Budget Wine: Marchigue Carmenere Reserva Colchagua Valley 2012

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marchigueI am a fan of unusual wines, especially when they are inexpensive. With the hundreds if not thousands of wines available on any city block, 1/2 of them tasting so much alike, it is cause for celebration when you find something strikingly different.

On that score Carmenere almost always delivers. Although originally a Bordeaux varietal, it is now seldom grown in France due to its susceptibility to disease. But it has found a home in the drier, geographically protected, valleys of Chile. And it usually produces a wild and unpredictable tasting experience, sort of like meeting Charlie Sheen for dinner.

This Carmenere plays to type. The fruit is almost prune-like, very ripe and dark for Carmenere but wild herbal notes, marjoram and mint, bushwack the senses, with coffee and fresh earth playing more subdued background music. The palate has an oily texture with some viscosity, very full body for Carmenere, with some sugar apparent. But the ample acidity and bitter herbal flavors on the finish balance that richness and give it hints of rusticity. Tannins are soft and the finish relatively short.

Easy drinking but interesting, it seems a bit manufactured on the palate perhaps with added sugar to boost viscosity but the wild and wonderful flavors make this a real treat at this price. The hint of sweetness will make this a good barbecue wine or serve it with meat sauces that have a bit of sweetness to them like a mole.

Score: 89

Alc: 13.5

Price: $8 at Trader Joe’s

Ban Negative Reviews?

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yelpResponses to this article have been lighting up my Facebook feed; most emanate from this distinguished group of food writers.

A group of French restaurateurs and hoteliers have launched a petition to effectively ban all “defamatory” reviews. The petition (translated), which the Local writes was started by Michelin-starred chef Pascal Favre d’Anne, currently has well over 1,700 signatures. It requests that the Minister of Commerce prohibit “judging and of posting defamatory comments and subjective observations on members of staff in our restaurants. We ask reviewing sites to moderate their users and to ask for proof of their visits to our establishments.”

The complaint is about sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor that allow anyone to comment. And their accusations about Yelp have some validity. Because anyone can comment, business owners can pay people to write favorable reviews of their services or unfavorable reviews of their competition, people with an axe to grind or a grudge can negatively influence public perceptions of a business, and reviewers usually lack the expertise to make informed judgments about the businesses they criticize.

The result is that small businesses, especially restaurants, who lack the resources to mount a Yelp campaign can be subject to vicious criticism before they have a chance to get their feet on the ground. Getting all aspects of a new restaurant to function efficiently can take months which is why professional restaurant reviewers decline to write about new restaurants until they have time to get their act together. Yelp reviewers have no such restraint. And If you are trying to do something unusual or unique, your chances of pleasing the Yelpers are slim since most will not understand it. Many business have failed because of unfavorable Yelp reviews which meet no standards for objectivity.

Frankly, I find Yelp is useless when seeking a restaurant to try. The problem is not the irrational, ill-informed rants you find there—it is easy enough to ignore them. The problem is effusive, over-the-top praise for mediocre food. The best restaurant of a certain type will seldom be the one that gets the most votes from Yelpers, simply because most of the people who post there are clueless about good food and are not seeking something unusual or interesting. You simply cannot get expertise from the input of 1000 non-experts—which is the fallacy behind crowd-sourced reviews. The only thing I can discover about a restaurant by reading through Yelp reviews is whether they have fast, friendly service most of the time.

Restaurants who take the time to make good food will be systematically disadvantaged by “reviewers” who really only care about stuffing their face. And making good food does take time. Yelp and similar venues have done nothing to improve the quality of dining, and in fact are probably contributing to the dumbing down of cuisine. So I sympathize with these French chefs and other business owners who must figure out how to navigate the shoals of uninformed public opinion.

However, the idea of banning negative reviews is not the way to go. If you ban negative reviews then only positive reviews are permitted. But then I have no reason to believe the positive reviews since I’m getting a biased picture by default. By banning negative reviews you make reviews themselves irrelevant.

And there is simply no way to be sure people who post on Yelp have actually visited the place of business. The resources required to monitor compliance would be enormous; but more importantly such a requirement, at least in the U.S. , would be laughed out of court for clear violations of the First Amendment. Courts have consistently ruled that compelling a publisher to guarantee the accuracy of assertions of fact would lead to intolerable self-censorship. False speech, except in very particular contexts, is generally protected in U.S. courts (Which of course does not apply to France. I don’t know the French legal context)

One common sentiment the keeps popping up in this discussion was that there ought to be some protection from vicious, stupid or ill-informed people. Indeed there ought to be. Moral philosophers have thought so for millennia. When we have found that protection we will have achieved utopia—it won’t be in my lifetime.

This debate about Yelp is interesting because it raises fundamental issues about democracy. Yelp (and other such sites) have democratized criticism—everyone’s a critic with no demonstration of expertise. That has certainly harmed criticism and food writing in general, and as I noted above, it has probably harmed the practice of dining as well. This trend toward diminishing the importance of expertise is troubling. But that is a price we pay for democracy.

To argue that Yelpers should be banned from commenting is to assert that the stupid and ill-informed ought not have a voice. That is profoundly anti-democratic and if implemented generally would have baleful effects on society.

A Puzzle About Tacos

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tacoThe political writer Kevin Drum went off his beat last week. Using the New York Times new tool for counting the mentions of a word in their archives, he investigates mentions of the word “taco”.

Back in 1877, a full 3 percent of all Times articles mentioned tacos! In fact, tacomania was a feature of the Times during all of the 1870s and 1880s, before suddenly falling off a cliff in 1890. What’s up with that? Why did tacos suddenly become verboten in 1890? Did a new editor take over who hated tacos? And what’s the deal with the blip from about 1917 to 1922? Did World War I produce a sudden explosion of interest in tacos?

Here is the chart detailing the mentions of “taco”.

blog_times_taco

I doubt that tacos were well known in the Northeast in the late 19th Century. But perhaps food historians out there will correct me.  In fact, food historian Jeffrey Pilcher claims the first mention in the U.S is in a newspaper in 1905, which is incompatible with what the Times database is showing.

My guess, along with many of Kevin’s commenters, is the spike in mentions is the result of an OCR transcription error since I would imagine these archives have been scanned. But that doesn’t explain the drop-off in mentions in 1890.

But at any rate, this is a useful tool for tracking food trends.

Ageing Report: Seghesio Sangiovese 2007

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seghesio sangioThe vast majority of wine reviews are about recently released wines, and for good reason. The purpose of most wine reviews is to guide consumers, and only recently released wines will be widely available for consumers to purchase. Furthermore, the vast majority of wine sold in the U.S will not age well beyond a year or two anyway so there would be no point in tracking their development.

However, this practice of reviewing only recent releases ignores the fact that age vastly improves wines of quality and serious wine connoisseurs have a deep interest in knowing which wines will age well. Wine writing that ignores the aging process misses one of the most significant dimensions of the wine-drinking experience. So, on occasion, I think it is useful to write about wines that have been cellared, especially when we can answer questions about wines that lack the reputation of  being age-worthy.

We know that quality Sangiovese will age well—Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico Reserva, despite some inconsistency,  are among the world’s great wines for age-ability. But what about American Sangiovese? Will it stand up to the Italians?

Seghesio Family Vineyards is one of the more well-established Sonoma brands having produced wine there since 1895. Although best known for their Zinfandel, they produce several Italian varietals as well and are a good representation of quality American Sangiovese.At 10 years post-vintage, this wine is still going strong and is, I would think, now at its peak.

Still a bright ruby with little rim variation and no bricking, it shows ripe, red plum on the nose, just on the edge of raisin but the fruit is reticent enough for dried floral notes to present. But the most prominent characteristics are oak-derived aromas, vanilla and pencil lead with some freshly-turned earth. The fruit is darker on the palate but quickly shades to tea and is packed with scents of wood and chocolate. This never was a fruit bomb and at this point the fruit is really taking a back seat to polished and refined secondary flavors.

The evolution of textures on the palate is lovely—initially soft and round, the mid-palate swells with ample acidity  giving way to a medium length finish with finely knit tannins, drying but with no bite. This is not a rustic wine; it is pleasant, elegant, and comfortable with nothing out of balance. Just a bit of heat and bitterness on the finish from the alcohol.

Compared to Italian versions, American Sangiovese tends to be riper, with higher alcohol, slightly reduced acidity, and liberal use of typically American oak.  Seghesio’s Sangiovese fits that description. But despite the differences in approach it is still recognizably Sangiovese and has aged wonderfully. However, although the best Brunellos can age 20 years or more, I would drink this in the next few years as the fruit is becoming less prominent.

Opened: August 2014

Score: 90

Alc: 15%

Price: $30 when released

Budget Wine: Skeleton Malbec Mendoza 2013

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skeleton malbecThere is a debate among wine critics about whether we should write negative reviews. Most say they don’t have time to waste on bad wine. But film, art, and music critics write negative reviews and so do consumer guides. Negative reviews don’t take that much time to write—how many minutes does it take to write “it sucks”? And why are wines above criticism?

I was enthusiastic about this wine because I loved their Grüner Veltliner,  which I reviewed here. But we all know the fact a winery does one thing well is no indication that their whole lineup will impress. I know nothing and can find out very little about this winery. I suspect they buy grapes on the open market; and the fact that Argentinean Malbec has been in demand as the new “hot” grape for a few years now may mean only inferior grapes are available at a good price. That’s just speculation but it would explain this mediocre wine.

Simple black cherry on the nose with some earth notes that provoke mild interest. But the palate is meager and watery with muddy flavors and sour acidity that enters the picture early and monopolizes the finish. At least it is very dry. No standard signs of a flaw; just cheap grapes. Drinkable but you can do much better for less money. But if you like the label, well then…

Score: 81

Price: $10 (1 liter bottle)

Alc: 13%

Food, Nostalgia, and Something about Androids

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It has become common knowledge—at least since Proust and his madeleine—that food has a peculiar capacity to provoke memories. When we eat, we can never escape the past; the role of nostalgia in much of our food writing is testimony to this fact.

Furthermore, the culinary arts are inevitably bound up with food traditions simply because every diner comes to a new dish with a history of eating experiences that will shape how she understands the dish.  All creative cooking is in some way commenting on food traditions.

Yet nostalgia often has a bad name—it’s too conservative, excessively romantic, divorced from the truth, a fig leaf for suspect ideologies, etc. So how should we think about the connection between food (wine too) and nostalgia?

That is the topic of my Three Quarks post this month entitled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Tomatoes? Food and Nostalgia”. Head on over and give it a read.

Wine Review: Antinori Solaia Toscana IGT 1999

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solaiaDrinking an iconic wine is in some respects like watching McCartney or Jagger perform—it is as much about the past as it is the present, as much a celebration as an aesthetic experience. Yet, there are important differences.

We know the iconic rock star is over-the-hill; that goes without saying. But we’re willing to accept the importance of reputation over performance without complaint, as long as the performance is not too horrifying. We’re content with memory filling in the chasm between an irretrievable past and an imperfect present. And so we relax and enjoy the moment.

But when opening a celebrated, aged wine there is a veneer of anxiety coating the experience. Perhaps it was stored improperly or maybe we’re opening it before its peak. Perhaps the price is more a function of reputation than flavor. 1999 was a great vintage, but will it show well enough to justify the cost? And how does it measure up to its peers? We’ve put the Stones vs. Beatles debate to rest years ago. But Solaia vs. Sassichia vs. Ornellia—that one’s still alive and must be addressed.

And so with some trepidation and anticipation we (at Wine Elite’s San Diego Wine Society) open the “99” Solaia.

Solaia is an icon because it traces its origins to the early history of the emergence of Super Tuscans. Unhappy with the poor quality of Chianti wines in the mid-20th Century, the della Rochetta and Antinori families cooperated in producing Tuscan wines using Bordeaux varietals.  Della Rochetta’s Sassicaia,  a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc was first with its initial release in 1971.  Antinori’s Tignanello, 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet followed shortly. And encouraged by the success of Tignanello, in 1978 Antinori releases the first vintage of Solaia, which is now a blend of about 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Sangiovese.  Because they violated the regulations governing Chianti wines,  they could not be sold as “Chianti” and were labeled as mere table wines. Despite the difficulties of selling high quality, pricey wines as “table wine”, quality won out and today Super Tuscans are highly-regarded, recognized by the wine laws of Italy, and the whole episode of their birth is a story of how dedicated, talented individuals can start a revolution.

Knowing the backstory provides context for appreciating a wine just as knowing the history of the Beatles or Stones helps us understand their music and its evolution. Does knowing the backstory influence our judgment of the wine? If you are aware of the story’s potential influence and consciously try to exclude it from your evaluation I see no reason why it must. To taste a wine like Solaia blind would be a waste since your awareness of its history is part of the appreciation, although not necessarily part of the evaluation.

So what about the Solaia? The first sniff exudes power. After well over a decade in the bottle it is no longer tight. Bold, black cherry and sweet, dried fig aromas leap from the glass. The rich radiant fruit flavors shade to baked earth and a seriously smoky essence, gently kissed by fennel notes in the background. The fruit is still vibrant and youthful but it is surrounded by indicators of age as the oak is becoming more integrated. On the palate, structure is front and center. Big fruit, high acidity, and firm tannins provide the framework around which more subtle qualities playfully intervene.The palate is rich and velvety on first encounter but bristling acidity swells to a crescendo which releases you into a long, spicy, finish supported by fine grained, drying tannins that are still a bit too prominent.

It has definitely entered its drinking window and if served with a big steak will be glorious. But I don’t think it has reached its peak. The tannins still need to soften a bit more. There is a toughness to this wine as if it is disdainful of too much charm. It doesn’t seduce you with graceful elegance like, for instance, a Margaux, and it is denser and more ripe than the 2009 Sassicaia I tasted last year, yet less voluptuous than the best Napa Cabs. I’m not persuaded that the best expression of Cabernet Sauvignon is to be found in Tuscany.

But it is a serious wine, deserving its reputation and its place in history.

I suppose we are willing to give aging rock stars a break, because if they are over-the-hill so are we (if we are their contemporaries). Wine is different; it is supposed to get better with age and we can demand perfection in a wine because it cannot protest our unrealistic standards.

 

Score: 94

Price: $217 (Ave.)

alc: 13.5

Budget Wine: Bodegas Faustino Rioja 2010

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faustinoWe’re fascinated by novelty forever chasing the next new thing until innovation itself seems routine. And so when we encounter something old school, really old school, it seems fresh and new.

This wine is really old school Spanish Rioja. Cherry notes typical of Tempranillo but they barely show through the musty  earth, smoke, and light vanilla. I could sniff a funky nose like this all day. It’s like being downwind from a barnyard fire. (There may be a little brett but if so it adds rather than detracts.)

The palate is lively and refreshing but a little tough and austere,  medium weight and a medium length finish with forceful, grainy, slightly coarse tannins.Firm acidity keeps it all in balance. 4 months in new American oak gives the wine complexity but the oak component doesn’t overwhelm.

No pretentions to elegance or refinement. Fiercely humble, a fiery defense of rusticity. It’s what cheap Bordeaux aspires to be but only rarely achieves–vin ordinaire with flair.

Bodegas Faustino has been making wine for 150 years in Rioja and they are justly famous for their celebrated Reserva and Gran Reserva. But this bottom shelf bargain is a worthy achievement as well.

Score: 90

Price: $10

Alc: 13%

Dumbing Down Dining

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fast food wineMany decades ago, as the result of our frantic, mobile lifestyles and general disregard for the quality of sensory experience, Americans gave up family dinners for fast food.

Today, several fast food operations—from Sonic to Chipotle–are trying to introduce alcoholic beverages because:

Fast Food CEOs seem to believe that Americans are increasingly interested in having a dining experience—not just a meal on the run—when they eat out, and this often includes the addition of alcohol.

So apparently we now no longer see fast food as, well, fast food—it has become a “dining experience”. What in the past was done solely for convenience becomes so familiar it acquires intrinsic value and so we now think sitting in a plastic booth eating mystery meat slathered with condiments sipping wine from a plastic cup is a “dining experience”.

It would really be a good thing if we stopped allowing CEO’s to define our “experience”

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