Thursday, February 21, 2008

Three Days in Montpellier - ViniSud

Vinisud came, Vinisud went. Amazing, after months of preparation, calls, emails, prayers and sacrifices to the gods of business, three days went by in a flash. Many people were met, many wines were tasted (and drunk! and spit!), and many deals were made with a handshake.

So what's it like to attend something like this? Well, it's an exercise in patience and restraint, for one thing. Unsurprisingly, the show is a veritable laundry list of French organizational skills (or lack thereof). Halls are numbered seemingly willy-nilly, there are no public maps available unless you want to buy one for 30€, directional signs are on the floors, not the walls so you have no idea where you're headed until you get to the exit of your hall (surprise! you should have been going the other way!), you better not be thirsty cause there ain't no water around here but wow do we have some wine for you monsieur, oh man those bathrooms are scary, hey where's my winery what do you mean you don't know well then you should buy the guide for 30€, ouch my knees/legs/feet/back hurt I'd love to sit oh wait no seats available, and oh yeah the food is all the way on the other side of the space and the line stretches halfway to Marseille and it costs 30€.

It was all starting to feel somewhat surreal, though by the second day I had my (woozy) bearings. But hey, we got tons of free wine and swag, right? Nope. Well, not the swag part. We did get to try lots and lots of wine, most of it undrinkable. You feel bad for some of these winemakers who just have no clue, offering their wines to you like children to be blessed by the Pope. Those spitoons were overflowing...

I did get to taste the 2007 Chateauneuf du Papes, and while really, really young, they were quite superb, just juicy without being too ripe and with that classic acidity and freshness that I love. That tasting was another exercise in restraint, as buyers from various cultures elbowed, shoved and did everything but stab each other to get close to the wines. Yes, let's beat each other over the head so we can paint our teeth another shade of black. Oh, did I mention, wine-tasting at this level leaves your mouth looking like you've been licking and biting into asphalt? Smile!

Seriously, it's a lot of hard work. Yes, you're in the South of France in February, but you're in huge halls that are usually over-heated, drinking tons of swill with the occasional star, and you are on your feet all day. Then you go to dinner late, discuss business, drink and eat until all hours of the night, and wake up to taste some more. Talk about palate fatigue!

Still, many positive things occurred, the most important of which is I saw my winemakers, who are doing some great work at great prices in my not-so-unbiased opinion.

Chateau de Gaudou's Fabrice Durou and his Mother

I caught up with my Cahors producer, Chateau de Gaudou, whose wines keep reminding me why I got into this business in the first place.

Chateau de Montfaucon's Mari and Rodolphe de Pins

I also saw Mari and Rodolphe de Pins, of Chateau de Montfaucon, a lovely couple making amazing, and I do mean amazing, wines right next to the Rhone Valley, a few miles from the storied towns of Avignon and Chateauneuf du Pape. For the geeks out there, he co-ferments(!) his red Les Gardettes, resulting in a really complex and delicious Vin de Pays de Gard. How cool is that???

Jean-Marie Popelin of Chateau Haut-Musiel

Next to them was Jean-Marie Popelin, from Chateau Haut-Musiel. He's only a few miles from the ancient Pont de Gard, a Roman aqueduct, and his wines always bring a smile to my face. Racy and juicy, they are great examples of well-made Rhones with finesse and elegance as opposed to the brute power you see usually.

Yeah, I know, I am only slightly biased when it comes to my winemakers, but I wouldn't represent them if I couldn't drink them. Best of all, they all offer really great QPRs (Quality-to-Price Ratios). Happily, I'm in talks to get them into several major markets, so I'm crossing fingers, toes, and anything else I can find. Much work remains to be done though!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Market Watch: Boulevard Raspail

I landed on Sunday morning, early enough to visit the Boulevard Raspail organic market. The sun was shining and the rows between the stands were packed with shoppers and tourists, tables groaning under beautiful vegetables and fruits, fresh-killed chickens and ducks and fish and other assorted goodies.

Here are a few pictures from that stroll.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

St Valentine's Day Lunch: Spring

I'd been hearing and reading about a phenomenal new place in the 9th arrondissement, named Spring, for months now. Better yet, it was super tiny, hard to get into, and the chef was a fanatic for great ingredients. Man, can you tease and tempt me any more than that? I mean, come on, I'm only human! And, of all things, it was run by an Americain! Sacré bleu!

Well the rumors were true. Daniel Rose is making some amazing dishes in a kitchen that must measure about 25 square feet (that's 2.5 square meters for you Metrics out there). He, a sous, and a waitress must share that space while they plate, cook, open wines and generally run the place.

Well, I am happy to report that Spring is still in full swing despite it being the middle of winter. We had lunch there this afternoon and the food and the service were both great. Upon sitting down, we were offered some rillettes, deliciously rich yet not too rich, just rightly salted and too good to pass up.

When I heard what our lunch was to be, I scanned the tiny, Southern French-heavy wine list and ordered the NV Champagne Spring Blanc de Blancs, a wine made specifically for the restaurant. Crisp and lively, its acidity handled most of the medley of flavors we were presented with.

First course was celery soup with duck, an inspired combination. The duck was juicy yet crisp, and married well to the celery. Earthy meat met earthy vegetable and the resulting marriage was made in Heaven. The smells coming off the bowl were to die for, I might add.

Next we had sea bream and pig's foot, which sounded bizarre but turned out to be another delicious combo. I joked with my wife that the presentation would be unusual: an actual pig's trotter stepping on top of a fish. Somehow, she did not think this was amusing. The actual dish was beautiful to behold, something we were coming to expect from this tiny kitchen. The foot had been reduced to something akin to a loose terrine, the sea bream barely cooked. Its flavors were intense yet delicate, and this kind of surf and turf worked real well.

Dessert was a slice of fresh pineapple covered by a slice of dark chocolate ganache, with chopped fruit over it and a dab of sour yoghurt on the side. Fantastic, but difficult to eat as I was getting full by now.

We ended up chatting with Daniel, who was charming, friendly and warm, and really rounded out the whole experience. He has been in Paris for 10 years and opened this place up 15 months ago to great acclaim. Apparently the French don't dislike Americans as much as the Fox Channel would have you think.

I will be certain to go back the next time I'm in Paris. And, I might add, corkage is a friendly 15€.

28 rue de la Tour d'Auvergne
75009 Paris
RESERVATIONS +33 (0)1 45 96 05 72


Paris Wine Bar: Willi's Wine Bar & LeGrand Filles & Fils

On Tuesday afternoon I met up with a friend for lunch at Willi's Wine Bar in the 1st arrondissement. This always reliable restaurant has a great wine list, both by the bottle and by the glass, and the food is delicious. In addition, it offers some of Paris' best lunch deals: 19.5€ for 2-courses (starter/main or main/dessert) or 25€ for a 3-course meal. This place is so reliable that it's become something of a pilgrimage for me on all my trips to Paris. I try to stop in at least once during each visit.

The decor is somewhat Art Deco, with old posters for Willi's on the walls (like the one in the picture above). Service is warm and professional, and as I mentioned the food is very good.

We started with appetizers of tuna tartar, deliciously fresh and sans mercury (well, I certainly didn't see any). Since my friend is a heathen and doesn't drink alcohol, I only ordered a glass of 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape. I was worried that the wine would need time to air out, but since the bottle had been open the previous night it was ready to go, almost jumping from the glass with beautiful, elegant yet powerful red and black fruits wrapped in a cloak of earth on a plush mouthfeel, ending with a long and just slightly tannic finish. Absolutely surprisingly delicious, and it went amazingly well with my main, a braised jarret de veau (veal knuckle) that was tender and juicy and just scrumptious.

After a lovely espresso (another one in Paris, what's going on?), we parted ways. I had some time to kill, so I ambled across the street to Caves LeGrand Filles et Fils, in one of the old-time, beautiful covered shopping galleries, Galérie Vivienne.

This store/wine bar always offers something interesting for the wine lover, and the staff, while not always the warmest, can usually point you in the right direction. So while I looked at their price book and drooled over some of the legends for sale, I sat at the wine bar and ordered a glass of 2005 Robert Denogent Pouilly Fuisse. Redolent of lemons, almonds and hazelnuts with a minerally backbone on a slightly oily frame, this was just lovely and a perfect way to relax. The bar offers cheeses, cured meats and other snacks, but I wasn't hungry so I just sat, enjoyed the views of bottles lined all over the walls and smiled.

Life is good.

Willi's Wine Bar
13 rue des petits champs 75001 Paris
Phone: (33) 142610509

Legrand Filles et Fils
1 rue de la Banque
75002 Paris
Phone: +33 1 42 60 07 12

Next: Spring in the 9th.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Paris In Three Days

I am so happy, I am leaving for my maternal city in three days. On Sunday morning, I will be munching on a warm croissant, with a steaming bowl of café au lait while watching Parisians go about their business. This is one aspect of my job I love, the ability to fly to Paris and not have to worry about time-tables or getting stuck in meetings at an airport convention center. I refuse to allow myself to live or work like that.

I arrive early enough to hit the Boulevard Raspail organic market (assuming no delays), where I'll grab a year's worth of unpasteurized cheese (yay!), paté, cured meats, duck breast and confit, and assorted other goodies to cook in the apartment I'm renting. And, of course, lots and lots of wine!

But have no fear, I will be reporting from the City of Light, my laptop will be with me, as will my camera so I can share the views with you. Soon afterward, I'll be at ViniSud, in Montpellier, in the south, a huge wine trade show, where I'll be forced to imbibe massive quantities of under-ripe swill or over-ripe plonk, all of it bathed in new oak, all in the hopes of finding one or two new wineries to pique my interest. Such is the life of a wine broker...

Oh God, I can't wait!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Breakfast of Champions

This is what a wine broker's counter looks like at 8:30am.

You have to check the wines to make sure there are no flaws or corked bottles before heading out to your first meetings. Yesterday, I was in New Jersey in the morning, tasting with a big retailer where the reception was rather warm (heck, they seemed to like everything, which is nice). They ended up keeping most of the bottles you see here, which is a good sign I suppose. The rest of the day was in New York, visiting wholesalers and trying to convince them that my wines are God's gift to the thirsty masses... Fingers, toes and everything else that I could think of are crossed.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Here Be Dragons

That’s the attitude that many Manhattanites have when it comes to visiting any of the other boroughs of our fair city. Using the bridges and tunnels to leave the island is just mind-boggling and incomprehensible to many. While I can sort of understand it, it really is ridiculous. There are so many interesting things to see, do and of course eat in the other areas of New York. Granted, it does take a while to get anywhere when taking the subway or a bus, but with a little effort you might be happily surprised.

So when a friend in the wine business offered to drive to Brooklyn to visit some places for lunch on a rainy, dreary Friday, I quickly jumped at the offer. “I heard of a place that makes great Pho, and if we’re still hungry we can grab a Gyro too,” he said. Being a big fan of Vietnamese cuisine, and particularly of that wonderful broth called Pho, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to not only visit Brooklyn again but also enjoy some real ethnic food. Why not just go to Chinatown, you ask? Well, it’s always nice to visit other parts of the city, and things in Chinatown aren’t as authentic as they used to be. Plus, he was driving, so I wasn’t going to argue.

We headed out into the cold rain and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, looking as lovely in the mist as under a bright sun. Once on the Belt Parkway, happy memories from my childhood visits to my family in Bay Ridge flooded back, making this a trip down memory lane as well. The Verrazzano Bridge extended its gray bulk into the rain, making things look both dreary and magical at the same time. God, I love this city.

“OK, it’s somewhere around here,” my friend said as we rolled slowly down 86th Street, passing Bay Parkway. “What? You don’t have the exact address?” I asked. “No, I just know it’s got brown doors,” was the answer. Great. That simplifies things. A few minutes later, we knew we’d found it by the name above a brown façade: Phó Tây Hô.

Summer Rolls

By now, we were starving, so we sat down and perused the huge menu, even though we knew what we wanted. Still, we ordered a plate of summer rolls, crunchy and fresh, with big, bright shrimp in thin casings with peanut sauce, something to munch on while we waited for our Pho. Delicious. Then came the pièce de résistance: a HUGE bowl of Pho, still bubbling from the heat, full of organ meats and noodles, the broth giving off lovely herbal and meaty aromas. Wow. Now that’s what I call a bowl of soup! And it truly was delicious, all the different meats (tendon and tripe, for example) soft yet retaining their own textures and tastes. The flavors were bright and sharp, with Thai basil sprucing things up.

Phenomenal Pho

We sat there for an hour, enjoying the experience, feeling like tourists in our own town.

Enjoying the Pho

Getting back into the car, we cruised down Coney Island Avenue to Sahara’s, a Turkish restaurant that also offers a take-out section. We both ordered what was supposed to be the specialty, lamb gyro with the fixings. Having grown up with Middle-Eastern food, I was really looking forward to trying this. The meat was moist on the spit, all the condiments looked fresh, and the pita bread was thin, like good pita should be.

Moist Lamb

Shaving the Lamb

Virgin Gyro

Yet it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I was slightly disappointed, to be honest. The lettuce and onions were almost freezing cold, and the lamb, while flavorful and moist, was quickly overpowered by the sauces they used. Not terrible, mind you, but I had expected and hoped for better. Ah well, c'est la vie! It was good enough to eat as I was still hungry.

Violated Gyro

Now stuffed, we headed back into the city, driving down Smith Street and past its colorful gentrified sidewalks. We crossed the beautiful bridge, saying goodbye to Brooklyn, at least for now.