas Le Poste 2009 $69 96 points.
"Broad and deep, delivering gorgeous perfumy black tea and warm anise notes up front, followed by dense flavors of bittersweet cocoa, roasted fig, hoisin sauce and smoked alder wood. The long, fleshy finish has great cut, with a singed iron note hanging on." If it was anything but warm anise I bet he might have dropped it below 93 points. The specificity of alder wood won the day.
My gripe with these sorts of reviews centers on the insane amalgam conjured up and imagined in a glass. I adore St.-Cosme and agree with J.M. that they make the "most compelling Gigondas."
However, too many reviews seem more focused on the microscopic when most consumers may not even want a magnifying glass report. We're getting full soil analyses when we just want the lay of the land.
Since these sorts of reviews often make casual wine drinkers feel inadequate and I rail against the snob factor unfortunately inherent in much of the wine world, I plan to continue tilting at windmills. Please pass these along, maybe someone will actually listen and put a halt to the blather.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

The Wine Spectator continues to amaze and amuse. Brilliantly written reviews exist but are overshadowed by baffling references and verbose ramblings muddying the waters rather than making them clear.

First the good news from October's two editions. Phrases like "just a baby" (A.N.), "will need some cellaring to stretch out fully" (J.M.), "powered by the racy acidity" (A.N.), "rustic in character" (B.S.) and "ballerina of a wine" (A.N.) all tell me about the style of the wine much more than blathering on about fruit specifics.

However, more bizarre examples ruled the roost. Some one please explain to me how "layered flavors polish" (A.N.) could possibly lead to a 93 point rave about a riesling? Or how the descriptor "eau-de-vie" (a colorless fruit brandy) could appear in four of the top five ratings for white Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Should we assume a higher alcohol level makes the better wine? Or how "winey" (J.M.) is allowed to appear in three reviews? Isn't that oenological cop out the equivalent of "it tastes like chicken?" Or how a 91 point, $85 wine could have "gritty tannins" (B.S.) in the review?

I bet I can get a $6 red wine to taste like it was "laced with hints of Campari" (J.M.) rather than spend $75 on a St. Joseph. For a $45 bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano I might want more than "an impression of weightlessness" (B.S.) unless it's for me and I could float around the room by consuming a glass.

Then we find bizarre notes like "sweet stargazer lily" (A.N.), "flash of quinine" (J.M.) and the overly specific "Kenya AA coffee notes" (J.M.). Double takes no doubt followed the reading of "oatmeal and mace overtones" (H.S.) in a 94 point syrah review. I assume the cooking spice is being referenced but there are no guarantees. I have not idea what "green almond" (J.M.) tastes like but would look for something less than $49 to experiment. I had to look up "bilberry" (B.S.) and "plumeria" (M.W.).

Now this post is getting too long and my energy has been sapped too much to complete the purpose of this post. Promise it will appear tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Power of Experts

A post from Steve Heimoff yesterday made me think.
The answer to his question is a resounding yes, of course, maybe even duh! If not, would we see wild swings in popularity and out of stocks for recent high scoring wines? What about the publications and blogs? Anyone who ever bought a wine based on a rating alone has been influenced.
A tasting early in my learning featured a pointed lesson. The teacher of the beginner's class asked us what we smelled in a particular white wine and nodded along with all responses. Finally, he mentioned cassis and, slowly, one head, then two, then all nodded along. He started to laugh, told us we just learned a good lesson and said he didn't smell cassis in the wine but that the power of suggestion from an authority ruled.
The salient point however, is less that critics sway opinions and more about how those critics operate. Most operate ethically but an embarrassing number in authoritative tasting scenarios either do not know enough to inform their audience properly or are not confident enough to admit they do not know an answer.
Taste wines, trust your own palate no matter what anyone else says. If you must listen to pundits, listen to a few different ones and look for consensus or choose one that most closely matches your own palate. That can be discovered through tasting wines rated highly and not so highly by said writer.
I have never observed a money back guarantee on a wine review. Since it's all your cost and risk, make sure to be confident about your palate.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wine Spectator's Slips and Skips

The September 30, 2011 issue deserves more than my rant about punditry. Two sets of reviews end up reading like a skipping record and one group contains various misspellings of a single grape name.
A variety grown by different producers in the same region should exhibit similar profiles. Tasters also can become focused on one flavor throughout a tasting noticing its presence perhaps more than they should. I have fallen into this trap. When the wines begin to taste the same, take a break. Walk away, eat something, break the cycle. Barring that, perhaps better editing might suffice.
J.M. and A.N. must have had a groove going when they reviewed Chilean syrah and blends and Soave, respectively. J.M. used the word anise in four of nine reviews and pastis in a fifth. A.N. just misses 100%. In a review of Soave wine the word almond appears in seven of the nine reviews and one of the two without it mentions marzipan (almond based). Other words exist, other nuts too. I'm aching to try the wines blind to see if I can pick the one with no almond notes.
I need to stop picking on the Spectator but as a publication that claims 2.5 million readers they dominate the marketplace and are the face of wine writing to many consumers. The magazine does not claim to be experts or perfectionists but I find their facts to be solid and their presentations professional.
When focusing on a region people do not know well and a grape they know even less, one might hope they could at least spell the grape correctly.
My gripe does not focus on the way it appears on the label. In the Spectator, producers' names get printed in red with wine name in bold, black type following. Any errors, or creative license, taken there belong to the producer, label designer and the agency approving it. The spellings that irked me are in the body of the review.
Granted, the country is Greece and the grape is assyrtiko. Further, Even the Oxford Companion to Wine lists assyrtiko or assyrtico. However, if a leading publication decides to write reviews about this grape, it seems realistic to ask for one spelling from one reviewer.
Instead, we get "Asirtiko, Assyrtiko, Assyrtico and Assytrico." The wine world uses assyrtiko as the accepted version. Google corrected each different spelling of mine to this version as well. My complaint here is minor, but worth noting because of the status of the magazine and the potential confusion for readers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

Now that it's November, it must be time for a September post...hey, reading ALL those reviews is tedious.
For the first time my reading made me feel like offering compliments instead of complaints. After a momentary, "Nah, this is the internet. People bash one another from a distance and with much more vigor and vitriol than deserved," I decided to do it.
Bruce Sanderson, reviewer for Wine Spectator gets kudos for using the following in reviews, "Not for the faint of heart." "Impressive...if a bit over the top." And, "It's hard to deny this red's appeal and instant gratification, though I don't get any sense of place."
Bravo! Those are phrases that actually mean something to me and tell me about the wine. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Why is it so rare that reviews offer regular sentences that actually explain the wine?
Because we end up with verbose, bizarre descriptions like the white winner for the month from J.M. Chateau de la Guimoniere Chaume 2005: "This exotic white is starting to show burnished, mature flavors of citronella and lanolin, with marzipan, date, creamed papaya, ginger and dried apricot notes. A twinge of green tea keeps this going through the finish." 93 points. Where do I even begin? The label picture tells us, if we look hard, the wine if made from chenin blanc and is moelleux, meaning mellow, or medium-sweet in wine terms. The wines are not as sweet as full botrytized dessert styles.
Leading with citronella and lanolin repels rather than attracts. The rest of his words makes such an unappealing concoction I can not imagine plunking down $36 for a bottle, and I like moeulleux chenin blancs.
A crowded red field meant a much tougher choice than the runaway victory above. However, all were J.M. entries, so he was guaranteed the September sweep. Ernie Els Stellenbosch Signature 2007: "Ripe and suave, with alluring blackberry, plum sauce and roasted fig notes laced with black tea, cocoa powder, maduro tobacco and smoked apple wood notes. The long, grippy finish smolders nicely, with dense, dark fruit and lovely mouthfeel." 93 points.
At least I think I know where he's going here. I can picture most everything, but it seems like a lot of smoky notes. Roasted fig, tobacco, smoked wood and smoldering finish signals a heavy toast in the barrels and makes me wonder about wildfires in the area. Great reviews should either make the wine sound good or offer a warning about a significant feature that appealed to the reviewer but may have a limited audience beyond that. Neither of those things happens here.
More issues with September's issues in a day or two...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Indiana Part Three

The last stop of the day proved to be the most picturesque. No surprise then that Mallow Run has a large parking area. Vineyards dominate the landscape until one climbs the few steps to a deck before entering the tasting room. A pleasing vista opens up and is the same view available from the tasting room as well.
The two strangest things about the place became readily apparent but did not spoil our visit. The tasting bar, more than capably run by a lovely young woman, is much too tall and they do not have stools to handle the extra height. I fared okay but my companion was clearly unsettled. Our host explained the bar had been built at a normal height and then they had to add counters to allow glasses to hang underneath. Seems an odd decision but a quirk shouldn't ruin the experience.
Next, it was my turn to be unsettled. Upon asking for a spit bucket I was told she did not have one. A sink on the other side of the bar was not offered nor was a cup of any kind. Perhaps no one spits in Indiana? Surely since September of 2005, when they opened the tating room, one other person asked to expectorate? She accommodated me as best she could but it did not appeal to me or my friend. "Just spit back in the glass and I'll rinse it out." The 2008 Indiana Winery of the Year was off to a questionable start.
The whites did little to allay my concerns. We found them too sweet. The seyval blanc had no grapefruit note, instead featuring a more viscous nature with an arduous balancing act between the sweet overwhelming the tart and vice versa. The impression on the palate was not of a trapeze artist impossibly high in the air coolly and calmly traversing a chasm with dexterity but of a teenager in training to do the same act. The wine was all gawky discomfort, moments of balance followed by wild gesturing from one side trying to cover up a slip on the other.
The traminette, the signature grape of Indiana, is a hybrid relative of gewurztraminer and fared much better in my mouth. I wanted it to have less sugar but found the wine well made with a great unctuous mouthfeel and incredible spicy quality. Not quite pepper and not quite heat, but spicy without a doubt. I began craving Thai food almost immediately and the wine would perform beautifully with spicy seafood to absorb the sweetness of the wine.
We also tried an estate grown chardonel, mistakenly described to me that day by our well-meaning young lady as a cross between syrah and chardonnay. In fact it is a cross of seyval and chardonnay. Too bad, I so wanted to rename it syrahdonnay or chardonn...ah. Nothing wrong with it but it was a bit nondescript.
We moved to reds and found much more success. Marechal foch led off and while my companion found it lackluster, I fell in love. Goldrielsing is one parent but the important message to receive about the grape is its similarity to Beaujolais. Pinot noir comparisons abound as well but I think those are delusions of grandeur. At any rate, this spoke of BBQ and warm days in the sun. Steps to enjoy, 1) buy Marechal foch, 2) chill, 3) swill. Perfect pizza, burger wine too.
Mallow Run's chambourcin displayed plenty of pepper spice notes and a medium body. Tasty, if a bit rough, the spice carried the day and offered complexity where the wine lacked more meaningful depth. I predict Easley's version would win most blind tastings, however.
The chambourcin rose made a delightful finish and they sold us a few bottles of this. At $13 a bottle, this wine offered good value. The nose hinted at sweetness but delivered depth and dryness without being harsh in any way. My mouth enjoyed the texture much more than I thought possible and despite its inelegance it made me happy. Having pink wine available allows an occasional night of pretending the weather is nicer than Indiana winters will ever be. A little glass of summer is something everyone needs now and again.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Indiana Part Two

The spot is unassuming but there is no mistaking its purpose, vines surround the drive to the winery. It makes sense after meeting and tasting with Jeff Durm. Dressed in a sweatshirt and occasionally noshing on a personal pizza, he still commands a presence behind the tasting bar. A retired police officer, he knew what he wanted long before the winery was built. Jeff and his wife, Kelly, planted grapes in 1991 but the winery did not become a reality until 2006. No over-analyzed business plan here, just a desire to make good wine and long history of successes.
A disembodied deer head adorns the labels and did not inspire confidence in the liquid soon to be poured. It also made me realize that their logo includes the phrase, "a fine place for wine" not "a place for fine wine."
Seyval Blanc - All trepidations were quickly laid to rest after tasting the seyval blanc, a hybrid that thrives in cooler climates. Jeff's version displayed a grapefruity nature reminiscent of sauvignon blanc and a touch of weight on the finish reminding me of a dash of chardonnay. Ripe, fresh and with a surprisingly juicy mid-palate, the taste quickly banished any concerns about labeling. Some cayuga is "added for complexity." Produced from estate fruit.
Reserve Chardonnay - Not estate fruit, but Indiana-grown. There was pear and some not too sweet melon on the nose and palate but the most riveting aspect was the freshness. All of the elements of typical chardonnay are present but the palate leaps to life unlike so many of the dull versions available. No chemistry experiment here, no bolts in this wine's neck. I remarked on the acid and assumed no malolactic fermentation had taken place. [Malolactic fermentation is a secondary option that converts tart malic acids -think green apple - to creamy lactic acids - think milk.] Jeff grinned and said he performed 100% malo on the wine. My jaw dropped. The wine reminded me of Chablis in a ripe year, only lacking the minerality that makes Chablis so unique. A good price for a wine of this quality and a pleasant surprise for my jaded palate.
Pinot Noir - This drew me to the place. This is Indiana-grown fruit, specifically the same source as his chardonnay. Yes, you heard me correctly, Indiana estate pinot noir. The color will lack for some, it is nearly transparent, but has a bright red core. Never judge a pinot by its color, they can surprise on the light end of the spectrum and disappoint when inky darkness prevails. Subtlety reigns here, with delicate fruit notes that are a bit overwhelmed by the tannin on the finish. The acidity defines the profile here and the snap of it grabs your attention. This wine wants chicken, fish and goat cheeses. A good wine and a great conversation piece. When was the last time you had an Indiana pinot noir?
Zinfandel - Sourced from Lodi in California, I found this wine a bit hot and more tannic than I wanted. It would work better with food than many syrupy, raisiny efforts on store shelves but lacked pleasure.
Ruby Port - Perhaps the best wine we tasted, if the least eye-opening. I have no idea what goes in this and it doesn't matter. Despite my minor quibble that Port can only come from Portugal, this is a well made wine in that style. I found this very tasty, cherry abounds on the nose and palate and there is a delightful spiciness throughout. Sure it's sweet, it's supposed to be, but the wine shows restraint keeping from being too much of a sugar bomb. The most impressive aspect was the elegance of alcohol. In fortified wines added alcohol does not always integrate well resulting in wines with fruit aromas hidden beneath an umbrella of nostril-flaring alcohol, not so here. Bravo.
I will return to try the chambourcin and cabernet franc, both grown on the estate. The tasting at Buck Creek remains free, be sure to support that effort and purchase if you visit. You'll find something to get excited about, I promise.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Indiana Part One

Some travel has distracted me from my duties here. A weekend in Philly for an Eagles game at the Link (kinder, gentler and duller than the Vet) followed by a busy week here and a trip to Anderson, Indiana for some of the most fantastic wacky racing events ever witnessed, explain the long gap even if they don't excuse it.
However, a few days with a friend in Columbus, Indiana afforded me an opportunity to tour a few wineries and taste some of Indiana's vinous offerings. I will present these in a three part series beginning here. We'll start with the least impressive of the trio of visits.
As a prelude/reminder, all fifty states have at least one winery though many of those focus on fruit wines or import their grapes exclusively from the west coast. Those two styles of production do not interest me at all. Instead, I enjoy exploring the places that use some local grapes, be they vinifera (the classic grapes, chardonnay, cabernet, etc.) or hybrids (created from varieties from different species of vines, usually producing hardier plants). There are flaws to many of these latter wines but they display regionality and therefore intrigue me.
Easley Winery has done what they can to beautify their setting in "Downtown Indianapolis." They have a nice deck, hosting concerts from time to time, but we were there on a Monday, so it was relatively quiet. Upon entering, a powerful stench of old wine, bleach and a generally unpleasant funk nearly caused us to turn around and leave. My friend, less charitably but more accurately, described it as "backed-up sewer." It did not add to our experience.
After explaining my desire to taste dry wines from local grapes our host produced a single bottle. Their list of wines shows twenty-five bottlings but even more exist as we tried one off the list.
Chambourcin produces some solid wines and appears to thrive in many areas based on my domestic travels. Lacking a bit of polish but displaying good weight of fruit and mouthfeel make this a grape to watch in the U.S. It's hybrid status is accepted but the specific parents remain mysterious.
Easley's version offered a deep, red color which approached purple at the core. Plenty of dark fruit dominated the nose and the palate with a juicy, appropriately weighty palate-feel. Plums and just barely underripe blackberries came to mind. It was a lovely drink, if a bit rough on the back end. Food would easily mitigate the tannic presence and made this tasty wine a must buy for us that day. $15
I alone risked the taste of the second wine offered, Orchestra Red, which host and wine list admitted belongs in the off-dry category. After jokingly telling the server, "Sure, I'll try it. It can't hurt for too long," I sipped and spit. Too sweet for me with little to recommend it. The tasting ended as they had nothing else but wines produced in Indiana from California grapes and sweet wines. We purchased a bottle and welcomed the fresh outside air.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Luxury Insanity

While the world bogs down in economic malaise and news people try to out Chicken-Little one another all is not lost. The super-rich keep right on keeping on. At least that's what Royal Salute hopes. Twenty-two bottles of a special blend have been created with scotch of at least 45 years age inside. Diamonds proliferate on the bottle and it will only set you back $220,000. You heard that right. It works out to nearly $9,000 an ounce.

If you're buying one, please don't rub it in the face of the help.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Airport Amusement

I know, I know, those two words do not go together. Bemusement perhaps, but not amusement. It will get harder to believe before it gets easier.
While waiting for a delayed flight some of the employees had clearly gotten a bit punchy in addition to the passengers. I guess we really weren't passengers yet, but passengers-in-waiting but even worse than the Seinfeld restaurant episode.
This story also identifies how to tell when a particular variety of grape is all the rage.
One of the women paged in as throaty and sultry a voice as loudspeakers allow, "Passenger moscato, passenger moscato, please report to the desk at gate 31." Even frustrated would-be-travelers at least chortled.
From gate 30 came a tongue-in-cheek response, "Can you please get your mind right down there ma'am."
The rest of the night turned out to be purely dismal and ended with an overnight in Boston's Logan airport followed by a three hour van ride to our actual destination city.
Passenger moscato was noticeably absent.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Bit More Vine Talk - All Amusement This Time

The same episode railed about in my last post gets kudos this time. Jennifer Coolidge hosted instead of Stanley Tucci. You know her, even if you don't think you do. Stanley's dry, somewhat acerbic wit fits the show well but Jennifer provided a welcome breath of fresh air.
She brought up merkins, not once but twice. Wondering aloud about the color of someone's merkin made me laugh. The second reference, "nipples to merkin," made me wonder why The Boy Wonder never uttered that fantastically memorable phrase...I know I intend to make it part of my repertoire.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Vine Talk Errs

Deep breath. One more. Few things in the wine world rile me more than supposed authorities misinforming the public either through lack of knowledge or outright lying to disguise their inadequacies. Clearly, the latter is more egregious than the former but both are inexcusable in the context of a taped television program.
Please, "Vine Talk", "take wine snobbery and pour it right down the drain," as you have claimed to do but you must seek to educate and demystify properly. Stephanie Caraway, I'm talking to you. She appears in more than half of the episodes (often not where French or Italian wines are tasted - pronunciation issues?) as Ray Isle's assistant. She stays on camera while he goes to get the next wine.
During a recent malbec tasting you missed an opportunity to define malbec when one of the guests asked if the word, in French, meant "bad nose." Stephanie laughed, the normal reaction of someone who does not realize. The guest was close, "mal" means bad or even evil and "bec" means beak or mouth. The wine offers lots of tannin and it can be rough on the palate in its youth. Argentina's climate tames the grape and produces wines with plenty of color, reasonable structures and good values.
That was merely a missed opportunity, no harm done. However, she offered a potentially confusing note about Mendoza, the heart of viticulture in Argentina, observing that it is "very cool at night, so it brings up the acid levels."
"Why does the coolness make them [the grapes] more acid," poet Paul Mills inquired.
Her response? A quick bit of blather that reminded me of the unfortunate Miss South Carolina from a few years back. You remember her, "that our education like, such as South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere like such as..."
Sorry Stephanie, it wasn't that bad. It really went like this: "Brings up pH levels in, in fruit, anything that's grown is an agricultural product that, that pH level just comes up." Oh. Maybe it was that bad. For someone billed as a "wine expert" that answer sucks. It's also wrong.
First, let's have a quick science tutorial. High acidity means lower pH levels. If pH levels are going up, as Stephanie says, acidity would actually decrease.
Second, even if we excuse the pH confusion it's still wrong. Acidity reaches a peak before verasion, where the grapes begin to develop color and more flavor, then continue to decrease as ripeness approaches. Sugars increase and acids lessen.
Cool nights act to preserve acidity in the grapes longer than in warmer regions. The grapes take the night off in the cooler weather, meaning sugars accumulate slower and acids remain longer.
Regardless of Ms. Caraway's error, or anyone else's for that matter, someone should catch it in editing and delete it entirely or offer clarification.
My irritation with Stephanie stems from the show calling her a "wine expert" when she clearly is more of a spokesmodel. I guess her blond tresses and pleasing countenance trump wine knowledge for the program.
Come on "Vine Talk," you claim to demystify, don't re-mystify.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

As I have been reading a lot of the Wine Spectator lately the honors continue to feature their writers. The verbiage about whites managed to avoid ruffling my feathers at all, with a minor exception. One reviewer, A.N., did use "a touch of wax" to describe a wine. I have never understood this descriptor and it appears regularly, if infrequently, in reviews. Wax candy lips spring to my mind, leaving a bad taste behind.
The red winner received a landslide victory. J.M. not only jumbles a bizarre melange of food references but also repels and anthropomophizes the wine.
TriVento Malbec, Lujan de Cuyo Eolo 2008 - "An ambitious wine, with ripe linzer torte, plum preserves and berry coulis fruit that's well integrated with toasty notes of apple wood and tarry mineral, leading to the long, fruit-filled finish..."
Wine can not be ambitious. If it were, we should be interviewing it and sending it on tour, not drinking it. Have you ever had unripe linzer torte...scratch that, have you ever had linzer torte? Not being a fan of most fruit pies perhaps my lack of knowledge is my own fault. But, who would take the time to make a pastry with unripe fruit? "Tarry mineral" reminds me of nothing I want in my glass. Again, personal reference comes into play it being a mere year removed from BP's debacle of tar in the Gulf. Tropical storm Lee dredged up fresh tar balls last week, exacerbating my issue with the description.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Vine Talk TV Show

A new style of wine program, for better or for worse. Each show offers a themed tasting with various celebrities. Some truly famous people appear as well as a number more likely to generate "Who?" from the audience. Often a restaurateur joins in the fun. Stanley Tucci hosts and looks for comedic opportunities while Ray Isle (from Food & Wine) accurately offers tidbits about the region, grape, etc.
Successful episodes have engaging characters. I just watched a Finger Lakes riesling tasting that had little to offer except Nathan Lane who was out of control and thoroughly amusing, if completely distracting. Tune in to see people who interest you get interviewed by Tucci while they occasionally discuss wine. If no one on the panel hooks you, skip it. Don't expect to be able to discern what wine you might like based on celebrities' comments.
Do not tune in to learn much about wine but there are occasional nuggets if you pay attention. The celebrities range from collectors and oenologic geeks to neophytes. In other words, this tasting resembles so many I have attended but with "fancier" guests. Some interrupt any serious discussion, some revel in guzzling and putting on a show, some remain mostly quiet, some exhibit classic misunderstandings.
A group of people taste the same wines blind and the finale unveils the favorite wine of the crowd and panel. With a half-hour show, time flies but I find the lack of more consistent expert guidance frustrating. It would be great to offer a few more insights to guide consumers.
The producers stress that this is a new style of wine program emphasizing "a welcoming environment for viewers." I question how many complete novices are tuning in and therefore believe they would be better served to offer a few more in-depth observations/explanations.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

Now on to July. It is the end of August after all. Things move slowly in New Orleans, especially in the summer, who am I to fight that tradition?
Again, these are all Wine Spectator reviews:
Honorable Mention - White:
To A.N. for a series of Alsace reviews, in particular two each for Josmeyer and Albert Mann Pinot Gris (all 90+ points awarded). "honeyed notes of yellow peach, orange sorbet and candied pink grapefruit layered with hints of smoky anise, nut and lemon curd." Sounds like a collision at the yogurt bar. There's more: "floral, lychee aromas mixing with flavors of peach, pear pastry and orange granita." Another generates, "a smoky baseline to the flavors of green pear, persimmon and pink grapefruit...fennel seed, orange peel and floral notes." And still more amazingly specific and esoteric references, "with honeyed overtones to the flavors of quince paste, tarte Tatin and juicy grapefruit...lots of anise, bergamot, floral, spiced almond and smoke notes." I have no idea what to make of the last one. They all offer too much information to process and have any idea what's happening in the glass. With two of the selections approaching $90 I want a less specific yet more useful explanation.
Winner - White: J.M. again takes the prize, in a landslide, for his 95 point review of Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 2009. "Dense and rich, with creamed yellow apple, sweetened butter, glazed pear and Cavaillon melon notes..."
Honorable Mention - Red: H.S. for a Cougar Crest Cabernet Franc 2007 write-up. It's all fine except for the mention of "guava" in the review. It may be there, but it confuses me about the wine since I can not conjure up a guava note in any red wine I've ever tasted. For a $36, 93 point wine I don't want to wonder about that element. granted, it is not the Spectator's job to sell wine but it seems an odd note to have appear in a red wine that rated as highly.
Winner - Red: A.N. wins here for this review but also for the body of work in the edition as the word "sanguine" appeared in a huge amount reviews penned by A.N. For Cantina Andriano Lagrein Alto Adige Tor di Lupo Riserva 2007, rated 91 points. "Shows the sweet and smoky character of burning vine clippings...Kirsch, grilled plum, sanguine and espresso notes mix with hints of lavender, marjoram and sage..." Not so hard to understand but some odd references, like vine clippings, that too many people would not understand.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

I grow so tired of the insane ramblings and bizarre references offered to help us understand wine. My sympathy extends to those who must capture a wine's elusive essence in 20-40 words.  I can't do it.  More to the point, I won't do it.  
Empathy exists within me for those charged with reviewing large numbers of bottles within a very specific theme.  Similarities make a difficult job even more challenging.  However, that does not let them off the hook for the bizarre snippets some of them create.  
The Wine Spectator arrives at my door now and lets me keep up with the most recognized wine publication.  Note the word 'best' does not appear in that sentence.  They do a passable job and sometimes even manage to educate and entertain.  
A new feature here will be a monthly finger-wagging at a few particularly egregious reviews.  This month they all come from the Spectator.  Oh, and this month is June...July will follow shortly and maybe August will actually appear in August.  
White Wine:
Honorable mention goes to a review of Kumeu River Chardonnay, one of the best versions coming out of New Zealand.  The reviewer scores the wine 92 and gushes but manages to use "tobacco details" in the description.  I have never found tobacco in white wine and don't think it would be welcome.  I have also never found anything vaguely like that in nearly a decade of tasting and drinking that wine.
The winner for a white reviews is: Roger & Didier Raimbault Sancerre Vielles Vignes 2008, written by J.M.  "This white shows lovely precision, with a beautiful aroma of creme fraiche backed by racy, pure flint, chive, straw and gooseberry notes."  Creme fraiche, despite it's recent South Park appearance, makes sense and I can see finding and enjoying that in a wine.  Same with flint, maybe with chive but the straw loses me.  My recent references for straw revolve around Jazz Fest when it is placed around various muddy areas.  Inevitably some barnyard stink comes with it and that wet, soggy smell is not a selling point.  Previous to that, my time on a farm brought similar aromas to mind.  I'm not even going to touch the ubiquitous overuse of gooseberry that almost no one has experienced.  
Red Wine: Domaine du Galet des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape Tradition 2008, by J.M. (A sweep!)  "Perfumy, with warm cherry confiture, black tea and fruitcake notes laced with a hint of shiso leaf..."  With you on the beginning but who the hell knows what a fruitcake tastes like anymore?  And shiso leaf?  WTF?  I don't even know what it is, much less it's flavor/aroma.  [Note: Japanese for perilla]  [Next note: perilla belongs to the mint family.]  [Postscript to next note: also known as purple mint or Japanese Basil].  The last one helps the most.  Shiso leaf?  Really?  Was that the herb of the day and you promised to work it into something?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dear Bordeaux,

Lest you mistakenly assume any shred of loyalty exists for your oenologic output based on my previous missive addressing your more elegant relation to the northeast, let me remind you of our previous breakup.  You proved easier to forget.  Our relationship lasted only a few years and was so long ago that the letter saying goodbye was delivered by fax; the words long past unreadable due to faded ink.  
A few years of impressive wines from the late '80s and 1990 pulled me in but then you offered less impressive offerings for many years while prices spiraled upwards.  I never could open my heart again to you after the vertigo induced by high tariffs and lackluster offerings.
Your desire to put forth an air of exclusivity while churning forth 850,000,000 bottles a year from your sprawling 290,000 acres [both numbers from Vine Talk] smacks of gauche, nouveau riche comportment despite your impressive lineage.  
Wealthy suitors bafflingly continue to chase your wines with the most status and pay exorbitant prices to own them.  When the Wine Spectator spoke of the '09 vintage and mentioned "solid values which in Pauillac means less than $50 per bottle," my resolve to ignore you only strengthened.  
I will not put up the false facade of dislike.  You retain the ability to enchant, beguile and infatuate.  The price you ask is simply too dear.  Like Burgundy, my desire remains true but my credit card stays home if I think we'll run into one another.  If I cross the street when you approach, you'll know why.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dear Burgundy,

Let me say first how sorry I am. It seemed we would last forever. After intense glances followed by lengthy absences, we gravitated together and I fell madly in love. Occasional frustrations and spats only deepened our connection when things aligned properly. Other wines faded into the background when you visited.
Your whites enchanted originally but the reds became part of me. Dalliances with other regions notwithstanding, I remained loyal and spent a lot of time, personally and professionally, touting you to anyone who would listen.
Now you have more callers than you know what to do with and you've developed expensive tastes. I knew your penchant for luxury but also knew it was pursued on special occasions only and you had enough admirers that I could make scarce then.
Your wines are fantastic, perhaps the best they have ever been but the prices are such that you prevent many suitors from even asking for your number. Less competition should make me happy but I find myself on the wrong side of the velvet ropes, lacking the cover charge for reliable entertainment.
For a while, I waited and tasted, hoping for sublime experiences at a reasonable price. Eventually, they stopped coming and your moody eccentricities, tolerable at reasonable prices, like a child's fit of pique at a picnic, became petulant tantrums in posher settings, harder to ignore.
A recent review from the Wine Spectator showed only one selection out of sixteen "Top Wines" under $100, and it listed for $72. Nine of the others cost more than $300 a bottle. You know me, I do not buy ratings but this scared me. An offering of 2009 futures recently found my inbox. My lip quivered as the attachment opened. Hope still existed. Surely paying up front would alleviate sticker shock and allow me access to my beloved.
Alas, lowly Aligote and Passetoutgrains sell for $19 and $20 and a Gevrey Chambertin, granted a premier cru, for $125 (and that looks good compared to others). Even a reliable Bourgogne rouge now approaches the $40 mark. It's not me, it's you.
Newcomers may find the current state of affairs acceptable but this can't go on any longer. You run with a different crowd and I hope you'll be happy since I still care about you. Be sure the current wooers understand you because when your mercurial and occasionally querulous nature emerges they may run back to their easy and willing wines from Down Under or California. Your true admirers may not be here when you decide to come slumming.
Adieu mon amour, I miss you already.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Champagne Scams

Don and Petie Kladstrup authored a fascinating book on Champagne and its history. If you've ever had a glass of true champagne, do yourself a favor and read this. If you haven't, go get a bottle and read this. Many of the big picture stories are well known but they personalize them in a way rarely seen in wine writing.
The portion of the book that riveted me more than any other, not for its drama but its revelations, told tales of inventive scams. Americans have hijacked French regions' names for marketing purposes. Neither true chablis nor burgundy come in four liter jugs or boxes. Likewise, champagne only comes from the appellation in France. California sparkling wine can not call itself champagne any more. Americans are not the only offenders.

The appeal of the scam is clear. Call a generic bag a Gucci and make more money. Label any sparkling wine champagne and it sold with nowhere near the effort it would take to educate people about the real area where the wine was produced.

Check out how blatant it used to be:

"One of the most daring was Leon Chandon, who realized that if his name were printed just right, people would confuse the champagne he made with that of Moet & Chandon, and buy more of his bubbly. Not only were Leon's bottle labels nearly identical to Moet & Chandon's, but his corks were branded with the same star...And it was perfectly legal. At least, there was nothing in the books that said such things were illegal."

Victor Cliquot (pretty close to Veuve Cliquot) tried the same trick. And "[w]hen the cellarmaster at Ruinart Pere et Fils decided to set up a champagne house of his own, one of his first acts was to hire a retired cavalry officer named Paul Ruinart." The Bousigues brothers found a more marketable name than their own when, in Strasbourg, "they discovered that the name of their waiter was Roederer." Louis Roederer took them to court but found no satisfaction.

In Hammondsport, New York a producer of sparkling wine "had won numerous awards for its sparkling wine" but the proprietors "decided they could make even more money if they had a more prestigious address. To arrange that, they met with officials from the U.S. Postal Service and explained how the soil and climatic conditions of their region were much like Champagne's...within a few days, a small branch post office was opened on the premises of the Great Western Wine Company. The official address: Rheims, New York, which was the common spelling for Reims [a significant location in Champagne] in those days." They still wanted more though, traveling to France and finding "an old woman who had once been a cook...her last name was Pommery...In no time at all, the House of Pommery was reborn, this time in Rheims, New York."

Makes Goats do Roam's play on Cotes du Rhone look like nothing at all.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Seghesio, Sold!

Some weather the storm, some change forever. Ridge sold years ago but never missed a beat. Ravenswood did not fare as well, in this writer's opinion, but still produces some decent wine. Seghesio ranks right up there as one of the best zinfandel producers. The more important loss of a family-owned winery with national recognition should not be overlooked.
Large corporate owners need to grow to satisfy shareholders and rare is the operation that can continue to produce high quality juice at the same time. I remain optimistic since family members will remain involved but will approach with caution, especially a few years from now when consumers may forget the change. Of course, the corporate party line is to not alter anything...who would say we're going to change everything and double production when the wine world's eyes are upon you?
The new owner, Crimson Wine Group, also owns Pine Ridge - still a good producer - and Archery Summit - has been overpriced for years - so the news may remain good in the longer term. Keep buying and tasting and let's hope the wines remain as true and well-made as they are today.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Blast From The Past

On vacation in Maine and stumbled across a TIME magazine from July 7, 1961. Back then you could get an entire year of TIME for $7, bet that doesn't cover the shipping anymore. But before you assume I'm going to start talking about the good old days (and this was published years before I was born), allow me to share an advertisement found inside this edition.

In the background a somewhat serious Steve McQueen-type holds a smiling blonde while she leans back to have the light catch a glass of red wine and her ample bosom. Focus closer and you'll find badly drawn (now it would be digitally normalized) male hands, one holds a glass of red wine and the other a grilling fork. The chef wears, what else, a chef's hat, which looks like an ambitious muffin, while leering at the middle of another woman's back.

I can only surmise they were not all in the studio together, hence the somewhat misplaced gaze. There is no background of any kind.

Observer's eyes follow his toward another glass of red wine, being held up to the lips of an attractive woman. She exudes all-American girl right down to a checked shirt a la Mary-Ann on Gilligan's Island (not on TV yet) and bowl-cut-with-panache so typical of the time. The chef appears genuinely enamored of his luck to be cooking for her and if they are anything other than employer/employee, I echo the feeling. His face displays beginnings of doughy sections expected from those further along in age, especially in the chin which might once have jutted and been called chiseled. The chef's extravagant nose protrudes beautifully for this ad since it catches more light and helps guide the viewer's eye to the true focus of the full page spread.

The Mary-Ann character arches her brows somewhat expectantly and perfectly shows an anticipatory smile as she prepares to have some Taylor Burgundy with her hamburger.
[Note: The hamburger appears to be naked except for the bun. Further note: Why the chef has a fork while cooking burgers is completely beyond me].

The copy reads as follows:
"It's a Taylor wine and you'll love it! Vineyard-rich, ruby-red Taylor New York State Burgundy adds glamour and glory to the moment...and to the menu, whether you're supping out under the sycamores...or by soft candlelight. For family meals, entertaining, or when you dine out, choose from Taylor's famous array of wines. Ask your wine merchant for helpful Taylor booklets."

I have no idea what vineyard-rich means but it reminds me more of manure than something I want in my glass. Please notice also that no mention of taste appears. I applaud their restraint in waxing poetic and their honesty in not trying to make this wine something it could never even aspire to be but the audacity of boldly labeling the wine "New York State Burgundy" baffles, amazes and frightens all at once. It's no wonder we get so confused about wine.

Coming soon: Some stories of blatant fraud involving Champagne...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Les Traverses de Fontanes 2009

A  relatively new production from the winemaker at Chateau La Roque, in Pic-St-Loup, Cyriaque Rozier has produced a lovely summer red.  Despite it being Cabernet Sauvignon from 40 year old vines, the wine retains a freshness and happy mouth fell more reminiscent of other varieties.  In fact, if a Cabernet drinker wants a glass the offering may fall short. 

Deep berry jam, fresh though, not the sugary, grocery-store stuff, with some fresh herbs and lots of cherry on the nose.  There is a bit a whiff of earth past that, but as fresh as can be on a sunny day without rain for two weeks.  A hint of nuttiness implying old oak, but Kermit's site, and my memory, say it is all stainless steel.  Fine, fresh tannins and acid make this a perfect red wine for chilling and cocktails.  Feel free to try this with cheese and crackers on the deck (firmer cheeses would be better) and simple grilled foods as well, including some richer fish and vegetables.  Excellent burger wine!  $12-$15.  Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Three Great Summer Rieslings

Merkelbach Kinheimer Rosen Riesling Kabinett 2009 - I mean this in the nicest way possible, the wines always remind me of water. By this I mean, crystalline mountain stream water that fells good on the feet on a hot summer day and tastes even better, soothing and shocking your palate at the same time. The soothe cools a hot head on tasty days and the shock comes from the double take you will make on the finish. How can a wine so seemingly light, quaffable and innocuous last so long? I challenge you to not tip this bottle straight to your lips after yard work. The ultimate in elegant Mosel wines. Think unctuous but racy, ethereal yet persistent, simple wine to slosh back but it will subtly wine you over. Plenty of acid balances out the remaining sugar. Not bone dry by any means but delicious and a perfect substitute for beer or an aperitif on the patio. $14-$17

Leitz Ein Zwei Dry '3' Riesling 2009 - From the Rheingau, this is a newish wine from a stellar producer. Let me admit that I do not, as a rule, enjoy dry German rieslings. That does not mean I only like the dessert wines only that I find the truly dry versions to offer hints of the juicy fruits I enjoy but they fade too fast for me. The finishes feel clipped instead of broad and expansive. There have been more enjoyable versions of late and this is one of them. I find guava here, sorry for the geeky reference, but it screamed guava to me. The wine is noticeably tactile, even approaching thickness on the palate. As it finishes, it becomes zippy and more expressive that on the mid-palate. Well done, and would pair wonderfully with myriad vegetables and gently spicy shellfish. $13-$15

Christoffel Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2009 - This Mosel producer makes expressive wines with more oomph and pizazz than many neighbors without sacrificing the delicious slurpability that marks the appellation. They receive a premium for the effort. While I complain under my breath I freely acknowledge it's money well spent. This bottling offers hints of tropicality and spring blossoms and the somewhat linear feel on the palate blooms on the finish. the most striking aspect of the wine for me is it's near crunchy feel on the palate. Almost like unpasteurized honey or homemade preserves the wine feels special and the taste follows. Lovely. $22-$25

Note: All wines are Terry Theise selection imported through Michael Skurnik. Also, they are all 2009 vintage, some labels pictured here do not correspond.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Screwcap Cork Tasting

Finally, after years of toting around wines of the same vintage with cork and screwcap finishes, I opened a couple.  The 2006 Castano Monsatrell used a plastic faux cork style closure before moving to screwcaps.  They were purchased at the same time - within a week - direct from the distributor.  The screwcap emerged mid-release and I do not know the treatment previous to release.  Was it in tank?  Bottled and then released?  At any rate, the tasting amazed me.  
Remember that the grape is monastrell, Spanish for mourvedre, and the variety can be a bit funky and non-traditional anyway.  
I found the experiment surprising.  
The screwcap was bright, juicy and displayed some leather aromas with a spritz on the palate I associate with newly released, yet-to-settle wines.  It was obviously fresh and tasted young.  It was very bright and acidic.  
For all of my ranting about the fake, plastic corks I found this to be the superior bottling.  The nose offered deeper and rounder fruits and the palate was softer and more enjoyable.  Acid appeared but did not dominate as it did in the screwcap bottle.  Darker, more purple fruit with leather underneath made for better balance and made this wine more subtle than the first.  It showed completeness and maturity the screwcap did not.  Although the final impression involved some of the prickly feel of the first it was all better integrated and a much more enjoyable wine.  
Tasting the bottles for three days showed no appreciable changes other than the normal degradation of wine.  The screwcap remained intense and unpleasant while the faux cork version was the only one I wanted in my glass.  
The screwcap seemed to have frozen the bottle in time.  Castano's wines need some time to breathe and evolve and only one bottling got that option.
I am looking forward to the next round of experimentation.  I will be putting together a full tasting this fall, if not earlier to explore further.  I promise to keep updating right here.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Schild's Shiraz Sequel - Shrewd or Scheming?

The Wine Spectator's July 31st edition follows up on something I'm surprised we don't notice more often. Reported by the Spectator earlier, I don't stay glued to this computer reading wine stories so I miss some, Schild Estate in Barossa received a knock-out rating from the magazine and an exalted #7 in their Top 100 for 2010. With a reasonable price the wine sold quickly.
They purchased and bottled 5,000 additional cases under the same moniker and vintage. The winery claims different labels; the Spectator alludes to having to prod them to do just that. Regardless, the "2nd Blend" strip label hardly suffices to clarify.
As I understand it, nothing illegal has occurred here. Although how one can employ the word estate in the winery name and then bottle non-estate grapes and not violate some legal restrictions is completely beyond me. The label says Barossa and the second round is from Barossa. The vintages were both 2008. However, that's all the leeway I'm going to give them.
The rest is pure greed and obfuscation, even deceit. I don't get many opportunities to use this word, but skulduggery seems wildly apropos in this instance. A review that can bolster the bottom line for years to come may indeed do exactly the opposite due to short-term selfishness and lack of scruples. The fact that the winery did not plan to export any of this second batch makes it perhaps all the worse.
Maybe they told their Australian accounts of the new production but that may not get translated to the final consumer. Why not make a fun bottling with a completely other label to carry your fans through to the 2009 release. Sellout Shiraz or Substitute Shiraz or maybe even Stopgap Shiraz? They would have fun with it I bet and no risk to the winery of being found out would exist. In fact, positive press coverage might result, especially if the wine turns out to be solid. If, however, they intended to keep even those loyal to the brand in the dark then there should be severe penalties.
This sort of resupply happens all the time with generic, inexpensive wines. It should never happen with an estate wine under any circumstance. Changing sources in mid-vintage is questionable practice but understandable for large producers. Yet another reason to avoid cookie-cutter wines. Rolling out a new blend in the wake of wild commercial success is about as underhanded as you can get.
I have seen retail allocations disappear after huge reviews to protect loyal restaurants. I have seen wineries frustrated that they're out of stock when turning away long-time supporters. I have never seen a winery come up with a new wine under an old label to keep the pipeline full. Perhaps that's naivete on my part.
The wineries decision was conscious and planned. In light of the review, "a decision was made by Schild Estate Wines to reallocate the majority of the 2008 Barossa Shiraz production to the US market," said Corey Mohr, GM of the winery, in a press release. I would be livid in the local market if a big review appeared and they sold that juice halfway around the world while coming back to me with an inferior product under a nearly identical label.
The Wine Spectator finally had the ability to review the original and the sequel; "this second bottling (destined solely for sale in Australia, according to the winery) rated significantly lower than the original cuvee." July 31, 2011, p.55.
This is like a concert promoter after a five day sold-out stand with a popular band adding two nights but offering a cover band instead. It's shameful and it reflects poorly on the rest of the wine world. Though the price to pay may be steep for this winery the damage done to reputable producers is incalculable.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lot 18 - A New Outlet Online

A website has entered the confusing fray of online wine sales. They entered with a splash and seem to be aggressively hiring and trying to carve a profitable niche in a challenging arena. The model is simple, but unique; tap into wines that may need exposure or may be gathering dust at the winery and offer them at dramatically reduced prices for short periods of time, sometimes mere hours.
Many of the offerings arrive in my inbox with big point ratings, some are from top-notch producers and some I have never encountered. I checked all the prices for a few weeks and they are very attractive. Despite my fairly minor complaint about the twice-daily e-mails I have some serious concerns.
Steve Heimoff discussed his issue of them using "glitter-by-association" by name-dropping a winemaker for a famous producer even though the wine on sale does not come from that producer. I have no issues with that as long as they make it clear.
Mr. Heimoff also mentions his apprehension about the quality of the offerings and muses that Lot 18 may be a mere dumping ground for slow-moving product.
That nearly goes without saying. No winery in their right mind sells wines to a discount retailer by choice. Beyond the obvious loss of immediate revenue the producer runs the risk of alienating their more traditional outlets. If I ran a retail shop and consistently supported a winery's pinot noir around $40 and my customers could get that wine for a day or two for $25, sometimes with free shipping, I would be tempted to never carry that wine again. Try being a wholesaler for that product, it may be offered below your price.
I understand upscale producers face serious challenges in this economy but selling twenty or twenty-five cases and damaging other outlets is short sighted, at best.
The major hurdle here is one I worry about routinely being in the sultry south. Half of the year is damn hot down here and can destroy wine in mere hours under the wrong conditions. Forget overnight shipping saving anything, deliver after noon in a non-air-conditioned truck and that wine is toast. I have not ordered from Lot 18 so I do not know their shipping procedures and do not mean to cast dispersions at them in particular.
Shipping is challenging, I speak from experience. As a retail manager and salesman for more than six years we constantly concerned ourselves about heat and even had wine freeze one time when the shipper was unable to deliver before end of business on Friday and left the wine in a cold part of the warehouse.
You also can not taste these offerings before buying. That is an e-tail specific problem for wine which has no easy remedy.
It is a buyer's market, dig around a bit locally, you may be surprised what you can find, taste and transport all on your own.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

One Hit, One Miss with Grilling

I drink very little domestic Chardonnay but have always appreciated Saintsbury's restraint and balance compared to many of their neighbors. A chilled bottle in the fridge and the easy screwcap access helped make this the right choice for a gathering. There would be grilled salmon with an olive aioli that should at least be able to shake hands and communicate with the Saintsbury even if they were unlikely to be best friends.

Saintsbury Chardonnay, Carneros 2008 - The chardonnay comes from Carneros and usually displays a crispness and restrained use of oak. Malolactic fermentation occurs and there is some new oak (25-33%) but the French oak and cooler climate keep things from getting out of control. The wine is unfiltered and this 2008 (2009 current release) displayed a creamy, lemon nose with clear accents of oak - too much for me, but I'm picky. The palate was more of the same with some buttery texture. I found the wine disjointed and generally out of balance. I also thought it might have been acidified, the acidity seemed out of place, and it was way too sweet for me. It did not fare well as it warmed, admittedly my error for allowing it to reach that temperature. I need to try the 2009 to see if this was an aberration or if it is a sign of style to come. Fans of California chardonnay will be perfectly happy, but I was disappointed. $18-$20.

Vesevo Beneventano Aglianico, Campania 2006 - From Campania, where Naples is located, comes one of my favorite Italian grapes, aglianico. It reminds me of zinfandel, with its bright fruit and drinkability, it retains a sensibility that is distinctly Italian which makes it friendlier with food. I served this with dry-rub ribs but it worked with the salmon mentioned above fairly well. The wine was smoky, with juicy red fruit and some flashy smoky note on the palate. The texture showed extraction, but not to much and the red berry from the nose expanded to show more purple fruit. I have never quite been able to describe the purple fruit thing, but if Kool-Aid grape (purple) could have been reverse engineered and turned into a fruit without out so much sugar that might explain it. Very fine tannin offered balance but most of the dryness came from acidity and minerality. The winery is named after Mount Vesuvius and the wines in the area derive lots of complexity from minerality created through decomposition of lava from the legendary eruption in 79 AD. This wine exhibits a balanced zinfandel-style and will work wonders with grilled meats. Keep this one handy this summer. Imported by VinDivino, $15-$18.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Program, get your programs here...can't tell the players without a program...

LRG - Lifestyle Revolution Group

LVMH - Louis Vitton, Moet Hennessey

VC - Veuve Clicquot

A new restaurant has opened on Poydras St in an area mostly populated by drinking establishments that serve food. The area bustles when major events happen at the Superdome and lunch brings lots of potential action from the location in the CBD (Central Business District). Fine dining at night has not stretched successfully to this area. Enter a growing player in the New Orleans scene, LRG. They also run Republic (the bar/nightclub), Loa (International House's bar), Capdeville and Sylvain (restaurants).

Their website describes the restaurant as, "an elegant, modern French restaurant inspired by the legendary Champagne houses of France...taking inspiration from renowned Champagne houses like Veuve Clicquot, Ste. Marie offers an extensive menu featuring six Champagnes and twenty-two sparkling wines from different locations, each possessing distinct flavors."

To remind diners of the importance of champagne to the restaurant they have constructed a champagne tower. Every diner that orders a bottle of Veuve Clicquot gets an "orange paint pen" to autograph the bottle and have it placed in the tower for all to see. I assume the La Grande Dame bottling ($418) will be included but I'm sure there will be a lot more of the Yellow Label (I question my ability to see color every time someone calls this yellow - it's clearly more orange) priced at a more reasonable $110.

Let me point out the level of import this will have for the ownership of the restaurant. If people buy into this concept it might just keep them around for a while. I guarantee Veuve Clicquot and/or the distributor, coincidentally named Republic...hmmm, is offering them free goods or a healthy discount for the devotion and the glass pour. I bet the incentive to the restaurant is significant. More power to them. Capitalism at work. Generate a need, offer the product to fulfill that, get it at a larger discount than others in the market and charge market rates. Pocket profits and enjoy.

Please don't delude yourself into thinking that the featured champagne is unique or distinct any longer. Production numbers have increased significantly and, in my opinion - and I am not alone in this, quality has slipped. For comparison, Louis Roederer, a well-known producer - they make Cristal among others bottlings, uses about 320 hecatres (approx. 645 acres) to produce all their wines. Veuve Clicquot owns more than that (not a bad thing) but even their extensive estate vineyards (382 hectares) only account for about one-quarter of their needs. They are a huge producer of champagne and have lost any aura of uniqueness in the wine world. That being said, it still sells well because most consumers know it and are comfortable with it.

The same can be said of McDonald's hamburgers, Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts and USA Today. By all means, be one of those things if you want, but don't try to make me think you're something else. And don't expect me to be part of your customer base.
Be LRG, but don't think you're really revolutionizing a lifestyle by featuring a champagne that can be found in convenience stores. Don't offer a wine that produces 600,000 cases of the Yellow Label Brut each year (that was nearly a decade ago, who knows where they are now) and tell me it's distinct.

Maybe the location of the restaurant, sandwiched between a local chain pizzeria (Reginelli's) and a Jamba Juice outlet says it all. Maybe the restaurant shouldn't be called Ste. Marie, a reference to an old name for the neighborhood, maybe it should be called LRGLVMHVC. There's an alphabet soup that I have no interest in sampling.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

It continues, part II

I really need to stop this, but it's so insanely entertaining as to be laughable. Now the link works! But, it takes you to a map, literally a map, of the layout of the floor. I can see where the tables will be, where the band will be, etc. I don't need this; can't really imagine any use for this posting whatsoever.
Give me the layout of wineries and restaurants so I can plan my time in advance...please. Pretty please...with sugar on top...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So close...and yet so far

Lo and behold(!), the day after I posted my complaint about the lack of an advance map an option appeared at Imagine my excitement...followed by disappointment. The link does nothing. It just cycles back to that page. Almost got it right.
Please keep trying, I know you can make it happen.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A NOWFE Frustration Continues

I have never understood large wine events not making the full list of wines to be tasted available in advance. The ubiquitous presence of computers makes the situation even more baffling. The ease of posting that information makes the absence inexcusable. A local, respected sommelier interviewed for the Times-Picayune article previewing the New Orleans Food & Wine Experience offers advice about the Grand Tasting. He recommends taking 15 minutes to plan where you want to go and what you want to taste. I applaud his notion.
However, when I'm paying $30 an hour to taste wine and enjoy some food, it would be nice to be able to make that plan from the comfort of my own home. Once I'm at the event I want to be doing, not planning.
I'm aware I may be in the minority. I always run into lots of people I haven't seen in a while and having been in the business in New Orleans for fifteen years I have lots of colleagues to see, but I'm there to explore and taste. The more information I have in advance the better prepared I am to visit the winerie I "need" to see and have appropriate questions ready.
A detailed map of what is handed out as people enter; the map is found inside of a printed program. Somewhere along the line a document must be produced, at least a week (probably a lot earlier), in advance that could be posted on their website. Encouraging people to print these in advance would cut down, eventually, on their printing costs as well. How about it?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

NOWFE: 1st Article Feedback

The Times-Picayune published a preview article in the Lagniappe section Friday. It is a much stronger effort than in years past. An item lost on many gets stressed early on: this is a charity event, benefiting various culinary and restaurant-focused, local organizations. The cause is good and the events are solid but lots of people do not participate due to the expense.
Improvements have been made regarding the overall event. Unfortunately, one of the biggest vanishes this year. The Grand Tastings return to the Convention Center from their more successful Superdome location of the past few years. Although crowds are appropriately handled and the hall works, the taller, roomier Superdome felt more inviting to this taster. Renovations at the home of the Saints forced the return to NOWFE's previous sipping grounds.
The largest improvement of late has been related to food. More new and interesting culinary efforts exist than ever before. Too much of it still runs out much too early, but thank you.
I worry about the addition of VINOLA, a high-end event on Thursday featuring wines priced at retail from $75 up. For years, NOWFE's Grand Tastings accommodated restaurateurs by offering free admission before the paying customers arrived. Due to some short-sighted thinking and some abuses by restaurant staff, the option was eliminated for a number of years. Now that it has returned, better wines and wineries should follow. [Like it or not, right or wrong, most wineries stress restaurant placement over retail sales. This means that some dropped out since they lacked access to the market they desired but are now returning.]
However, since wineries and local distributors donate all the wine consumed at the various events, focus for upper end wines may shift to VINOLA at the expense of the Grand Tastings. [Forget seeing the wineries that produce small quantities since they can not justify free bottles for judging, dinners, the Royal St. Stroll and Grand Tastings] Even the article, by Todd A. Price, describes them as follows, "The Grand Tasting, which features more budget priced options, is a chance to discover wines that you might drink on a weeknight and that are easy to find at your local grocery and liquor store." I can hear the NOWFE board cringing as I type this. If it's all"budget priced" wine then should the tickets be $89 + service charges? Should they continue to be called Grand Tastings? I think the description is inaccurate; I still found exciting, relatively high-end wines available at the Grand Tastings the last two years but fear an erosion in deference to the upper-end customers at VINOLA (tickets are $150 for this event).

Tomorrow: a frustration continues, mabye we can finally end it for next year...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The French Need a Better Marketing Company

When it comes to wine, I am a devout Francophile. In matters of marketing I find them excruciatingly clueless, squandering their long established reputation to chase business. The folks outside of Europe making wine must love them.
Bordeaux and Burgundy still attract serious consumers and offer some of the most collectible wines available. Both regions have been plagued by suspect producers riding the coattails of more earnest neighbors; the resulting confusion, perhaps alienation, for disappointed customers has damaged reputations.
Bordeaux has moved to cull some of the producers that produce Two-Euro Pierre believing that will alleviate the loss of prestige. That level of plonk does not make it to the U.S. Ridding the market of sub-par wine is never a bad idea but the CIVB (Bordeaux's Wine Council) believes that naming various tiers 'Fun', 'Exploration' and 'Art' will somehow further improve their status. I don't get it.
The inherent 'problem' for the region remains the climate and resulting style of wines when considered among the hugely extracted, super-ripe styles available from various New World sources. I never felt ripped off by Bordeaux under $10, I don't buy any. I no longer buy Bordeaux at all because the prices for wines that used to be affordable have risen to astronomical prices and I almost never find anything under $25 that's worth drinking. Lower priced options lack the concentrated fruit people expect from those wines and will disappoint most drinkers. If the move is to solidify the European market then the goofy names will likely be a liability; if the goal is to right the ship in the U.S. then the wines need more trickery and magic in the cellar to make them plusher and more gulpable. I am not advocating this necessarily, but name and label alterations will not change customers reactions, if the products even get to them. More and more buyers have simply forsaken Bordeaux selections across the board due to lackluster sales.
Burgundy has also fallen into step with some deranged Pied Piper. They are planning on two new appellations, 'Coteaux Bourguignons' and 'Bourgogne Cote d'Or.' The latter allows low cost Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to be labeled something other than just Bourgogne. I'm confused about this, but can sort of see the point. My fear is that bottles previously bottled as Bourgogne Cotes de Nuits or Cotes de Beaune will now lose their individual identities and be bottled as one under the new moniker. This may be misplaced concern, but for me, the appeal of Burgundy is its striking specificity, which could be diluted under this approach.
The former shows the French at their rudderless best. 'Coteaux Bourguignons' can be used on lower priced Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay from Burgundy and Beaujolais. Basically, it's a renaming of an appellation rarely, if ever, seen in the U.S. - Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire (now there's a ironic name). People already complain they don't understand the French system, I know, let's add more names and be sure to include at least two grapes of the same color from different regions to further befuddle the potential consumer.
The French led the charge by creating the appellation system. It works well, for the most part. They should be careful about chasing current trends, they may find the market comes back to where they used to be only to find them out to lunch. Just ask all those growers in California who planted Merlot in the late 90s...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wine in Kitchens

This should never happen, even in your home. unless you're about to cook with it. Kitchens get hot, have lots of light and vibrating appliances that jostle wine. Just in case you don't know, all of those things are bad. Plenty of restaurants around the world store wine there due to space constraints or idiocy, or both. Much too often in casual dining experiences in New Orleans I want an ice bucket for my reds. This can happen even when wine is not stored in the kitchen since our weather hardly drops below 80, even in the middle of the night, for three or four months at a time. A few weeks at less than optimal temperatures may not damage the wine severely and most casual dining spots steer clear of offering high end selections.
Kitchen storage is another thing altogether. They get away with it because the risks of consumption pale in comparison with fish stored behind the bar or chicken on a pantry shelf. While I do not believe that TV shows owe us any education, especially 'reality' versions, some should strive to present a more professional standard. Top Chef Masters stores wine in their kitchen. I will grant you it is a grand room, no doubt equipped with state of the art everything. Wine bottles decorate some walls with no apparent enclosure to ensure proper temperature. It looks neat and maybe they're "only using the wine for cooking" but it sets a bad example. I'm sure the air conditioning is top notch but I see the chefs sweat while working so the wine can't be at ideal temperature.
Oh well, I guess there are no reality shows to emulate, even one that donates all winnings to charity. Think Jersey Shore might be the shining light for us? Me either.