Budget Wine: Javier San Pedro Randez Crianza Tempranillo 2011

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javier san pedro randezThere are terrific bargains to  be found buying Spanish wine (see reviews of Faustino and Cune for two examples). But cheap isn’t necessarily a bargain. The old adage if it looks too good to be true it probably is. I spotted this Crianza at Trader Joe’s for $7. There is a reason. Bright cranberry on the nose but very prominent vegetal notes are an issue, and little overt oak making it a bit unusual for a Rioja. The palate is leathery with more tart cranberry and surprisingly tough tannins. There is plenty of structure but this is a stiff, unyielding wine with insufficient fruit to balance the tannin and acidity. If you like austere wines this is as unrefined as you can get. Score: 80 Price: $7 Alc: 13.5 This wine takes me back to early Trent Reznor and NIne Inch Nails–tough, unforgiving, destitute. It reminds you there are states of mind compared to which this wine is like Chateau Margaux:

Should Restaurants Feature Local Wines on their Lists?

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localMatt Kramer at the Wine Spectator raised this issue, one that is increasingly important as wine regions in the U.S. become more prominent. As Kramer points out, many wine lists at top restaurants throughout the country have no local wines or only a few token representatives, even in cities such as San Francisco or Portland, Oregon that have important wine regions nearby. Kramer was non-committal on the issue arguing that it depends on your perspective:

As in the parable of the blind men describing the elephant, where you’re placed—as a winery owner, a restaurant owner, a chef, a sommelier, a booster of local wines, a wine importer or distributor and not least, a wine-loving restaurant patron—will powerfully color your conclusion.

That is certainly true but I think two perspectives should take precedence—diner’s preferences and the vision of the chef or owner. No restaurant is obligated to serve local wines if they do not enhance the chef’s food or fit with the vision of the restaurant. As a diner, it is that vision that I want to experience. Furthermore, in a Greek restaurant I prefer Greek wines, in an Italian restaurant, Italian wines since in these traditional wine growing regions the food has evolved with the wine and they usually pair well.

But for restaurants that advertise as farm-to-table or claim to be an authentic expression of their region’s cuisine it is a travesty if they don’t include local wines. Why are grapes any less local than other food products? Furthermore, such restaurants have an obligation to design some dishes with local wines in mind. Their advertising is creating that expectation and they should fulfill it. When I peruse a wine list, the first thing I look for is the local wine selection and almost always choose from it.

No doubt there should be sufficient diversity on the wine list to make it interesting and to give diners meaningful choices. But that diversity should include local selections if there are quality local wines available.

Deep Questions

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There are important questions human beings must answer if we are to make sense of our lives. Is there a coffee so great that none greater can be conceived? Is God made of soap? Can someone be happy if she discovers her sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others?

But the Atlantic Monthly manages to trump even these very serious questions with an ontological puzzle that would have stumped even St. Anselm:

Is Pizza Hut’s Hot Dog Pizza actually pizza?

hot dog pizza

Can this latest brainchild of the international conglomerate that is Yum! Foods—an Italian-German fusion dish that puts the “frank” in “Frankenstein’s monster”—really count as A Pizza at all? At what point does a particular food product veer so dramatically from its historic origins and its Platonic form that it requires a new category altogether?

After consulting several experts the linked article gives us this pearl of wisdom:

A pizza, basically, is a food product that is also a state of mind. One of the beauties of pizza as a form, Wiener points out, is that it is so flexible and permissive—a genre, really, rather than a strict category. That lets pizza-makers, whether they’re working at home or in restaurants or in the labs of Yum! Brands, exercise ingenuity. And if that ingenuity includes a crown of reconstituted pork products … hey, still pizza. “The crust,” Bello says, “is a canvas for creativity.”

Not even Derrida could have said it better; pizza is anything you want it to be. But of course if everything is pizza, nothing is pizza since the word “pizza” draws no contrast with anything outside its orbit.

So nothing is pizza?

Thankfully, the French philosopher Sartre, who believed the absence of something is still something, comes to the rescue.

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm”, he writes

Ah well, then. Pizza is like a worm, except a worm would be more appetizing.

The Benzinger Sale—Another One Bites the Dust

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benzingerOne of my favorite wineries in Sonoma, Benzinger Family Winery, has been sold to The Wine Group, a large conglomerate of value wines. This continues the trend of industry consolidation with small and medium-sized wineries being swallowed by the three largest global brands (one of which is The Wine Group) that now control 1/2 of the wine sales in the U.S.

Benzinger makes fresh, delicious wines using bio-dynamically farmed grapes. What are the chances The Wine Group will maintain that commitment to quality? Here is a list of The Wine Group’s brands. None of them are impressive; not a premium brand among them. Apparently, The Wine Group wants to enter the premium market and they see Benzinger as the vehicle.

While until recently TWG has concentrated on low-end wines, the new management is looking to acquire high-end brands and sortie into the premium wine business. Benziger’s wines sell for $20 to $80 a bottle and are a step in that direction.
“Their mission is to take a powerful low end wine company and take it upscale,” Mike [Benzinger] said. “I think we can have an impact on a huge wine company and show them the way to become more environmentally responsible in farming and more socially aware.”

I’m skeptical. Although there are smaller wineries that make bad wine and large wine corporations that make good wine, there are many reasons why the big corporations often fail to maintain quality. In a large corporation, the decisions that influence the taste of the wine are made by many people. Every department head has input, especially the sales department that has to listen to customer complaints. There is no vision; just a product that will avoid offending anyone. By contrast, the smaller winemakers making wines for a dedicated following can stick to their unique vision, if they have one,  because their regular customers are already on board an they don’t need a broad customer base.

But perhaps more importantly, large wineries and conglomerates have no incentive to maintain quality. Success is measured by how much you sell, and large companies have a big advantage on the distribution side of the business. They already have relationships with distributors that guarantee their products get placed in supermarkets and wine shops. Distributors can’t say no to a large winery that brings them a lot of business when the winery wants to launch a new product.  Furthermore their customers tend to buy the brand they’re familiar with and often lack the ability to make subtle distinctions in quality. They look for consistency for a good price.

So where is the incentive to produce great wine for large industrial wineries and conglomerates? Even if the intention is to produce quality, the incentive structure of the business doesn’t support it.

Don’t get me wrong. There are excellent large-production wineries. Clos du Bois, Beringer, and Mondavi all make good wines at the reserve level; Bogle, McManis, and La Crema among others in the $20 and under range are consistently good. But there is nothing special about them. They appeal to generic customers with generic tastes. And for good reason. They are giving their customers what they want—which is not uniqueness or an extraordinary experience.

So it is an occasion for some sadness and concern when an original like Benzinger goes corporate.

Review: Long Shadows Vintners Pirouette Columbia Valley 2012

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longshadows pirouetteLong Shadows  is a great idea. Build a state of the art facility, source from the finest vineyards in Washington State, and hire famous winemakers to make your wine. Sounds like a can’t miss formula. But winemaking isn’t about formulas and even at the high-end level it can be a mysterious business. This Bordeaux-style blend doesn’t quite work. It’s not a bad wine; it just doesn’t meet expectations based on the reputation of the winemakers (Philippe Melka and Augustin Hunneeus) and price.

Deep, rich, concentrated blackberry jam and chocolate aromas are promising but a layer of cedar isn’t quite integrated yet and there are puzzling green bell pepper notes that you seldom find in expensive Cabernet made from grapes this ripe. The alcohol on the nose is distracting and a harbinger of things to come.  On the palate, the fresh fig flavors upfront are nice and the tannins are firm with plenty of backbone. But a mid-palate burst of bitter 85% baker’s chocolate that carries through the long finish mars the experience. If I want bitter I’ll look to the subtle bitter herbal flavors of Valpolicella that add to the feeling of rusticity—I don’ expect in-your-face rustic in a $60 Meritage. It just seems like the alcohol is increasingly revealed as the wine evolves in the mouth. In short, the Pirouette lacks balance and integration. I suspect it will become more integrated with age. I would lay this down for 3-5 years to see if it comes together. But—perhaps this wine is ahead of its time in more ways than one (see the music recommendation below)

Made from 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Franc primarily from Red Mountain and Wahluke Slope and spends 22 months in 75% new French Oak.

Longshadows is an intriguing winery. Founded by legendary Washington wine pioneer Allen Shoup, he hires internationally-acclaimed winemakers as partners in the production of their lineup. I’m hoping this is a one-off misfire.

Score: 88

Price: 60

Alc: 14.9%

We’ve learned to enjoy dissonance in our music; will we come to find dissonant wines pleasing?

Here’s the master of dissonance Arnold Schönberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”. This wine actually becomes more intelligible with such accompaniment.

Budget Wine: Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red Lake County 2012

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shannon ridge wrangler redAll wine, if it isn’t flawed, smells like grapes. I want a wine, even a budget wine, to give me something more. This wine has a nice undertone of wet leaves (think chilly, late autumn days after a rain) supporting the berry aromas, with some dense herbal notes topped off by a seam of vanilla and wood notes. Despite the modest alcohol percentage, the nose gives you a strong whiff of it. Medium plus weight on the palate with a hint of sweetness up front but enough acidity to keep the flab off and a smooth, drying finish with the tannic grip to remind you its not grape juice.

Excellent value for the money, an easy to drink, sincere wine, nicely balanced, not overworked or puffed up.   It’s a blend of 45% Zinfandel, 40% Syrah, 8% Petite Syrah, and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon aged 14 months in a mix of French and American oak barrels.

Lake County is a lesser known wine region about 40 miles north of Napa. A lot of juice sold in Napa comes from Lake County. Shannon Ridge Vineyards is located in the foothills overlooking Clear Lake over 2000 ft. up.

Score: 86

Price: $11

Alcohol: 13.9%

Some straightforward, no frills, roots rock for this wine. James McMurtry’s “How’m I Gonna Find You Now”

In Search of Ambiente

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wine cellarWhen trying to understand a wine and its significance there are four dimensions from which one can draw. There is of course the taste and aromatics of the wine—the sort of thing you find in a tasting note. Then there are the technical aspects of the vineyard, its management, and winemaking—the varietal, vineyard characteristics, climate and weather factors, and all the techniques winemakers use that explain why the wine tastes as it does. The third dimension is your emotional response to the wine, its appropriateness for an occasion, the way it pairs with the food at a meal, the memories or thoughts it evokes, the personality the wine exhibits, or the way it nits together a social gathering with friends. This is of course a very subjective dimension.

The fourth dimension is the one I want to focus on. Steve Heimoff referred to it recently as “ambiente”, a term he discovered in Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy,  by David Lynch and Joseph Bastianich:

In it, the authors introduce the concept of ambiente, which they describe as “the feel of a place…not just the geology, topography, and climate of a vineyard but the culture that surrounds it.” Included in this notion of “culture” are “the food products that grow in the same soil…the culture that created it…the people, the place…anecdotes…food talk, and recipes…” and every other slice of life that goes into and surrounds the interaction between human being and wine. “To know all that is to have a sense of ambiente,” the authors conclude, “which is a lot more fun than rooting around in the terroir.

This is a good term, picking up connotations of the French-derived term ambiance, but broader in scope; I hope it sticks. The problem with ambiente however is that not all wines have it, at least not intrinsically. Of course all wines are created in a culture because wine is made by human beings who naturally form cultures. But only some wines exhibit qualities that are explained by the culture from which they emerge. Anyone can with sufficient funds can open a winery, buy grapes, and hire employees to make drinkable wine. But that winery need not have any connection to its surrounding culture. Yet that cultural connection is one of the most important aspects of wine; an important reason why wine is so intriguing. This is part of the worry about industrial wines. They may taste good but lack ambiente although modern marketing techniques strive to make you think otherwise.

In fact, one could argue that only wines from traditional regions with long histories in which wine was the central cultural focus would exhibit ambiente. Places like Beaune in Burgundy for instance.

I think, however, that that is not quite true. As I visit wineries in San Diego for inclusion in our guide there is no doubt some of these wines exhibit ambiente even though San Diego is a relatively new wine region. There is a vibrant wine culture here that influences decisions made in the vineyard and winery.

My main point is that only some wines are a window into a culture and there really is no way to know without visiting the winery and soaking up the culture.

Which is why we head out on the road on Monday for 6 months—to wine regions in the Bay Area, then to Willamette Valley, Colorado, Missouri, Virginia, and the southwest—in search of ambiente.

Some of my travel writing may be posted here but most of it will be at Roving Decanter.

The Power of Pleasure

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power of pleasureAlice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and current Vice President of Slow Food International, is well known for introducing Americans to the idea that fresh is the key to flavor. But Waters often mentions a related idea that is equally important. Speaking of the growth of the  Slow Food movement in a recent interview she says:

Yes, we are now in 156 countries and I think the reason it is so successful is because it is using pleasure to bring people back to their understanding ideas like sustainability and biodiversity by feeding them. I am a Montessori teacher and I believe we learn by doing. There is no real book for this revolution.

We should not underestimate the importance of pleasure in bringing about social change. People are more likely to change their behavior if the goal is more pleasure. This is something that religions have understood and that secular social movements have often missed. Part of the success of religion is explained by the pleasure people get from imaginative stories and stimulating rituals.

The food movement has staying power because it is about pleasure.

And so stories like this one (h/t Elatia Harris) make me laugh. Dan Flynn asks, “Has the Foodie Craze Run its Course?”.

I am beginning to detect signs that the broadly defined Foodie trend has hit a wall. My guess comes at a time when the National Restaurant Association says that more dollars are being spent eating out than eating in. And my email traffic dedicated only to Foodie interests seems to be peaking.

It makes me wonder if there can be enough reader interest in all that’s generated for the Foodie audience. My concern comes just as I am noticing the Foodie dominance in social situations may be waning. For example, I’ve noticed that one Foodie in a group is no longer enough to sway table conversations toward food, and I’ve even seen some attempts to photograph food items slapped down.

It feels good to know I wasn’t the only one who felt silly holding up a plate of food for someone’s photo shoot. Nor am I unique in caring less about hearing about some chef’s biographical details or when some item last appeared on the menu. Or, blah, blah, blah.

So evidence that interest in food is expanding is somehow evidence that interest in food is waning, an “insight” that is buttressed by the personal observation that “foodies” may be moving beyond some of the more silly aspects of food culture. Note to Mr. Flynn—the pleasure we get from food is primarily not from taking photos of it or dominating conversations about it. It is about, well, eating—a practice Mr. Flynn apparently does not enjoy.

While we’ve seen this fixation on food for the past decade or so, in the future it’s very possible food choices will become clear and distinct without all the talk.

Future dining might be more akin to being aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise where the replicator will provide you with exactly what you want, even if you had it yesterday. None of the current obsession with menus will likely survive.

More simple, straightforward and efficient food decisions would leave a lot of extra time for other things — like Foodies could get a life.

You can never have too much efficiency I suppose. Welcome to the machine, Mr. Flynn, and might I introduce you to Soylent—advertised as a powdered “meal replacement product” and specially designed for people who get no pleasure from food.

Get a life indeed.

Wine and Welfare

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notes on a cellar bookOne of the most celebrated wine books in history is really a book about a book. George Saintsbury wrote Notes on a Cellar Book in 1920 and it has never been out of print.  His cellar book was just a ledger he used to keep his cellar organized and to log notes about what he consumed. The book about the ledger is a collection of fascinating memories of a life devoted to wine and other spirits. Saintsbury was a prolific British literary critic and professor, prominent in his day, but his literary legacy is forgotten except for this little book about his wine cellar.

I’ve just begun to read through it but this passage in the Preface stood out. Saintsbury wrote this right after prohibition had become the law of the land in the U.S. and the temperance movement was gaining strength in Great Britain. Writing about the charges that alcohol abuse was rampant, Saintsbury writes:

As to abuse, abusus non tollit usum is the simple and sufficient reply to the fallacies drawn from that. But one may go further than this and boldly say, with a certainty of saying the truth, that for every evil deed that fact or fancy or the unscrupulous exaggeration of partisans can charge on alcohol, it has prompted a hundred good and kind ones; that for every life it has destroyed or spoiled it has made thousands happy; that much of the best imaginative work of the world has been due to its influence; and that it has, as has been amply shewn of late, given ‘more power to the elbow’ of stout workers and fighters in the best of causes.

That is a full-throated defense of alcohol. I’m not always a fan of utilitarian defenses of social practices but I would not be surprised, if we were to calculate the gains and losses from alcohol, that Saintsbury’s judgment would be vindicated. The small moments of pleasure and inspiration amplified a million times each day across the globe and through history surely add up to a pile of positive hedons that would  thrill any Benthamite or their modern day equivalent—the bean counters in economics departments.

Windrun Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Santa Barbara 2013

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windrun chardonnayOvid, the great poet of Latin literature wrote “A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow”.

Delicacy in wine is similarly fragile. It can be destroyed by excessive ripeness, too much oak, stray oxygen molecules, or chemical manipulation. In fact, in our age of big and bold, delicacy is a rare treat. These two wines from Windrun appear as delicate as a bee wing belying a firm foundation.

The Pinot Noir offers a sheen of floral aromas with unusual mint highlights  mingling with a blend of maraschino and darker cherries. Hints of tea, spice, and hazelnut  play in the background indicating a light Buddha’s touch with the oak. (It is aged in new and used French and American  oak  for 6 months) Not aromatically intense, but subtle and complex, this is a wine to explore. It you swill it you will miss what it has to offer. Dry and slender on the palate, leaving cranberry and rose water impressions, it has balanced acidity and very fine tannins that have surprising persistence. Absolutely fresh and mouth watering—a gossamer robe over sinewy structure.

Stylistically this falls between three stools: More complexity than the pure fruit expression of New Zealand, but without the earthiness and grip of Burgundian Pinot Noir, and certainly avoiding the brawn and bluster of most California samples, Windrun has found its own niche.  A really unique expression of California Pinot Noir. In my judgment that is worth a couple points.

The Chardonnay is very pretty and accessible. Light straw in color, pear, mango, and ginger aromas meld with a stealthy incursion of buttered popcorn, all providing contrast to the wet-stone minerality that leaps from the glass. Crisp and dry on the palate but with pleasing viscosity, the soft, ingratiating acidity announces the medium length finish with a bitter herb note lending interest. One of the new breed of California Chardonnays throwing off their heavily oaked past. Only 50% of the wine undergoes malolactic fermentation, and it is aged in large, neutral barrels preserving freshness.

Both wines have the character of paradox—delicacy and solidity. And isn’t it paradox that makes wine interesting?

Pinot Noir:

Score: 90

Price: $20

Alc: 14.1%

Chardonnay:

Score:  88

Price: $15

Alc: 13.8%

No one exhibits the paradox of delicacy and solidity better than Joanna Newsome.

Review based on industry samples

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