Monday, December 31, 2007

HAPPY NEW YEAR!



I just wanted to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy, healthy and vinous New Year!

I am finally feeling better after 10 days of the flu and I'll be back ranting before you know it, I promise. I know, I know, you just can't wait...
Cheers!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Out with the Flu



Dear faithful friends and readers,

I have been out with the flu, and an apparently wonderfully nasty version of it too, for the past week, so no wine-tasting, barely any eating, let alone cooking, and no posting. On the bright side, I'm losing weight real fast.

I can't wait to open up a good bottle of wine and just sit there and enjoy it over a few hours.

So I apologize for my delay in posting and promise to get back to ranting as soon as possible!
Cheers!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Merry Vinous Christmas!


I just wanted to take a little intermission and wish all my readers and browsers a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season. I'll be back ranting soon enough...
Cheers!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tree-Decorating Wines (Champagne & Burgundy, what else?)



We finally bought a lovely little tree for our NYC apartment and spent most of Sunday's miserably cold and rainy afternoon decorating it. What better way to celebrate the nice tree and the crappy weather than with a bottle of bubbly? Heck, what better way to celebrate any day? Champagne is just wine with bubbles, and in my continued quest to find well-priced bottles, I opened this:

-NV Andre Clouet Brut
Toasty, yeasty with more of a light brioche and gingerbread aspect than lemony fruit, this was nice, especially when its high acidity met the silky, velvety fat of the Jamon we were eating. A surprising complement, it just cut through the Jamon's hedonistic delight while simultaneously clearing the palate for the next bite. A nice, not great Champagne, especially at $28.

Dinner was a light workout on the new stove, with a potato-garlic gratin, some sauteed Bok Choy and a broiled 28-day dry-aged boneless sirloin. What better way to celebrate the beginnings of a new kitchen than with a lightly-aged Burgundy?


-1993 Robert Ampeau Volnay Santenots
At first blush, this teasingly revealed some funky fine fruits and berries, the nose coming and going, like a cabaret dancer darting on and off stage. I let it breathe while I cooked, and doing so helped out tremendously. Still shy when plates were served, she finally woke up to lightly dance and prance around our palates, a feather-light boa of red fruits curling around the tongue, with some stiletto heels of acidity to balance the fruit, its medium-length finish like a whisper reminding you of what you just saw.

Much better than the 1976 I opened recently, which didn't show anything at all and was a complete no-show. Did I mention how much I love Burgundy?
Cheers!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Nice Snack



As we're setting up the Christmas Tree, our stomachs grumble, so I reach into the refrigerator and find my souvenir from my trip to Madrid: some lovely Joselito Jamon Iberico... Within minutes, it's on the table, slices of bread and some salt alongside to keep us company as we decorate the tree.

As it warms up, you can almost taste the nuts the pigs browsed on before giving themselves up for our pleasure. On the tongue, this silky ham just melts away, almost evaporating.

A nice treat to tide us over before a dinner of 28-day dry-aged boneless sirloin, potato-garlic gratin and sauteed Bok Choy straight from Chinatown. Yum!

Cheers!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And so it begins...


The Old Range

...The kitchen renovation, that is.

Yes, after many years of putting up with a kitchen the size of most Americans' shoe closets, I've decided to throw down the gauntlet. Time for a kitchen renovation... God help us.

One of the first steps was to replace the old range, a GE model from 1995, with a brand new Bosch 700 Series Evolution Gas Range. The old model's oven died in May and so I've been pan-searing/sauteeing/boiling/steaming since then. No roasting. As someone who loves cooking, this situation was completely unacceptable. Luckily, we had a toaster oven, but man did I have to jam that roast chicken in there. When it came out, it certainly didn't look like chicken anymore...


The New Range

Well, after procrastinating a long time and researching a lot, I decided on the range shown above. Whereas the old one had a hard time getting water to boil, this one can basically send the Space Shuttle into orbit with 16K BTU of power. When I first turned this on, the paint on my ceiling peeled. The next time my upstairs neighbor gets noisy, I'm turning this sucker on and letting his floor melt.

I made our first meal on it tonight, a quick saute of chicken, vegetables, garlic and pasta. Easy right? Well, apparently there's a learning curve with this new-fangled thing. The chicken was over-cooked, the pasta slightly mushy, the pan handles got very hot, so I've got some adapting to do. I am worried about my next omelette.


The Old Kitchen with the New Range

In any case, the next step(s) will be taking down the wall shown on the right-hand side of the picture, replacing it with a peninsula with storage cabinets underneath. All the cabinets in the kitchen will be replaced by custom-made ones, and a new granite countertop is being cut as I write these words. Yay!

I'll keep updating this blog with the work as it progresses (or doesn't), and I estimate we should be done in, say, 2012.

To celebrate, we opened a bottle of 2002 Jacques Frederic Mugnier Chambolle Musigny, a lovely, elegant and almost subtly poetic wine. Very light-bodied, it was just full of that lovely Burgundian funk, with cherries and light raspberries filling the palate on an elegant frame, its acidity just washing out the mouth and prepping you for the next glass. Beautiful, finesse defined. God, I love Burgundy!
Cheers!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Madrid- A Time for Work


Ageing Barrels

And so now it was time to taste some wines. We gathered in the lobby of our hotel, a motley crew of wine buyers and wine press from all over the US, wondering what this trip would unveil. Never having been to Spain, I was more curious than the others. I knew about the traditional regions like the Rioja and the Priorat, and of course the Ribera del Duero, but the Vinos de Madrid wines were a completely new beast for me.

Red wines in this area use traditional Spanish grapes like Tempranillo and Grenache (called Garnacha, and apparently originally from Spain as per Victor de la Serna), as well as more international varieties like, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Whites are made with Airén, Albillo, Malvar, Macabeo, Parellada, Torrontés and Moscatel de Grano Menudo. OK, so I knew a few of those, but many were mysteries.

Our first stop was at Bodega Jesús Diaz, where they've been fermenting wines in enormous earthen amphorae since 1898, ageing them in 15th century cellars. We tasted their white wine, from the Malvar grape, a light, floral, waxy wine with hints of tea and McIntosh apples. It was rather weird, especially to this Francophile palate. The finish was a bit short, and frankly the wine smelled better than it tasted, offering all up front then falling flat at the back of the mouth.

Before heading to lunch, we stopped at a research center where they're trying to improve the quality of local wines. Admirable and interesting in a geeky sort of way, but I won't bore you with the details. Lunch, back in Madrid at the Paradís restaurant, however, was delicious. We were introduced to a variety of officials and a few winemakers, as well as Spain's eminent wine critic, Jose Penin. His wine guides are a must-read for any lover of Spanish wines. Even though he didn't speak English, he was fluent in French, and so I managed to have a lovely chat with him. Turned out we had many friends in common in the wine business in France. Who knew?

The rest of the afternoon was taken up by the 9th International Salon de los Vinos de Madrid (trade show). There were a few good wines, far too many bad ones, but sadly prices weren't as friendly as I'd hoped. On more than one occasion, I had to stifle a chuckle...

For our first night, we decided to be real Madrileños and hit as many tapas bars as possible, starting with Madrid's oldest, La Venencia. This very old, smoke-stained bar specializes in Sherry, and that's it. And so we had some delicious Manzanilla (dry) Sherry, with an assortment of cured meats and fish. The rest of the evening quickly became a blur of bars, wine, beer, and more Jamon Iberico than you can shake a pig's leg at.


At the Edge of the Abyss

The second day dawned grey and dreary, but that was fine as most of us were tired from the previous evening's, um, work. Yeah, let's call it that. In any case we appreciated the long bus ride to where Bodega Gosálbez Orti was located. This tiny, family-run winery is a new, modern affair. The visit was pretty straight-forward, and I have to say I was impressed with the investments in technology that were plainly evident.

Then we hit their tasting room.

You know, I always get worried when I see beautiful, ancient Chinese lacquered furniture, flat-screen plasma TVs and engraved tasting glasses waiting for me. Call me old-fashioned or just paranoid, or just plain cheap, but when this happens, more than likely I'll be asked to pay for all this marketing. Granted, the room looked great. And frankly, the wines were quite good, in fact, they were very good. But, my first, gut reaction was correct, as it usually is: prices were through the roof and far too much for me.

Before lunch, we stopped at Bodegas Tagonius, a large operation making wine as well as olive oil. And while the wines were nice and well-priced, I really found the olive oil making process fascinating. Lunch was amazing, even better than the previous day's: the restaurant we visited basically threw a few pigs' legs into the oven and we devoured them, along with multiple courses of delicious courses, served alongside the wines from the Tagonius winery.

Our last stop was at Real Cortijo de Aranjuez, a new winery in old cellars. Despite the impressive surroundings, I wasn't impressed with the wines, and neither were most of my colleagues. Ah well, a swing and a miss...

Dinner this night was at the famous Casa Lucio restaurant in central Madrid. The food was delicious, culminating in one of my favorite dishes, steak a la plancha. On our way home, we inadvertently stumbled into a few more tapas bars, but this was a tasting trip, so it was all done in a very professional way. "Professional" what, I'm not sure, but we sure did make sure to taste as much as possible...


Traditional Winery Mural

All in all it was a very informative trip, I did find a few interesting wineries with whom I'll be following up in 2008. But I didn't get that "Ah-hah!" moment I live for, where you sit up and go "wow". Still, I did get to meet some great people and had a wonderful time.

Pictures can be seen here:
Madrid Day 4
Madrid Day 5
Cheers!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Dom Perignon on a Friday Night



Last night a motley crew of about thirty thirsty wine lovers gathered at the brand spanking new Astor Wine Education Center. At first glance, the place looks amazing. It looks, as my friend Keith said, like Mission Control, with stainless steel Viking appliances, stainless steel sinks and motion-sensor faucets (mine seemed a bit buggy, unless a buddy was playing a prank and waving at it when I wasn't looking...). There are under-table lights that allow you to look at the color of your wine, and the chairs are comfortable and made of leather (or some leather-like material). Arrayed in a broad semi-circle, we faced a kitchen-like area with the aforementioned appliances, with three flat-screen TVs above the speakers showing us information about the wines we were tasting.

How cool is that?

Alongside the Champagne we were offered a small plate of sushi from Morimoto, which was certainly nice and better than the stale cheese and crackers most places hand out. In any case, we were thirsty and an informative Brand Manager from Dom Perignon regaled us with stories of its history while we swirled and sniffed the following wines:

-1999 Dom Perignon
Beautiful light yellow color, with yeasty almonds, hazelnuts, lemons, hints of mushrooms, some hints of light red fruits and chalk on the nose. The palate followed through, reminding me of a very young Puligny Montrachet, redolent of almond skins on a crisp frame that was full of lovely acid and structure. Somehow, this managed to be both crisp and creamy at the same time, ending with a long finish.
Quite nice if young.

-1993 Dom Perignon Oenotheque
Served in a white wine glass, interestingly. As a matter of fact, I now tend to drink all my Champagnes in white wine glasses, I find the aromas and flavors really come out more even if the bubbles diminish faster.
Creamy, lemony mushrooms with cafe au lait and toast meet the nose, this one is much more powerful, packing a fist of flavors. Yet on the palate it was crisp and elegant, with more of that lovely lemony cafe au lait and some light caramel, with a rich body offering more toast, darker nuts and a sensual, velvety mouthfeel. Sexily scrumptious.
If the 1999 reminded me of a young Puligny, this was a P-M with some nice age on it.

-1996 Dom Perignon Rose
Also served in a white wine glass.
At first this was a bit funky, making me wonder if it was a good bottle. But I think it just needed to come out of its shell, as some friends concurred. The nose was flowery, with light red fruits, chalk and some very light cafe au lait on a perfumy frame. Crisp, lemony red fruits filled the mouth, with some spicy acidity backed by strawberries and some light nuts on a nice structure.
Still, a bit young and tight. I found this to be the least expressive of the evening.

My favorite would be the Oenotheque, though I don't think I'd pay the premium for it. I really liked the 1999 and that can still be had for a reasonable price. When someone asked how many bottles of the Rose they make, the rep told us he could tell us, but he'd have to kill us. So the mystery of their total production continues...

Astor's Wine Education Center includes the tasting room and several other areas, including a beautiful kitchen. They officially open in January and I for one am looking forward to seeing the classes and events they offer.
Cheers!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kudos to a Master

Kermit Lynch

I had to take this opportunity to mention a great article in the NY Times by Eric Asimov. He profiles someone who has been an inspiration to countless folks, myself included, in the wine business: Kermit Lynch.

His dedication to finding unique wines that are as much a representation of their place of origin as they are of the winemaker has opened the door to those of us who follow in his footsteps. Had it not been for him, many of the best wines in the stores today would not be available. More than likely, the vineyards would have been paved over in the name of "development" and turned into cookie-cutter suburbs.

Instead, we are graced with countless delicious choices that are the antithesis of industrially-made Frankenwines.

So, Mr. Lynch, merci beaucoup!
Cheers!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Humbling Moments

Blind Justice

It's taken me a while to write up my notes on a fabulous dinner I had a few weeks ago in Dallas. This fantastic meal was organized at one of that city's best restaurants, Lola, led by local wine collector and nice guy Howard Marc Spector. The food was delicious, service good, and if you are looking for a great wine list at gentle prices, this is the place. I would go back in a heartbeat.

True, I've been busy travelling around (I'll write up my travel notes soon enough), but I hesitated to write about this for a simple reason: this dinner was a "blind tasting" meal, wherein all the participants brought the wines wrapped in various coverings to hide their identities. All we knew going in was that they were all supposed to be "old", and by "old" it was understood that they would be from before 1990. Many humbling moments were to ensue...

A blind tasting is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to learn about wine. It is also one of the most humbling moments any wine lover can have. To shout with absolute certainty that what you have in your glass is a great Bordeaux when it's actually a Beaujolais Nouveau, well, "red-faced" doesn't begin to describe what you might feel. Still, without the influence of a label, the mind is free to examine the wine from all aspects, looking for markers that remind one of what it has tasted previously. But it ain't easy. Fun, yes, easy, no.

That said, with experience (ie lots and lots of tasting) comes wisdom. Or so you'd think.

On this night, palates and guesses were all over the place. We started with a bottle I bought in Dallas, a 1988 Pommery Cuvee Louise Champagne, beautifully crisp and young with just the beginnings of that lovely caramelization that older bubblies get. Most folks knew right away it was Champagne, but after that most of the guesses were shots in the dark. Next up was an older Riesling, smelling strongly of petrol (typical of older Rieslings), with some nutty accents backed up by surviving fruity notes. I guessed old Riesling, but as for the year or source, I was stumped. Granted, my knowledge of Riesling is sorely lacking, but all I could venture was a mid-1970s German. OK, half-right. It was the 1964 Kunstler Spatslese. Interesting, good but on the way down.

Now we moved on to the reds. The wine before me was beefy and cedary, making me think Bordeaux, but with some stony smells that made me think perhaps California. No, this was the 1964 Gruaud Larose. The next bottle was mine, an old Italian that was redolent of dark, muddy earth churned up with red berries. Most diners had no idea what this was, though a few came very close. I proudly removed the cover to reveal the 1985 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D'Abruzzo. After this came a wine that was thick with dark, syrupy fruits, a heavy mouthfeel, and some wooden notes. We all guessed Bordeaux, and whoops, this was the 1984 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, a CA wine! It exhibited none or almost none of the dusty smells I usually get from older CA, but left me red-faced nonetheless. Another cedary wine was poured with just enough fruit to make us think CA, yet this time it was the 1989 Mouton Rothschild! The last wine was full of cedar and dark fruits, and we all voted that it was Bordeaux: indeed, this was the 1982 Chateau Montrose.

With the end of dinner, we looked forward to some blind dessert wine but were stumped when the bottle, a 1983 Cockburn, ended up being corked and undrinkable. D'oh!

Howard showed his generosity by grabbing the list and ordering a 1985 Fonseca. This wine was full-bodied and full of red and black fruits, chocolate and wood, a lovely and velvety Port that slid far too easily down the throat.

Once dinner was done, we surveyed the wreckage. None of us had really guessed anything right, and a few of us walked away red-faced from horrible guesses (myself included). But, whether we knew it or not, our minds had subconsciously recorded markers in each wine and assigned them to that specific bottle, making us better tasters. Of course, the subject of blind tasting is a controversial one among wine tasters, as most folks don't like to be humiliated or humbled. But to me this is a wonderful way to learn about wine and appreciate it even more.

And, more importantly, it's a great way to have a wonderful time.

For more thoughts on blind tasting,
Eric Asimov's article on his blog, The Pour, is a great read.
Cheers!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!



I just returned from a trip to Madrid, Spain, and will post a full report soon. But I wanted to wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.

May your day be full of food, family, fun and good health.
Cheers!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Steak-Off Saturday


Grass-fed on the left, grain-fed on the right


Saturday night I decided to do a mini-steak-off, comparing 28-day dry-aged grass-fed and similarly treated grain-fed boneless sirloins. So we invited my neighbor Asher and his lovely girlfriend Jodi over and we began popping and pouring while I started cooking. Or rather, popping and wrinkling our noses or brows in horror/confusion/consternation as bottle after bottle turned out poorly.

I had been told to pan-sear the grass-fed for 2 minutes on each side, then again for 2 minutes on each side, for black and blue (my preference). The grain was also cooked to black and blue in a stainless pan using a healthy mix of olive oil, butter and duck fat. Needless to say, the place got pretty smoky pretty fast...

That said, it was an interesting comparison.

The grass-fed was subtler and chewier than the grain-fed, which exhibited some powerful beef notes. The crust on the grass-fed was crunchier and darker, however, and while it was cooking I detected notes of grass in the smoke rising from the pan.

I liked both, so I can't say whether one is better than the other, they're just completely different beasts. I think it will depend on one's mood, really. Interestingly, the next day, the grass-fed had a better taste than the grain-fed (yes, we had leftovers, 4 lbs for 4 people is too much for us).

Now, for the wines... Well, at least the food was good. It's been a while since I had such an off night with wines, but this was quite the doozy. I think my quota for corked/cooked/dead wines for 2007 and 2008 has been met, and then some...

-2002 Carillon Puligny Montrachet
A perennial favorite, this wine has always been lovely and generous with its flavors, showcasing not only the great vintage but the terroir and the winemaker's skills.
Sadly, this night, it succumbed to an assault of TCA (cork taint) so powerful that I sensed it even before the cork had been fully removed. Not a good omen, this was the very first bottle opened this evening.
UGH.

-1992 Schoffit Rangen Clos St Theobold
Aaaah, OK, redemption. Deep gold, with slight petrolly notes wrapped around green apples and minerals, a medium-bodied oily mouthfeel and with just a hint of sweetness on the attack finishing with sharp acidity. A bit short on the finish.
Quite nice with our foie gras appetizer.

With our first course of mushroom soup, I went for the reds.

-1976 Ampeau Volnay Santenots
WTF? On the nose, it shyly admitted it was Burgundy, and on the palate, nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Rien. Not corked, not cooked, just not there.
I swirled and swirled and swirled, and still nothing. This wine just refused to come out and play.
Grrrr....

-1999 La Gerla Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
Opened the previous night, this offered cherry-covered mushrooms and went nicely with the soup. It was slightly subdued, but at this point I'd drink anything, I was getting frustrated.

-1997 Daniel Rion Nuits St Georges Vignes Rondes
Ooooh, another attempt at redemption!
Cherries, cherries and more cherries, all wrapped in lovely stinky sous-bois on a ripe frame that was ever so slightly disjointed but still drinking easily. The finish was a bit short, but this went quite well with the soup as one can imagine.

Now that the steaks were done, we poured bigger reds.

-1974 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Reserve
DOA. Damn.
I love older CA but this just didn't survive, sad to say. Tons of cedar, tea leaves, and not much else. No fruit whatsoever.

-1989 Guigal Cote Rotie Cotes Brune et Blonde
Aaaah, big and beefy, with lovely dark fruits buttressed by a burly frame and rich, nutty accents. Soft yet powerful, like a fist in a velvet glove. This went great with the beef, but that's just a "duh" statement.

At this point I was getting annoyed with all the dead soldiers, so I ran to the cellar and pulled out two more reds.

-1976 Mouton Rothschild
DOA. ARGH!

-2005 Jadot Bourgogne Rouge
Who knew? Bright, crunchy red cherries with sparkling acidity greeted the palate, waking me back up after the brutality of the previous wines. For $15, not bad.
This was so comparatively good that we opened a 2nd bottle with similar notes.

As we chatted about our streak of bad luck, Asher helped me clear the table and I got the cheeses.

-1985 Speri Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone
This wine offered big and dark fruity and nutty notes , with sharp VA and a hint of caramelization. Slowly but surely, it became apparent that this was too dark, and we all came to the realization that this bottle had been slightly heat-abused in the past.
Are you kidding me? Another bad bottle?

-2000 Ramonet Puligny Montrachet Champs Canets
Opened before dinner, this had been tightly nailed shut, with some odd odors.
Now, I opened it, looking forward to that lovely minerally minty Ramonet smell. Instead, I was greeted with yet another bottle full of TCA, and, to boot, it was premox'd. Double whammy.
GOD DAMNIT!

Now, I was buzzing from anger as well as alcohol, so I raided the cellar, grabbing the first white I saw.

-2004 Girardin Puligny Montrachet les Perrieres
Aaaaaah. I could relax now. Beautiful aromas of wet stones and almonds wrapped in a lacy gauze of lemons and lime, backed up with some quartzy minerals, with a slightly oily mouthfeel that just went on and on, ending with some spicy acidity.
Way too young, but who cares, this was just fantastic, especially with the Tomme de Savoie.

What a night, though it was made enjoyable by the friendly company and the delicious steaks. I really believe this means my quota of bad bottles for the remainder of the year has been met.
Cheers!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Thrill of Discovery

Obviously not me, but I like the picture

The other day I wrote about how I get tons of samples, and how I really need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince amongst them. And it's quite true, though many people still think I'm spoiled with all the free booze. Yeah, well, you try tasting through 20 young, thick black Corbières or Cahors wines, then come see me. If your teeth are still white and your tongue still functions, you ain't doing it right.

In that post, I mentioned how I seek something that is well-made and a good-value, a wine with good balance between all the components. Something that makes me sit up and take notice, something that tells me the winemaker wasn't just following a recipe but was actually watching over his baby like an obsessed parent. Something that gets me all excited and all revved up and reminds me why I love my job despite the constant hammering of badly-made bottles, occasionally over-priced producers and customers seeking better prices amidst a flailing Dollar.

It's something I like to call the "thrill of discovery".

It happens far too rarely, as the world is awash in an ocean of bad wine. But when it does happen, it makes everything else seem worthwhile. And I can happily say that it happened to me the other day, when I tasted a bunch of samples from a winery, Chateau La Bouscade, in the Minervois, an area located halfway between the Mediterranean coast and the ancient fortified city of Carcassonne.

There, winemaker David Cowderoy is crafting some beautiful, well-balanced, medium-to-big bodied reds from Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and old-vine Carignan. The wines, it's true, have seen some oak, but not in an obnoxious way. If anything, the wood ageing adds complexity and body to the wine without masking the fruit, something that can happen when the winemaker isn't careful. And from what I've seen so far, Mr. Cowderoy is very careful.

I tasted with a few friends in the wine business, and as we tasted the wines over the course of a few hours, I couldn't help but sit up straight, slowly and surely, a small smile creasing my lips. The wines kept on developping, becoming deeper and more complex as they breathed. While they're not huge wines, especially by New World standards, they are elegant and balanced, wines someone could enjoy alone or with food and not get burned by the alcohol.

I had similar reactions to all their bottlings, and thus to me it was a no-brainer to represent them. Better yet, they represent both a great value and an understanding of international commerce, a rare combination. This is a perfect example of the thrill of discovery. Of course, the best thing is when potential clients taste the wines and say things like "This over-delivers!"

And when it happens, it makes everything good.

Cheers!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dinner in Hudson, NY

Swoon Kitchenbar in Rhinebeck

We had dinner at Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, NY, on Thursday night, the 25th of October. A quick 20 minute drive north from Rhinebeck, this lovely little restaurant on Hudson's main street is a real gem. The decor is "rustic bistrot", with a tin ceiling, modern sconces and lots of wood. Tables are nicely-spaced apart, and the chairs quite comfortable. It reminded me a lot of the adorable bistrots I visit when in Burgundy or the French countryside. Service was a bit distracted, but not offensively so. In fact, we were in no rush, so it was fine. When we first entered, there was another couple at a table and someone sitting at the bar, so we were a bit apprehensive. 8pm at the end of the week and almost no one there? Hmm...

Now about the food... Wow. This place uses all locally-sourced ingredients to make some fine dishes. The prices were much friendlier than for similar dishes in NYC, though not surprising as it's 2 hours north of the city. Well, 1.5 hours if you drive like me...

We started with a plate of local charcuterie which was quite well-chosen, with some nice touches like coarse sea salt on the foie gras and grainy country mustard for the meats. Remember, while these may be regular things in NYC and other major culinary centers, Hudson is a small town.

My second course was a braised veal rib the size of my forearm. It was served with tiny lentils and roasted sweet potatoes. After the first bite, I warned the waitress I'd need a cigarette afterwards, it was that hedonistically good. Seriously. Moist and buttery soft, this just fell off the bone and into my mouth, with the purest essence of concentrated veal I've had in a while. Fan-freaking-tastic. It was so good that I forced myself to finish the entire dish, practically licking the plate. Needless to say, I was suffering from a slight food hangover the next morning.

My wife had a braised short rib on potato galettes which was almost just as good, deep and dark and just ever-so-slightly drier than anticipated. My dish, to my palate, was better. The pricing for the quality was, frankly, ridiculous. The veal rib was $22, the braised short rib $21! In NYC, they would be twice as expensive.

I cracked the well-priced list, seeking a Burg. It was cold and rainy, and Fall had definitely finally arrived. With the smell of wet leaves in the air and trees changing colors, it was the perfect time for a nice Burgundy. Then again, when is it not a good time for Burgundy?

I picked a 2001 Domaine de l'Arlot Clos de l'Arlot Nuits-St-Georges, which was delicious. Well, I do seem to be on something of an Arlot kick this past week for some reason. Oh, right, it's because they make good wine.

The 2001 Domaine de l'Arlot just jumped off the pages at me, so how could I refuse? At first pour, it was darker than the Clos de la Foret St Georges I'd had with lunch a few days previous. It also smelled completely different. Whereas the Foret still had the fruity vivacity of bright fruit, this one focused more on that lovely stinky musky smell that gives me the shivers, beautiful dark fruit wrapped in sous-bois, with just a hint of oak intermingling with everything. On the palate, this carried similar notes, with a little less exuberance than the nose. Minerally and with some nice tangy acidity, this was both medium-bodied, soft and elegant at the same time. The finish was slightly short, but nothing that I'd sneer at, ending the virtual trip back to the Cotes de Nuits, leaving me homesick but happy.

Thanks to the crew at Swoon, it really lived up to its name.

Cheers!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Best Lunch Deal in NYC


My mother decided to invite me to lunch to celebrate my birthday a few days early as I will be away on the Big Day. Lo and behold, she dragged me to Jean-Georges restaurant for a leisurely (ie 3 hour) lunch. Now I know where I get this love of slow food from...

This was my first time back to JG since they redid the room, and I have to say the place looks great. I liked it before, truth be told, but it was far more formal and a bit cold. Now it's soft and warm, with beige leather seats and an inviting glow from a flowing chandelier anchored to the ceiling.

We ordered the $28 prix-fixe menu for 2 dishes, still one of the city's best QPR (Quality-to Price Ratio) lunch deals. Of course, that means I could spend more money on wine... But that's for later.

The meal started off with some interesting amuses bouche: a rice cracker puff with some tuna tartar, a raw Kumamoto oyster with a briney foam, and a soup of chestnut with a ravioli filled with chestnuts. The tuna was delicious, absolutely delicious on the cracker; the oyster slightly overpowered by the foam, which was far too salty; and the soup absolutely fantastic, just the most ethereal and light essence of chestnuts, with a slightly under-cooked ravioli to mar the quality just so.

My first course was a butternut squash soup with tiny cubes of squash, chives and black trumpet mushrooms (one of my favorite 'shrooms!). Thick and creamy, this practically oozed butter but wasn't as heavy as one would think. My pet peeve with butternut squash soup is how absolutely filling it can be if not done properly. This was very, very good, nicely balanced, especially on a dark and dreary fall day. The one fault I could find with it was that every once in a while it was a bit saltier than I wanted it to be. Not by much, but enough to notice. Then again, I've begun to notice a salty trend in NY cuisines lately for some reason, and I know I'm not the only one.

Second course was sweetbreads on a licorice stick with a roast pear and some lemon sauce. Very good, but not as good as the ones I had at 11 Madison Park a few weeks ago, which were sublime. These were delicious, don't get me wrong, and yes I realize I am spoiled sometimes. Beautiful texture, if just so slightly drier than I liked, but I am picky.

Now to the wine. The list is nicely stacked, though with more recent vintages. Some wines are pretty decently priced, though there are of course those I look at and laugh... After chatting with the sommelier (something I think anyone who wants to be assured of a good choice should do at a place like this, no matter how much they think they know), we decided on a 2001 Domaine de l'Arlot Nuits St Georges Clos des Forets St Georges. This comes from Burgundy, my favorite region, and from a vintage that offered nice bright fruit and good acidity, something I love in wine. Then again, when dealing with Burgundy, there is one paramount lesson: always go with the producer, not the vintage.

At first, the wine was rather reticent, showing hints of cherries and forest floor, carried through from the nose to the light-bodied palate that ended with tart tannins. As it sat and I swirled the glass, the wine began to gather strength and depth, even seeming to become darker. Yet despite this added weight, it never lost its elegance, becoming more focused as the elements came together. Cherries, raspberries, sous-bois (forest floor), earth, some mushrooms, all danced on a frame that seemed to vibrate on the palate with an intense nervosite, ending in a medium-length finish. This is beautifully typical Burgundy. And WOW did it go well with my sweetbreads! Talk about enhancing the experience...

Then came the obligatory avalanche of small desserts and guimauve, real marshmellows still quivering on the plate. Yummy!

The only part that was off was our waiter, who while professional was rather cold and impersonal, which we both found off-putting. The sommelier, on the other hand, was warm and friendly, a nice contrast to his comrade.

All in all, a wonderful way to spend 3 hours on a Wednesday afternoon.

Cheers!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Balance


I receive a lot of wine samples in this job, which to most people would be like manna from Heaven. I mean, come on, we're talking free booze here! But what they don't realize is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs (no pun intended towards my French wineries and friends) to find the prince among them. And believe me, there are a lot of frogs out there...

My palate shudders to recall all the awful bottles I encounter every week: too sweet (either from over-ripe fruit or through the addition of authorized amounts of sugar, a process known as Chaptalization), over-oaked (a particular pet-peeve of mine, leading to the intrusive smell and taste of, well, wood, vanilla, chocolate, roasted coffee and some spicyness - my reactions to this range from a frown to a full-blown epilectic fit of disgust), over extraction (meaning too much fruit, which defines the old adage that too much of a good thing is a bad thing), not enough fruit (leading to green, almost weedy notes in the wine), alcohol out of balance (this gives you that hot sensation on the palate), too tannic (the winemaker let the grapes macerate with the stems and grape pips for too long), etc... The list goes on and on. Of course, one needs the right type of soil, but that's out of the hands of the winemaker. All he can do is work with what Mother Nature gives him. Sadly, it's very easy to make bad wine.

To my palate, at least, wines from the New World (CA, Australia especially) tend to show many of these faults. The warm weather makes the grapes super ripe, and the winemakers seek to extract as much fruit as possible, leading to almost jammy, sweet fruit and thick mouthfeels. In an effort to mitigate all this fruit, they then put the wine in brand new, heavily-toasted oak barrels, leading to all those flavors that I seem allergic to. To me, this is a recipe for vinous disaster. Of course, everyone's palate is different, so what I dislike is Heaven to others. I freely admit that I prefer Old World (ie European) wines. As they say, "A chacun son gôut" (to each his own).

It's amazing to me that in this day and age, some wineries can still be lazy or inattentive and make crappy wines. With the enormous amount of winemaking information out there, there are still some people who'd rather take the easy route. As I tried to convey in my post about the harvest, it's not an easy job to create a good wine. It is easy, as I said, to make a bad one. But with a little effort and passion, one can make something that brings a smile to the lips of countless consumers. And when it's done right, a good wine becomes a great wine, something to last the ages, something that stirs the soul and makes you shiver in delight and think to yourself, "Wow, there is a God."

In the end, what I look for is balance, a beautiful equilibrium between all the components in the wine. One thing leads seamlessly to the other, all the elements meshing together to create something where the sum is greater than the parts. This makes it enjoyable either on its own or with food, which is the way wine was meant to be drunk. And I am proud to say that all the wines I represent are well-balanced. This is their over-riding commonality. Whether the wine is from the Cahors and is big and brawny or from the Macon where a streak of minerality runs through it, all of them share this trait.

So go ahead, drop by your local (serious) wine store, ask for someone who knows their stuff, and tell them you're looking for a well-balanced wine in your budget range. You might be pleasantly surprised, especially if you thought wine was just alcoholic fruit juice.

Cheers!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vinotas in the News!

Photo of a tasting in Narbonne published in "Le Paysan du Midi", August 3rd, 2007
(That's me in the middle, scribbling notes)

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Dinner at 11 Madison Park


There are times in life when everything comes together in the right way. The stars and planets line up to make the moment sweeter, the memory last longer, and the experience fuller. These points in our lives are fleeting and far too few in between, but when they do occur, one must try to savor them to the utmost. These are the experiences that make life worth living.

For me, one of those moments came about a few weeks ago at New York's 11 Madison Park restaurant. I have been an unabashed fan of the place since the new regime of Chef Daniel Humm, Wine Director John Ragan and General Manager William Guidara took over. This is a New York institution, in a beautiful American Art Deco space with huge windows looking out onto Madison Park. They have transformed what was a lackluster restaurant coasting on its laurels into the premiere destination for food and wine lovers from around the country, if not the globe.

That evening, the New York oenofools gathered together to welcome a travelling wine geek from Atlanta with our wines and our friendship. We had discussed what the wine theme would be, and happily we decided on Burgundy. Arriving, we handed our wine totes to the welcoming staff and sat down. While we knew we'd be well taken-care of, we had no idea what we were in for.

We put ourselves into the capable hands of the Wine Director and the Chef. Having seen our wines, he designed a menu that he thought would be appropriate to the wines present. The Wine Director also came over several times to ensure that we were happy with the serving order of our bottles. How fantastic is that? How sadly rare is it that a restaurant's crew takes the time to ensure that what you're drinking, whether you've brought it or you've bought it, matches with what you're eating and vice versa? But this night, we need not have worried.

Course after course arrived, each one better than the last, slowly building up the tension, the wines dancing (for the most part) in lock-step with the dishes. This meal was one of the best I've had there, if not the best. And I might add that it's one of the best I've eaten in the city in a while.

Here is our menu, with the wines in bold, to give you an idea of what they're capable of:

Hors d'Oeuvres
Cucumber
Soup with Maine Brook Trout and Smoke Yogurt

Wild Scottish Langoustine
"En Gelée de Bouillabaisse" with Cape Cod Bay Crab
2000 Henri Marionnet Vigne Pré-Phylloxerique Romorantin Provignage

Hamachi
Marinated in Pumpkin Seed Oil and Butternut Squash
2000 Franz Hirtzberger Singerriedel Riesling

Nova Scotia Lobster
Lasagna with Baby Artichokes, Flowers and Lemon Verbena
1997 Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc de l'Orée

Mediterranean Loup de Mer
Seared with Tomato Confit and Mission Figs
1989 Leroy Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts
1991 Méo-Camuzet Aux Brulées Premier Cru


Poularde
Roulade de Chanterelles
1991 Jayer-Gilles Echézeaux
1998 Mongeard-Mugneret Vieilles Vignes Echézeaux


Four Story Hill "Ris de Veau"
Herb Roasted with Celery and Burgundy Truffles
1991 Hubert Lignier Clos de la Roche
1998 Dujac Clos St Denis


Grimaud Farms Muscovy Duck
Glazed with Lavender Honey and Spices
1999 Joseph Drouhin Chambertin
1989 Château de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape


Fromage
Selection of Farmstead Cheeses
1959 Henri Maire Vin Jaune

"Kir Royale"
Champagne Meringue and Cassis

Golden Pineapple
Soufflé with Pecorino and Lemon Thyme Ice Cream
2003 Château la Tour Blanche Sauternes

Mignardises



The next time you're in New York City, run, don't walk there.

Cheers!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Harvest

To most folks, the harvest is an ephemereal, romantic idea, a time of the year when leaves start to turn orange, the weather cools, and the vintners pick their grapes. In their minds, the grapes are tread by foot by happy workers stained red and singing La Marseilleise while eating baguettes and paté. Outside, women make the lunch while a musician plays the accordion and dogs and chickens run free through the farmhouse. Everyone's happy, everyone's got a bottle of wine in their hands, and everyone's dancing.

Right?

Well, not quite. Even in the smallest wineries, harvest is a maddening affair. It is a time when the vintner tries to ensure that everything goes right. He has spent the past year preparing for it, maintaining his machines, seeing to the health of the vineyards, and shooing pesky animals looking for a quick snack. As harvest approaches, things pick up speed, until the time the grapes are deemed ripe enough to pick. Then it becomes a race to get as many of the grapes as possible, before rainy weather/hot weather/strikes/labor shortages/migrating birds/random acts of God intervene and render the grapes useless. And it doesn't end in the vineyard. To make the best wines, grapes have to sorted (all sorts of nasties like rotten grapes, leaves, lizards and spiders must be removed) before being crushed and sent to the fermentation tanks. Even after all the prep work, Nature has a way of throwing a curve and destroying a crop-load of grapes, endangering the farmer's livelihood. So many thing can go wrong at any given time that it's remarkable that anyone would willingly underake such a risky (and nowadays, expensive) task. For those who do it right, it truly is a work of love and passion.

In 2006, I had the honor of working the harvest in my beloved Burgundy, for one of the largest and well-regarded wineries in the area,
Bouchard Père et Fils. I followed the harvest from start to finish, and even got a chance to work with the pickers one sunny Wednesday morning, in the legendary Montrachet vineyard.

To help you get an idea of what it's like to be a picker, I am reposting this tale:

Chardonnay hanging in Le Montrachet vineyard

Wednesday, September 20th was, as I was starting to say on a daily basis, another beautiful day in Burgundy. The weather forecast was for temperatures between 11° and 23°C, with clear skies interspersed with clouds.

But, to be honest, at the hour at which I woke up, I couldn’t have cared less about any forecasts. I was supposed to start picking in the Montrachet vineyard, and I could barely sleep I was so nervous in anticipation. I woke up around 5am, my stomach in knots. Looking out the window, it was pitch black, with just some hints of the approaching dawn. I ran down to the local boulangerie and picked up a croissant for my breakfast, then headed to Beaune’s train station. There I’d meet up with the pickers and the buses. The sun was rising by now, stunning gold and red colors filling the eastern horizon.

At the station’s brasserie, people were standing at the bar, drinking their espressos, and, in some cases, glasses of wine (sorry, no tasting notes). Smoke drifted through the place, as I suppose it should in France. People were in generally good cheer despite the hour and the cool, crisp air. Folks were bantering about, and some locals seemed surprised that Bouchard was starting the harvest already. I followed a group to the station’s parking lot, where several large tourist buses were awaiting the grape-pickers. There I met up with Christophe Bouchard, who handed me to a Chef d’Equipe named Nicolas. He would be my guide in the field.

I was surprised at how cheery the people in the bus were. Considering the hour at which most had woken up, they must have consumed prodigious amounts of coffee and cigarettes to be this wired. There were thin layers of morning mist in the hollows, and the sun was a fantastic ball of fire. Another beautiful day in Burgundy. The bus rolled down the N74 to the village of Puligny-Montrachet, where we took a turn and headed up the hill. Picking teams were already in the fields in some plots, indicating that other domaines were starting as well. Halfway up the hill, a small road paralled the N74, with an old stone wall on both sides. Vines stretched around as far as the eye could see. Our destination was upslope from the road.

Wow. Le Montrachet.

The bus stopped and Nicolas stood up front and told people to watch their work today, they were picking Montrachet and at 300 Euros a bottle they shouldn’t leave a grape behind. Everyone joked that perhaps they’d get a few bottles when the work was done. Really? That would be great! Then we filed out of the bus, where a pail full of sécateurs awaited us. Everyone grabbed one, then took a plastic bin and headed into the vineyard.

I was thrown right into the mix, with just a quick introduction as to how to cut the grapes. Luckily there were old hands supervising our teams and they showed me what I was doing wrong (lots!). Always cut the stem, never the wood, yank the leaves out of the way, cut the bunches hanging between the bottom and the third wire. The higher bunches are usually the least ripe, with some verjus grapes.

The grapes were large and tightly clustered, and tasted slightly sweet with a hint of white flowers. I crouched down and started clipping, grabbing bunches of big, juicy white grapes. Immediately, I learned a few things.

A picker in Le Montrachet

Leaves are my enemy.

They tease me with hints of the hidden treasure, ensnaring my hands in their vines, making me lose track of my fingers’ whereabouts, refusing to pull away the way I want them to. I grasp at them with hands wet from grape juice, the morning dew, mud and the blood from a clipped pinky (if anyone finds a fingertip in their 2006 Montrachet, please send it back to me). Grapes burst in my hands as I toss them into the bin, my sécateur quickly slick yet sticky from juice. Dirt covers my shoes, digs under my nails, somehow gets into my eyes, there’s a fine layer of moist dust on everything within a few minutes of starting. I am falling behind, but when I look around I’m as fast as the slowest ones.

I LOVE IT.

Suddenly my movements become more fluid, more natural, my arm snaking its way between the hated leaf, the wire and the bunch’s stem. Clip, clip, two bunches in my hand, throw them in the bin, shuffle forward either squatting or bending over. Repeat. Hey, I’ve got the hang of this!

I LOVE IT.

I’m doing great! Nope, I’m almost as slow as ever. Damn, here I thought I was nailing it. The first pickers to finish their rows hang out at the top, smoking and lazing in the morning sun, mocking the rest of us. I’m quickly spotted as a neophyte, though my black shoes (not sneakers, big mistake) are maybe the give-away. That and my speed…or lack thereof. I try to chat with my neighbors, but they quickly outpace me. People call for empty bins. They’ve filled theirs already??? Shit, mine’s only half full.

My body starts complaining at all this work. Are you kidding? Have you seen the old ladies with missing teeth, the retirees with beer bellies, the guy in midlife crisis, heck the eighteen year old girls (well, them, yes, I may be engaged but I’m not dead)? My body starts wondering what it’s done to deserve this sudden abuse. Deal with it, I tell it, we work out (sometimes) for a reason, right? Ignore the dinners of escargots, foie gras, boeuf Charolais and mushrooms. Forget the Poulets de Bresse, the almond croissants, the assiettes de charcuterie.

How do you forget it when it’s there to remind you every second that you’re crouching in the stony dirt? Mocking you like an evil guardian angel, not on your shoulder but sitting on your waist?

Wow, I’m picking Montrachet, but to me it’s nothing but hidden treasure I need to cut from its home. We’re constantly reminded that this wine costs 300 Euros a bottle. Are we getting any? Are there bottles of older Monty lined up at the top as enticement? No, not even water. Damn, I’m thirsty. And sweaty. And, judging from the flies attracted to me, stinky. A Frenchman once told me that to smell like you just made love was a good thing. I am redefining “a good thing”.

I LOVE IT.

Wow, is it a tough job to manually pick the grapes. I have an enormous amount of respect for those that do, and who do it in general good cheer (though by their own admission, the weather helped a LOT). Their ages ranged from the eighteen-year old girls to the ladies who’d been doing it for over 20 years, and from students to retirees. Everyone flirts, jokes around and generally tries to take their mind off the work. The Chefs d’Equipes cajole, joke and push the pickers to do well and not take too many breaks, especially smoke breaks. So lots of folks are clipping with a half-smoked cigarette sticking out the sides of their mouths. Despite the back-breaking, foot-numbing, eye-gouging, finger-cutting work, folks seemed in good spirits. Complaints were good-natured unless something serious happened.

After several hours, when I have to leave, I am sore, tired but also a bit sad. I’ve grown fond of my little team, their spirit and courage has kept me going. I feel as if I’m abandoning them, leaving them to toil and broil in the mid-day sun. I know that while the work is fast and furious in the morning, it will slow down a bit as the day heats up and people get tired. So I head down the hill and clamber into a truck taking my grapes to the winery.

My driver, Denis Chantin, is also a winemaker in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune. With a constant smile on his face, he was a great guy to chat with as we made our way down the Montrachet hill to the winery on the outskirts of Savigny. At the winery I was met by Patrice Preney (Chef de Laboratoire) and Hugues Massu (Chef Comptable – Head of Accounting). Hugues explained that Bouchard asks all its employees, even the office workers, to participate in the harvest. It allows for a better understanding of what goes on and builds a sense of team spirit. He did seem rather happy to be out of the office and in the clean, sun-filled air.

Tasting first-press Chardonnay

The grapes were processed almost as soon as they arrived. Sorting tables quickly picked through them, though as the Chardonnay this year has been in excellent health there was very little to remove. From there they went straight to the pneumatic press, which operated at different levels of pressure to get different effects. This first juice tasted of slightly sour apple juice, with a grainy feel to it. That would be the fine dirt and other things that had collected on the skins of the grapes. Another press that was running had juice collecting at the bottom, so Patrice Preney let me taste that as well. It was a bit sweeter and rounder, with a smoother mouthfeel. Finally, depending on the health of the vintage, SO2 was added. This year not much was added as the grapes came in very healthy.

It was interesting to see how clean the winery was kept. There were people constantly cleaning, scrubbing, mopping and generally trying to maintain a relatively sanitary condition. Safety was also a key point, Hugues stressed, pointing to the CO2 alarms and the harness that the guy who rakes the grapes in the press has to wear. He said that Bouchard has all winery workers go through a safety regimen before the harvest, and everyone is constantly reminded to be careful.

And I can understand why. Folks are stressed and on edge, even in a good vintage. They have a ton of work to do and a very short amount of time to do it. By now I was pooped, my feet hurt, my back was killing me, and my pinky smarted. I went back to Beaune and was so tired that I didn’t eat (though I did have a half-bottle of something or other).

So there you have it. Sounds fun, eh?

Pictures from that trip can be found HERE, no need to sign in, just click on the first photo.

Cheers!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Two Great Meals in the Languedoc

After finishing my last post, I realized that my description of our buying trip might have been a tad harsh. That was not at all my intention. I was just trying to convey what we experienced during our stay in the region as wine buyers. It was a lot of hard work, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And yes, mornings were rather, well, let’s just say, tough, but there were many high points at other times of the day. Good thing, as I am not a morning person…

We had a chance to meet people who are passionate about their wines and work diligently to make the best ones they can with what Nature has given them. We saw some breath-taking landscapes and historical sites (the Abbey remains a favorite of mine). Of course, we drank some lovely bottles (and some not-so lovely ones). And we had a chance to eat some very fine meals.

Two fantastic dinners come to mind.

The first was a dinner at a new restaurant in the town of Magalas, called (appropriately enough) Ô Bontemps. In French, this is a toast, meaning “To the Good Time”, and a good, no, great time was had by all during this dinner. It is located on a beautiful cobblestone square, across the street from the ancient church. We ate there one night and I have to say that, after 30 days of very good meals, this was absolutely outstanding. We were a large group of wine buyers who took over the place and so we had a set menu, but we also had one heck of a show.

The decor is modern rustic (ie exposed brick with small, pinpoint halogen lights) and colorful wall decorations. Service was good to very good, we rarely had to ask for water or anything else. I took the liberty of copying Chef Olivier Bontemps’ (his real name!) menu, including his beautiful cursive script, to my website. You can see it by clicking HERE.

But the food...!

We started with a round of small tapas, including a shot of Gazpacho, some cured-ham wrapped Melon, mussels with lard (OH MY GOD!), fresh olives, and small cherry tomatoes (so succulent that I ended up in a fork fencing match with Ives for the last one) with a house vinaigrette.

First course was a pork terrine and a mousse of game birds with mustard flower and a capuccino of mushrooms (this last was just fantastic). Second and main course was a delicious standing rib roast that was quickly smoked (to great fanfare and with great showmanship in front of us) with the local guarrigue herbs and a gratin of potatoes and mushrooms, all with a truffle-based sauce (I dare not call it a gravy). When he did this, Chef basically called us outside, where a table had been set up with a large metal pan, filled with dried guarrigues. He barely touched them with a lighter and they burst into flames, then grabbed some more guarrigues and smothered the fire with these, leaving everything smoldering. Lifting the rib roast, he placed it on the embers, smacking the lid down over it, effectively sealing the meat with the smoky herbs. We all applauded, of course, as it was a great show. A few minutes later, he removed the meat and began carving with a carving knife that looked like a giant’s scimitar.

Smoking the Meat

The meat was some of the best I've had in Europe, and if it was a mad cow, then frankly I don't mind going nuts. I am usually not a fan of European beef, but wow was this tasty, and cooked to perfection (bloody rare).

Next came a pungent cheese course, and dessert consisted of an apricot and peach jubilee dish and a chocolate cake that I just can't translate but was astonishingly good. Add to this the wines and we were one happy (and tipsy) crowd.

Lunch on Felines Jourdan's Rooftop Patio

The second memorable dinner was actually an entire day, our last day together as a professional group. Two wineries, the Domaine Félines Jourdan and the Domaine Condamine Bertrand, had invited us to spend the day with them, feasting on their wines, local foods, and visiting the ancient town of Pezenas.

First, we went to Félines Jourdan, where we were treated to a quiet afternoon lunch of fresh tomatoes (so good that they are proof that God exists, in my opinion) and other local delicacies. I don’t recall what else was offered as I was too busy stuffing myself with these gorgeous tomatoes. We relaxed on their roof patio, with their vineyards spread around us, drinking their delicious Picpoul under parasols while the Mistral blew around us in a never-ending breeze and under a warming sun.

The Paella

We proceeded to visit the town of Pezenas, but sitting in the main square in the sun with a glass of Pastis (or three) was more preferable to an organized tour. After a few hours, we went to Condamine Bertrand’s estate, where we visited the chai (winery) and tasted through the lineup of wines. Then we went around the back of the house, where a long table had been set up. As we sipped wines from both Félines Jourdan and Condamine Bertrand, out came a huge paella in an enormous dish, redolent of fresh seafood and saffron.

Sitting outside, under the trees and with the setting sun still warming us, with the children playing, and some damn fine paella and wines in front of us, those are the things to remember.

So yes, there was lots of hard work. And yes, there were some mornings where the first alcohol of the day would push out the previous evening’s alcohol, leaving us sweating wine and smelling probably God-awful, but it was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Cheers!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Corbières Death March

You know, everyone thinks that this is a dream job. After all, you get to travel to some of the most beautiful parts of the world, meet people who are really passionate about what they do, eat good food and, let’s face it, drink lots of free wine. What could be bad?

Well, there was a reason for calling this trip the Corbières Death March.

Nighttime Tasting

Imagine: wake up at the crack of dawn every day with barely 4 hours of sleep, throw your clothes into the bags you just unpacked the night before with only one eye open, your head pounding and your mouth dry, have just enough time to sip an over-roasted cup of coffee, inhale a mini-croissant, then hop in a minivan with 15 other bewildered souls for a bumpy ride through a sun-baked landscape to a morning tasting of 20+ producers, each with at least 4 and sometimes more young, brutally tannic wines, usually in an un-air-conditioned room, jump on the bus for a dizzying ride to a lunch spot where 8+ winemakers are waiting for you with their 4+ wines, listen as they all pontificate about their wares, smile and nod your head as if you heard every single word, now hurry, get back on the bus, go to yet another tasting of 20+ wineries and their abusingly tannic wines, try not to spit into the water bucket and oops did you get some red wine on your white shirt oh damn who cares, and why the Hell are you wearing a white shirt when you thought you’d put on a black one, head to a new hotel, unpack the bags, go to dinner with, oh, look, surprise, another 6-8 producers and their bottles looking like multiple rocket launchers aimed at you, feign consciousness just long enough to stuff a few bites into your mouth as bottles are tossed back and forth, stagger to the minivan while your driver, Ives, extols everyone to keep up morale as he bears down on you with a box of leftover samples the winemakers have given him to take back to the hotel, oh yay, more wine, but of course you’re a professional alcoholic, so you sit outside the hotel until the wee hours of the night passing the bottles back and forth and discussing the day’s events, and when you smile no one can see it because your teeth are blacker than the night, then look at your watch and realize that in about 4 hours you’re repeating the whole thing. Then do it for a week straight.

Thus, the Corbières Death March.

Help!

That said, there were many high points. The places where many of the tastings were held were usually quite beautiful: a deconsecrated church in Narbonne, the Abbaye de Fontfroide (a stunning abbey which looked surprisingly like the Cloisters in NYC, hidden deep within a valley), a meal in a Medieval town’s main square, across from its ancient church, lunch at the base of the Pic St Loup mountain at l’Auberge du Cèdre outside Montpellier, dinner at the edge of a lagoon near the Mediterranean, the medieval town of Pézenas and its cobblestoned streets, lunch with delicious Picpoul on Domaine Félines Jourdan’s roof surrounded by a sea of vines while the Mistral blows through what’s left of my hair, and a paella dinner at Domaine Condamine Bertrand’s gorgeous estate with the winemaker and his family.

In addition, the wines were pretty good overall, reflecting both the passion of the winemakers and the spread of new winemaking methods. There were some happy discoveries as well, as I’d only vaguely heard of the Picpoul de Pinet grape and the lovely, light tart white wine it makes on the coastline near the border of Spain. Drinking this while eating a heaping platter of shellfish on the edge a lagoon near the Mediterranean Sea was one of the highlights of our trip. And of course, the people, both the winemakers and the other buyers, were great to meet.

Wines can be well-made and delicious, food can be well-executed, but it’s the people you interact with that seal the deal. And this is one of the main reasons I’m in the wine business. Sure, there are some sleazy characters (what industry doesn’t have any?), but overall most folks get into this for the love of the grape and the environment that surrounds it.

So did I find any wines to represent in the US?

Unlike my last trip to the Rhône, where several wineries impressed me so much that I offered to take them on right away, I was a bit more hesitant this time. Yes, the wines were quite good, but the prices were also rather high. Add to that the crushing exchange rate, and the list of possible candidates began to narrow rapidly. Many producers asked for my honest thoughts, and I had to tell several of them not to target the US market right now because they were too expensive. But I did ask a few wineries to send me some samples to my office in New York, so we will see. The Languedoc is known as the Rhône’s little brother and for inexpensive wines, and it will take some time to change that mindset.

But the efforts of these dedicated, passionate winemakers are the first steps in that direction.

Pictures can be found here, and as usual, no need to sign in, just click on the picture to start the slideshow.

Cheers!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Limoux & the start of the Corbières Death March

Darkness descended on our first day so we headed into the Old Town of Carcassonne, inside the fairytale fortress, for dinner. We were meeting a group of producers of the local sparkling wines, known as Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux. The Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) of Limoux extends just south of Carcassonne, with the town of Limoux at its center (well, duh). Here, the locals claim to have made the world’s oldest sparkling wines, figuring out the process at some of the Benedictine abbeys sometime in the early 1500s, even before Champagne. The famous Dom Perignon is said to have passed through and taken (stolen?) the knowledge with him to the north.

The Limoux AOC in relation to France

As in Champagne, three different types of grapes are authorized to be used in Blanquette, which is their prestige wine: Mauzac (which has to constitute 90% of Blanquette), Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. The resulting wine can have a light lemony or grapey taste, be slightly sweet, with a soft mouthfeel and end with a bit of nice crunchy acidity (from the Mauzac). Perfect for a summer’s day, but not overly complex.

Dinner was held at La Barbacane, one of the top restaurants in Carcassonne. Granted, there aren’t too many reliable places to eat as this is a very touristy town, but still, this place really stepped it up and impressed me. Our multi-course meal was matched to a variety of Crémants and Blanquettes, some of which weren’t that bad. I will admit, however, that I am more partial to real Champagne than to any facsimile from other parts of France (or the world for that matter). Yes, I am a bubbly snob. Sue me.

The next morning we visited a cooperative in the area, Sieur D’Arques, which makes some correcte (a typically lovely French term that sounds positive but that really means, at best, inoffensive or unexciting) wines. As the term implies, their products were technically OK, but there wasn’t much to get me too excited here.

video

The Disgorgement Line at Sieur D'Arques

We then hopped on our minibus and headed to the tiny town of Alet-les-Bains (known for its mineral springs), where we were greeted by the local trade group. They had organized a massive tasting of Limoux producers in a lovely hotel surrounded by manicured gardens, the centerpiece of which was a ruined cathedral whose arches were home to flowers and pigeons. After our tasting, we retired to a restaurant in the garden and had a wonderful lunch with the producers and their wares.

Aaaaah, a beautiful setting, a shining sun, friendly people, good food and lots of free alcohol: these are some of the things I live for.

We returned to Carcassonne with some free time on our hands, so I wandered around taking pictures of the medieval fortress and just enjoying our downtime. Later that afternoon we were driven to the town of Montredon for another tasting. No more sparkling wine, now we were heading deep into the land of red wine: it was time for Corbières!

The Corbières AOC is a large expanse stretching from Carcassonne south and east to the Roman city of Narbonne, on the Mediterranean Sea. Between Cathar castles and Romanesque abbeys, it’s quite a picturesque landscape, though we wouldn’t know this as we only saw hints of it between stops at massive tastings that left our palates abused, our feet aching and our teeth black.

The region’s production is mainly red wine (95%), which is generally rich, fruity, spicy, tannic and full-bodied. The Carignan grape is the principal varietal used, and it accounts for approximately 50% of the plantings. Soils around here are primarily limestone, marl and sandstone, and the weather tends to be dry and very warm. If this sounds like the Rhône, well, you’re right; there’s a reason most folks consider the Languedoc to be the little brother to that more famous region.

In any case, our little group of hapless wine buyers descended on the restaurant Chateau Saint Martin, where it was rumored we were to be fed a wonderful cassoulet, a hearty regional specialty and one of my favorite dishes (though moreso in winter than in the middle of a hot July). However, by the end of the tasting, I’d have settled for a Gray’s Papaya hot dog and a shot of Rumplemintz. My teeth were black, my tongue felt like I’d been scraping it through gravel, and my feet throbbed.

Now mind you, the wines did not suck. Indeed, many were quite good (except those where the owner proudly showed his bottle, saying he’d used 200% new oak – ugh), exactly what most Americans love when drinking inexpensive red wines. But therein lay the problem: these wines were not inexpensive, once the brutal exchange rate and other costs were added in. Most of these would end up on the shelves of your local retailer in the $16-25 range. Sure, it’s not that expensive, but when looking at two bottles, one from an area you’ve never heard of, another from the Cotes du Rhône, a name you’ve known and trusted for years, which would you choose?

We then sat down with the producers and their wines in the medieval restaurant, at which point I had the distinct pleasure of tasting a wonderful wine that I’d somehow missed during the tasting. Next to me, a thin, prim and proper woman who reminded me somewhat of an older Audrey Hepburn offered her wines to me, one with the unfortunate name of Agape, the other called La Mariole. They were from Domaine Adenis, and it was Madame Nadine Adenis who was my neighbor. A refugee from the television world, she’d settled in the area in 2000 with a degree in oenology and begun making wine a year later.

Both wines made me sit up, even after that marathon of Corbières, which says something about their quality. Mme. Adenis holds her yields way down (15 hectoliters/hectare for La Mariole, only a Vin de Pays!) and doesn’t abuse the oak, letting the wines shine on their own. They were full of deep red and black fruits that were balanced by minerals and acidity. To say they matched the cassoulet well would be a criminal understatement. I also couldn’t help but notice the modern labels, which wouldn’t hurt things. Lastly, I liked the price, so we chatted a bit and she agreed to send me some samples.

The cassoulet? Well, it was’t great, in fact, I wasn’t thrilled after all the hype. So be it. I make a better one in my little kitchen in New York.

Thus began what we ended up affectionately referring to as the Corbière Death March (thanks Chris!).

Pictures from these days can be found here, no need to sign in, just click the picture, though not all are mine. I'd like to especially thank Don Smith and Fred McElveen for allowing me to use some of their pictures.

Cheers!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Languedoc Day 1: Near Death Experience

The Cross of the Languedoc

I arrived in the Languedoc to see if I could find the few gems of quality that are starting to poke out of this crescent-shaped slice of France. Though it was known more for swill than quality wines, the region is changing, if ever so slowly. And if the French are fearful of change in general, the Languedociens are particularly stubborn and hard-headed. Where else in the world would you find a winemaker terrorist (yes, you read that correctly) organization?

Called the Comité Regional d’Action Viticole (Regional Viticultural Action Committee), these radical wine producers have gone about attacking various installations they see as a threat to their livelihood (stores, large-scale wineries, importers’ and government offices, etc…). They are frustrated at the low prices their wines get and at the steady influx of extremely cheap foreign wines into France. Somehow, they don’t understand that if they raised the quality of their product, more folks might actually want to pay more for their goods. So instead, they lash out.

Welcome to the Languedoc, then.

I joined up a motley assortment of wine buyers in Carcassonne, finding some old friends and meeting new ones. Tim Shannon, of First Crush Wines in Seattle, was a friend from previous buying trips and invited me to tag along to visit a few producers in the area. So I grabbed my notebook and jumped into a dirty old van that awaited us, a winemaker in ratty jeans behind the wheel.

The winemaker quickly drove us out of town and into the winding back roads of the Languedoc, zig-zagging his way at breakneck speeds on what looked more like dirt paths than anything paved. We careened through picturesque small towns and fields of grapes and wheat, ending up on a road that paralleled a watery canal on our right. I quickly noticed that our driver and host had the unfortunate tendency to look at us when he spoke, even while driving. Luckily, the seat belt is mandatory in France…

As we roared down this road, with lovely fields of lavender and wheat to our left and a multi-colored flower-lined canal to our right, the warm sun shining above and our host chatting amicably with us, an adorable black Labrador puppy appeared. In front of us. He shot across the road, ignorant of the dusty speeding van and its occupants bearing down on him. We saw him at the last possible moment and shouted “Chien!” (“Dog!”). Our driver swerved hard right, at which point everything began to move in slow motion. My side of the vehicle tipped precariously over the edge of the canal, and as I saw that murky water approaching I remembered that I was a good swimmer and would probably be able to hold my breath long enough to unbuckle my belt and get out. Assuming, of course, that Tim wasn’t stepping on my head in his zeal to escape…

Then we were swerving left and getting ourselves centered back on the road. Ouf!

When asked how we were, I remember muttering something about needing to buy a new pair of underwear… In any case, we arrived in time to meet the owner of the winery, who then gave us a detailed tour of his facility (which looked more like a factory). They were making lots of bulk wines, some of which were OK, but nothing that I wanted to import. So after a very nice lunch in a local restaurant’s back yard, we thanked them and our driver took off for Carcassonne (literally), again speeding wildly through fields and quaint towns. I was, not too surprisingly, quite relieved to return to the hotel.

The weather that evening was lovely, so we sat outside and chatted with the other buyers, until we realized we were thirsty. I ran to my room to get some samples I had been lugging since my days in the Loire. A Muscadet producer from the far western edge of the Loire Valley had sent me some bottles so I could get an idea of his product, and I figured what better audience to share this with?

It turned out I was more than right! The wines were delicious, to say the least. We were all surprised at the quality as we swirled, sniffed and slurped. Sadly, they were already represented by another importer, so the search continues... Sniff...


More to come…