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!

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.

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.

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.

-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.

-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

-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.

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.

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.