Complacent California?

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california vineyardsLong-time wine critic Fred Koeppel (one of the best in the business in my opinion) had a bit of a rant this weekend about delicious wines. In a post entitled “I Don’t Trust Delicious Wines” he writes:

With a sniff and a sip, the gorgeous wine gets right in there and provides quick fulfillment, a burst of pleasure. “Wow, that’s gorgeous!” What happens next, though? Such wines may be superficially attractive, even seductive, and I won’t deny that a wine with the capability to draw you in irresistibly isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the end, however, the gorgeous wines don’t deliver the true promise that great wines hold: elegance and finesse married to power and dynamism; a structure that feels embedded in the grapes’ origin in the vineyard and the vineyard in a region; acidity that brings the necessary vitality to the wine’s essence and cuts a swath on the palate; the balance among fruit, tannin, acid, oak and minerality that soothes, stimulates and challenges the senses and the intellect.

I know what he’s getting at. Wines that are designed to deliver that big fruit flavor often don’t have a lot of structure, subtlety or mystery about them. On the other hand, there is room for wines that deliver ripeness. That is what California does best, it is what our weather gives us, and there is a kind of satisfaction that comes from bathing in richness and opulence from time to time.

My objection to these wines is that too often they taste the same. They all seem to be aiming for the same flavor profile, the same texture and deliver the same kind of satisfaction. Moreover they aim for consistency from year to year and can usually achieve it since warm growing seasons are common in Napa and Sonoma.

By contrast old world wines are fascinating because they surprise us, they are different from year to year because of weather variations and because regulations prevent some of the winery magic that allows winemakers to hit the targeted flavor profile that has been successful in the past.

If top shelf California wines are getting boring, lower price offerings are following suit. With long-time family wineries being sold to industrial producers and the popularity of sweet red blends showing no sign of slowing, you might as well buy the label since what is in the bottle will probably resemble the bottle next door.

California has a deserved reputation for making great wine. But there are plenty of other wine regions ready to step up if California gets complacent. And with cider, craft beer, and cocktails getting increasingly interesting, the wine industry should start thinking about whether homogeneity and “product” is really the path to success.

Budget Wine: Gia Pinot Noir California 2013

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gia pinotThis is part of Gia Coppola’s line of wines. Gia is the grand daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and a filmmaker in her own right, and is apparently following grandpoppa’s footsteps in the wine business as well.

The wine is pretty, pretty, pretty. Cranberry, strawberry, soft peppery notes and a hint of oak are set off by lovely floral aromas in the background. It is soft, smooth, and a bit meager on the palate but is a decent rendition of inexpensive village Pinot Noir from the lesser sites in Burgundy, although the hints of residual sugar gives its American roots away. The finish is a little tart but has good length  and crazy low alcohol for an American wine. There is a place for this wine, more delicate and refined than most inexpensive Pinot Noir.

A wine as light as Air—All I Need

Score: 87

Price: $14 but often available for much less

Alc: 11.5%

Release Day!

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american Foodie2It has finally arrived. My book American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution goes on sale today.

Americans no longer eat to live; we live to eat. Food has achieved fine art status, a preoccupation as significant as the music we listen to or the books we read. Why has this dramatic change in our interest in food come to pass and what does it mean? I answer those questions in the book. But the thumbnail sketch is that our interest in food is an attempt to achieve control, authenticity, and playful creativity in a public world that increasingly threatens those values.

Whether you are a chef, a home cook, a culinarian, or you just love to eat, this book will explain why taste is a significant part of our lives. Reading it might even make your food taste better!

You don’t have to be a fan of sophisticated food to enjoy this often entertaining illuminating lecture on America’s current taste revolution….Simply Terrific.
— Publishers Weekly

Aww. Gee. Thanks Publisher’s Weekly. (The rest of the review is here.)

Available in hardback and ebook.

Wine Review: Zýmē Oseleta Verona 2009

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oseletaWhile pouring Italian wines at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, I came across this fascinating grape from the innovative Veronese producer Zýmē. The indigenous Oseleta grape  was close to extinction before being rescued by the renowned Amarone producer, Masi . The grape is still extremely rare with only about 50 acres planted near the shores of Lake Garda but several wineries are beginning to experiment with it, notably Zýmē. It is a grape with enormous potential producing burly, intense wines.

Dark and inky in the glass, it features aromas of ripe blackberry and blueberry kissed with moss covered wood. On the palate it is juicy, dense and concentrated filling the mouth with darkness. The tannins are fine-grained but fierce, arriving early and synergistically merging with mouthwatering acidity to compound the sensuous assault. This is a blockbuster, full bodied, with great intensity, not overly complex or multidimensional but bold and in-your-face. It reminds me of Petite Sirah but with more earthiness and lower alcohol.

36 months in oak.

This may be hard to find but it’s worth trying to tack down. But be careful. This wine will bite the hand that feeds

Score: 92

Price: $47

Alc: 13.5%

Wine, Health and the New Victorians

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wine and healthI don’t post much about the health effects of wine because I don’t know what to think about the issue. There have been lots of well-publicized stories about positive health effects of moderate red wine consumption. But these are often small studies or large studies with lots of confounding variables that are hard to control. Research in health outcomes is just very hard to do well and so I’m reluctant to jump on bandwagons.

But this recent story about the British government’s take on the whole issue is interesting.

England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has effectively rubbished studies on the potential health benefits of drinking red wine, following new government guidance that there is no safe level of drinking.

Risks outweigh any potential gain, according to the first full review of alcohol guidelines for England, Wales and Northern Ireland since 1995. Scotland also set the same limit.

This runs counter to almost every study that has been done over the last 20 years in this area. So what is going on?

According to Andrew Jeffords, wine writer for Decanter, its all about business—the business of whiskey and beer.

The British government — and Britain, it should be noted, has a tiny wine sector but a large beer sector and an enormous whisky and gin sector — resolutely refuses to distinguish between different forms of alcohol in respect of health.

Jeffords argues that there is no new evidence provided by government researchers. They simply refuse to credit the interpretation of the existing data that suggests wine drinking wine improves health. The improved health of wine drinkers is not the result of wine they argue but is instead the result of wine drinkers’ generally healthy lifestyles. Being generally healthy is somehow causing us to drink wine; its not the wine drinking that causes the good health, according to health officials.

Jeffords not too subtly suggests its because of the political influence of whiskey and beer manufacturers.

Perhaps he is right. It wouldn’t be the first time that science is distorted by commercial interests.

But maybe its a re-emergence of straitlaced Victorian moralistic attitudes coming to the surface. It does seem too good to be true that wine is good for you. A certain kind of prig just hopes it’s not true.

Budget Wine: Fantini Farnese Trebbiano D’Abruzzo 2013

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fantini farnesi trebbianoAmong wine experts and connoisseurs, Italian white wines don’t have a great reputation. Their flavors and aromas tend to be muted and the acidity is high, so many dismiss them as thin and tart. This is especially true of the wines made from the Trebbiano grape, a widely planted grape appearing in most regions of Italy and used in Brandy production in France where it goes by the name of Ugni Blanc. But those muted flavors and high acidity have a purpose for the Italians—they go really well with lighter meals that get overwhelmed with fat chardonnays or tannic reds. Italian whites are really about showing off the food.

This Trebbiano from D’Abruzzo, a wine region in central Italy on the Adriatic sea, is not only great with food but it has more intensity than your average Italian white wine.

It shows white peach, green apple, pretty white flowers, and a little funky earth on the nose, just enough to add interest. In the mouth it is simple, light in weight and unsophisticated but with some punch. It’s bone dry with lemon playing the lead role, very chalky on the midpalate with some tart acidity on the finish. In Italian whites tart is a feature not a bug.

Good aromatics, a little tough on the palate but a really versatile food wine. I paired it with a delicate, fresh marinara sauce and it was perfect.

Energetic, intense and tart. Let’s Get Loud JLo

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc: 12%

Put to Rest the Idea that Wine is About Snob Appeal

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wine snobWhile I’m on the subject of shibboleth’s in the wine world, I might as well take on another.

In the press and among the majority of people who are not avid wine drinkers, the idea that the appreciation of wine is primarily about snob appeal and showing off one’s cultural capital is still widespread. This is a great example of how ideas once in the public arena continue to circulate and get reinforced despite the absence of any evidence for them.

Of course at one time, wine was about social class and wealth. Good wine has always been expensive, especially back in the day when the only way to make it was low yields, hand harvesting, and long aging. But modern technology has brought down the cost of decent wine to where it’s affordable for much of society. Yes, there are investment grade wines that are out of almost anyone’s price range but there are perfectly good substitutes for a fraction of the price.

Good wine is now something that most people can enjoy at least some of the time. And so wine consumption is no longer a marker of upper class tastes. It’s as middle class as beer and baseball.

Furthermore, the kind of wine knowledge required for appreciation, formerly available only in arcane manuals of difficult-to-pronounce French Chateau or through participation in expensive tasting groups, is now readily available for anyone with a smartphone, and extensive classes are available for a modest fee.

If you want to study wine even from most of the great vineyards of the world you can do so for the cost of a night out on the town. Forgo dinner and the theatre, buy a bottle and spend the evening in vinous bliss.

And almost everyone has the sensory equipment and cognitive capacity to appreciate wine. It takes some practice and experience; not special abilities.

There is no longer anything exclusive about wine. People who appreciate wine and have extensive knowledge of it do so because they want to; people who don’t appreciate it haven’t invested the time or lack the inclination to do so.

The whole social infrastructure of wine as a marker of class has collapsed. It’s time to retire the idea that it’s pretentious, snobbish or only for the beautiful people.

Don’t Trust Your Palate!

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everything you know is wrongIf there is any phrase more common in the wine world I don’t know what it is. “Trust your palate” is everyone’s sage advice about choosing wine. Usually it’s followed by “drink what you like.”

But I’m not entirely sure what it means.

Who doesn’t trust their palate? Does anyone say, “mmmm, I really like that Pinot Noir but give me the Zinfandel. I hate it but I must be wrong.” It seems like a bit of advice that no one needs, like your mother telling you to be careful.

Perhaps the advice is meant to soothe the feelings of people who think their own tastes are unsophisticated and out of step with the experts. But I rather suspect it is meant to signal that the speaker is on the side of the audience against those snobs and trend-chasers–because she has something conventional to sell.

At any rate it is bad advice. It assumes that we have nothing more to learn. That there are no experiences out there that we might have to stretch for in order to understand. “Trust your palate” is a ticket to boredom.

Of course, drink what you like. But keep in mind that what you like is a very small part of  what there is, and there are likely plenty of treasures that you will never discover if you stick to the tried and true.

Wine Review: Mount Eden Chardonnay Santa Cruz 2012

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mt eden chardChardonnay remains the favorite white wine among consumers. But among wine connoisseurs, sommeliers, and wine writers, the anything-but-Chardonnay crowd appears to be winning. The explanation for Chardonnay’s diminishing reputation is not hard to discern. We grew tired of the flabby, oaky, buttery monsters coming out of California in the early 2000s and began to search for something with more finesse. Winemakers have backed off that dated style and most Chardonnays today are  more restrained, with less overt oak, and more acidity. But the problem is that Chardonnay, left to its own devices, is not very interesting. It lacks the range of Riesling or the intensity of Sauvignon Blanc. It benefits from some careful but creative winemaking, a little oak, some resting on the lees, judicious malolactic fermentation, etc.

Chardonnay is like most of us. Naked we’re nothing special. But with a good tailor and some dressing up we can make make a good showing.

Yet every once in awhile someone strikes a perfect balance of pure Chardonnay fruit expression and the deft use of oak that marries classic Chardonnay style with a contemporary mineral-driven flair. When that happens it’s an unbeatable grape. This one from Mt. Eden comes close to some of the better wines of Burgundy.

An introduction of buttered toast, hazelnuts and roasted pear with floral highlights gives way to lemony citrus aromas exhibiting great clarity and focus. In the mouth it’s creamy elegance, soft but vibrant evolving splendidly into a burst of bright mineral matchstick tones and a long graceful finish of green apple.

Sophisticated with a toney, uptown attitude—10 months on the lees in a mix of new and 1 year-old French oak will do that. Full malolactic fermentation.

Toney, up-town sophistication. Only Steely Dan gets this right.

Score: 94

Price: $60

Alc: 13.5%

Thanks to the Sommelier Company for making this available.

David Bowie: RIP

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Back in the day before I caught the philosophy virus, music was my thing. Among the many inspiring figures in the world of rock circa 1972, none was more important to me than David Bowie. Coming out of the disappointments of the 1960’s, his strange mix of otherworldliness, glamor, and pansexuality seemed to embody the idea that a new world was possible through new forms of pleasure. I suppose I still think that.

The changeling went through many iterations in his career but for me he will always remain Ziggy Stardust heading up the Spiders from Mars.

He really was The Nazz.

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