Budget Wine: Cono Sur Bicicleta Cabernet Sauvignon Valle Central Chile 2013



cono sur cabChilean Cabernet has a distinctive vegetal/herbal aroma note that ranges from green pepper to eucalyptus and mint. This budget wine tends to the green pepper side of the spectrum although there is plenty of vanilla-encased black cherry and tobacco notes to give the nose some complexity. On the palate the wine is spicy with hints of chocolate. The medium body, crisp acidity and a mineral core leaves a vibrant, zestful impression. The finish is short with soft tannins. A polished, approachable wine with the acidity to enhance a meal. Recommended as an everyday beverage.

The mood is middle-of-the-road perky like Sia “Clap Your Hands”

Score: 86

Price: $9


Great Wines Think Alike


, , , ,

greatest winesAs a wine writer engaged in wine criticism, I taste a lot of wine. Some of it is dreadful, most is enjoyable but ordinary, occasionally it is luscious, delectable and captivating, and on rare occasions the experience is earth-shatteringly profound. Wines such as Screaming Eagle,Vega Sicilia, Chateaux Margaux, or Romano Dal Forno Amarone transcend ordinary experience–not merely delicious but life-changing, beyond measure, a vinous work of art.

If you have read many wine reviews you know what makes wine excellent. Intensity of aromas and flavors, complexity, balance, and structure adding up to an overall impression of unity and completeness–these are the main elements in an excellent wine.

But the best wines go beyond mere excellence. What distinguishes an excellent wine from a work of profound, awe-inspiring vinous art?

The cynics claim it is fascination with the price or reputation. But I drink a lot of high priced wines of reputation that I find unexceptional, so this explanation can’t really get off the ground.

Others will claim it is the story behind the wine that is most fascinating. And there is something right about this. Wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine. But ordinary artisanal wines have such stories, yet they do not fascinate in the way Screaming Eagle or Chateau Margaux fascinates.

Great wines are an achievement of human ingenuity in collaboration with nature and are noteworthy in their originality and expression. For instance, the 1982 Chateau Margaux set the standard for what a great left-bank Bordeaux should taste like. Like an original work of art, it involves a creative idea and its execution, which required solving particular problems that confronted the winemaker at the time of creation. This achievement is part of the aesthetic value of a work. Just as an exact replica of a work of art lacks the value of an original, a $90 knockoff of Margaux lacks the value of the original—they are not achievements, not works of creative originality.

But many things have origins and a story and exemplify human ingenuity. Yet they don’t fascinate the way a great wine does. Great wines stimulate the imagination because, in addition to having an origin and a story, they are beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it. Just as great works of art grab our attention because they promise something more, in great wines we sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can never quite get enough of it.

In other words, great wines induce a sense of wonder. They silence conversation and change the mood of a room from lively, sociable chatter to wistful surrender to the sublime, a contemplative state in which the wine itself seems to probe its own nature, searching for a more discursive means of expression.

In this experience we discover the margin that separates pleasure from serenity, satisfaction from awe.

The presence of contradiction and anomaly are essential to wonder, for wonder presents something that we can’t quite comprehend. We are transfixed by objects that are capable of harboring incompatible qualities. All of the great wines embody contradiction at their core: power and finesse, complexity and simplicity, weight and delicacy, solidity and agility.

The finest wines, which are not necessarily the most expensive, are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work. They beckon as if avowing “Make me a part of your life and I will promise eternal happiness.

Arsenic in Your Wine?

arsenic and old laceThe Internet is aflame with the news, released from a commercial testing lab last week, that levels of arsenic up to 4-5 times what is permitted in water have been found in a variety of supermarket wines. Some of the producers of these wines are being sued by the company that did the testing.  Since everyone else is discussing this story I guess I should to.  Because the story is all over the Internet I won’t bother repeating all the gory details. Here are three thoughtful accounts if you want to read more. (Here, here, and here)

My take:

1. Arsenic is present in lots of foods and beverages. The arsenic that is present in wine is probably from the soil, water, or some of the processing compounds used by wineries. I wouldn’t assume, as some writers have, that it exists only in cheap wine. It was cheap wine that was tested, but I don’t see any reason to think expensive wines are immune since soil, water, and processing compounds are factors in all winemaking.

2. I’m not worried about my intake of arsenic. To my admittedly untrained eye, the levels look too small to worry about. Yes, the levels are in some cases 4- 5 times higher than what is permitted in water but I drink a lot more water than wine everyday. Frankly, if I were to worry about every news article suggesting my health was under threat, I would crawl under a rock. So this story can get in line if it’s intended to cause panic.

3. BeverageGrades, the company that did the testing, seems to have an interest in encouraging wineries to hire them to test their wines. And, as this story points out, their testing methodologies and the reliability of their results are not transparent. Is this a publicity scam designed to drum up business as many in the wine industry are asserting? Maybe.

4. Knowing the levels of harmful substances in our food supply is a good thing. High levels of arsenic are not something to be simply dismissed. There is too little regulation of food safety because government agencies are understaffed and overwhelmed. The only way to get the attention of the food and beverage industry is to sue them—otherwise they will ignore you. So I don’t think the lawsuit is evidence that there is a scam going on. This is the way business is done in the U.S.

So pop another cork and drink to more testing.

Wine Review: Romano Dal Forno Amarone Della Valpolicella 2008



dal fornoLogic suggests that we should experience a sense of deflation and disappointment when we taste the very best wine of certain type. The sense of disappointment, one might think, comes from the recognition that a peak experience has been attained and there is nothing more to which to aspire. Happily, experience doesn’t always follow logic. Pleasure is the great reinforcer, creating a desire to repeat the pleasure again and again. Furthermore, when it comes to wine, our taste memories are so poor that a peak experience will only exist in memory as a dim awareness. Tasting the best never gets old.

I cannot wait to taste this again.

Romano Dal Forno’s Amarone is generally acknowledged to be the best, routinely receiving scores in the upper 90’s, and it has a price befitting its reputation.

But I didn’t have high expectations. I enjoy Amarone, but it is far from my favorite style of wine. Traditional styles can be rough and rustic. The more modern styles can be one-dimensional, prune-like and sweetish, and show too much alcohol.They are usually powerful but seldom elegant. But the great ones, like all great wines, manage to bring unity to opposing features—powerful yet elegant, sweet yet savory, massive while light and fresh on its feet.  The Dal Forno is all of those. When Amarone is this good, it is glorious.

Dark, almost black in color, and aromatically intense, the subtle scent of violets  modulates the bursting olfactory orgy of blackberry jam, coffee, smoke, and pepper all imbued with an aura of freshly-turned earth. On the palate, the flavors of fig and chocolate swell like a sea attracted to its moon, filling the mouth with darkness but bound together with vibrant acidity that gives the wine finesse despite all its power. The tannins are fierce but so fine-grained they don’t ravage the mouth. As it sits in the glass, caramel flavors develop as the wine goes through its phases, “ever changing, like a joyless eye that finds no objects worth its constancy” to quote Shelley. It is especially impressive that despite 16.5% alcohol, you don’t notice it. This has the stuffing to age for 30 years.

Grandiose beyond mere arrogance this is about as masculine as wine gets (if you will excuse the gender stereotypes). But there is so much life and finesse, it’s more like James Bond showing his Dalai Lama side.

Made from the same grape varieties from the same region that produces the lighter, food-friendly, affordable Valpolicella, Amarone-style wines are made by laying very ripe grapes in a drying chamber for 3-4 months until they turn to raisins, which concentrates all the flavor components and eliminates excess water. The grapes are then crushed and fermented until dry with extended maceration on the skins. and then aged in French or Slovenian oak and in the bottle for a combined 2 years (4 years for riserva). The need for more grapes per bottle, the process of drying the grapes, and the lengthy duration of fermentation, maceration, and storage add up to more costs for the winery and higher prices for the wine. To this standard method, Del Forno adds an unusual blend replacing the standard Molinara grape with Oseleta which amps up the acidity and an additional year of ageing before release. With very low yields and carefully selected grapes, the production on this wine tends to be low, under 1500 cases, making the wine hard to get.

If you don’t mind occasionally dropping serious coin on a wine and can put up with some inconsistency in their performance, the search for Amarone perfection could be a worthy life plan.

Drink while blasting the exquisitely massive, gorgeous, dark, brooding delicacies of Sigur Ros

Score: 97

Price: $300

Alc: 16.5%

Tasted on 3/14/2014 at WineElite

Budget Wine: McManis Family Vineyards Merlot California 2013



mcmanis merlotPlying the bargain bins and bottom shelves of supermarkets is a frustrating, occasionally rewarding task.  The McManis Merlot is one of those rewards.

Precise, pretty layers of red plum, chocolate, and vanilla inflected with black pepper and earthy highlights make for a very seductive nose. The palate is soft, smooth, and sexy, medium-bodied with a hint of glycerol, just enough acidity to keep it in balance and reticent tannins that provide subliminal décor for the acts of cajolery upfront. A bit of tart berry shows on the short finish. This is a wine very comfortable in its skin, poised and controlled, too slender and elegant to strive for bombast, a little thin on the midpalate but knowing its charm will carry the day. It won’t satisfy the power hungry, but if you enjoy delicacy and polish this will satisfy. As an inexpensive date-night wine you can’t miss with this.

And for accompaniment you want ultimate cool, the slickest song in history, a song so luscious it’s like listening to chocolate:

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

The Brave New World of Food


, ,


Creative Commons license Photo by Mark Rain

“Picture yourself in a supermarket aisle in 2050. These new ‘magic meatballs’, brightly coloured for the kids, seem worth a try. Better have some of the meat powder too, one of the more established products from the mass-manufacturers of cultured meat – you can make that creamy meat-based fondue that always satisfies. You don’t fancy the meat ice-cream today, but there’s still time left for a trip to the deli counter, for some expensive, but delicious ‘rustic’ meat, matured in special vats, or perhaps some knitted steaks. And you can pile your cart secure in the knowledge that no animals were harmed in the making of any of these offerings.”

These are hypothetical products imagined in The In Vitro Meat Cook Book (2014) by Koert van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink, part of a new genre of futurist writing called “design fiction” and summarized by Jon Turney in the latest issue of Aeon. The idea behind design fiction is to avoid the utopian-dystopian opposition that characterizes debates about a technological future by imagining a richer set of possibilities for how the future might unfold through more realistic depictions—hence the idea of a synthetic meat cook book .

The cook book also imagines local “micro-carneries” where in-vitro meat products are produced like microbrews. Another offering in the genre entitled Synthetic Aesthetics imagines “cheeses made by bacteria harvested from human skin and then named for their owners (Daisy’s Armpit, Philosopher’s Toe).” The Daisy Armpit cheese, you will be comforted to know, had a “fresh, yoghurt-like aroma” when actually created in the lab (although it cannot yet be safely eaten).

I think I can safely predict that in the future many of us will long for a simple roast leg of lamb.

Pâté, Dog Food and Fine Wine—It’s All Good



dog foodDavid White wants wine lovers to relax about those studies purporting to show that even wine experts can be systematically fooled about what their tasting. The problem is not wine tasters but our perceptions generally; we are easily fooled when our environment is manipulated or when expectations are disrupted.

Consider a 2012 study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. By giving an extreme makeover to a Hardee’s, researchers discovered that people will eat less but enjoy their food more when at a fine-dining establishment instead of a fast-food joint. A 2006 study led by John Bohannon, a biologist and science journalist at Harvard University, found that most people can’t distinguish pâté from dog food.

Does this mean that Michelin-starred restaurants should replace pâté with Purina Puppy Chow and start serving Hardee’s Patty Meltdowns? Of course not.

White attributes this to our tendency to make mistakes and the inherent subjectivity of taste preferences. But there are deeper reasons why perceptions are easily fooled.

Our brains are designed to rely on contextual clues. Change the context and even ordinary perceptions become unreliable. In the end, it’s a good thing our expectations play such a large role in what we perceive—it helps us adapt quickly to normal situations so we can focus attention elsewhere. If expectations did not influence what we perceive, every moment would be new, every change in our environment a revelation.

The unreliability of wine tasters is only in part about the subjectivity of preferences; variations in how contextual clues are handled are equally important.

Ban the Kid’s Menu!



kids mealThis article in the National Journal details how we’ve created a generation of children who don’t enjoy food. A combination of busy, overly indulgent parents and a food industry all too willing to sell fat, sugar, and salt are the culprits:

For a generation, many North American parents have indulged children’s picky eating tendencies by sticking them in an endlessly repeating loop of chicken fingers, burgers, pizza, plain pasta, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Anyone who has sat down for a meal with youngsters over the past 25 years will recognize this list of typical “kids’ foods.” Pushed out of the picture, to varying degrees for different children, are fruits and vegetables and anything else that might challenge them, from spicy delicacies to unfamiliar proteins…The 1980s and ’90s saw the advent of countless convenience and snack foods, from fruit and chicken nuggets pressed into “fun” shapes to sugar-laden yogurts and foods kids could assemble themselves. Grocery stores increasingly sold meals that resembled fast food. As Moss chronicles in Salt Sugar Fat, these products, many of them portable and/or frozen, helped transform the North American diet. Their flavour profiles, packaging, and advertising and marketing programs were often designed to appeal specifically to children with a sophistication that made the 1960s breakfast cereal explosion look limited and quaint.

And so now, paradoxically, as adults turn to exotic, nutritious, more adventurous foods, we’ve created a generation whose response to a lovely Tart Nicoise or Doro Wat is Yuk!

The solution is to take a page from the French way of eating:

Sit with children and serve them the same meal you get. Serve them challenging foods and encourage them to eat, but don’t force them. Fighting about it can create negative associations for that food. Listen to kids’ ideas about what they want to eat, but don’t turn the menu into a point of negotiation once dinner has been decided upon. Involving children in food preparation sharpens their appetites, so involve them whenever possible in grocery shopping and gardening, and let them watch you cook.

A food culture that cannot transmit its values to the next generation is no culture at all. The food revolution is sustainable only if we get the kids on board.

Wine Review: Ramona Ranch Symphony Ramona Valley AVA 2013


, , ,

ramona ranchNewly emerging wine regions are intriguing because they are not bound by tradition and can experiment with new ways of doing things. And so as I explore San Diego wineries, I am continually finding unexpected gems—such as this white wine made from a grape called Symphony. Symphony has been around for years as a blending grape, although a few scattered wineries have made it as a stand-alone varietal, most notably Ironstone’s Obsession. Designed to stand up to the hot weather of California’s Central Valley, this cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, was developed at UC Davis by Dr. Harold Olmo and was first introduced commercially in 1981. Most of the versions of Symphony I have tasted have been off-dry, or sweet, which makes Ramona Ranch’s experiment so interesting—it is bone dry and bursting with flavor.

The intensely perfumed nose unfolds to reveal lime and prominent floral aromas, with spearmint-like spice notes intermingling with the mineral scent of wet stones. The dry, medium-bodied palate opens softly with a creamy mouthfeel,  but bristling acidity creeps up on you making for a crisp, kinetic mid-palate with flavors frolicking like a slightly mad colt. The finish is quite chalky reminiscent of a fine Chablis. I detect no oak.

Neither grassy like Sauvignon Blanc nor tropical like California Chardonnay, there is room in the wine firmament for this strikingly original wine.

San Diego is known for its red wines but is still finding its way with the whites. I hope more vineyards follow the lead of Ramona Ranch and make Symphony a prominent part of their line-up.

Visit their winery to taste this unique and exciting wine.

And as you raise a glass, open your eyes with Dan Black’s “Symphonies ft. Kid Cudi”

“Gimme, gimme symphonies
Gimme more than the life I see”

Score: 90

Price: $21

Alc: 13.5%

Cross-posted at San Diego Wine and Food


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 164 other followers