A Sommelier’s Hallucination

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hallucinationIn a New York Times article entitled “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine” sommelier Bianca Bosker jumps the shark. The absurdity of the dumb-wine-down crowd is on glorious display, in full dress regalia.

Like the Swedish Fish Oreos or Dinamita Doritos engineered by flavor experts at snack food companies, many mass-market wines are designed by sensory scientists with the help of data-driven focus groups and dozens of additives that can, say, enhance a wine’s purple hue or add a mocha taste. The goal is to turn wine into an everyday beverage with the broad appeal of beer or soda.

Connoisseurs consider processed wines the enological equivalent of processed foods, if not worse. The natural winemaker Anselme Selosse maintains that chemical futzing “lobotomizes the wine.”

But they are wrong. These maligned bottles have a place. The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines.

Is Ms. Bosker too stupid to realize that when all wines on the supermarket shelf taste the same no one has a reason to buy a particular wine unless it’s cheaper than the competition, a “race to the bottom” that will decimate the wine industry by forcing everyone to sell standardized plonk for $2 a bottle?

She enthuses about the fact that industrial wine is no longer made to satisfy the taste of winemakers but of “newbie” wine drinkers whose tastes are “opposite experts’ quality perceptions”. She admits these wines taste awful:

When I sipped the wines that Ms. Mikawa gave her panel to try, I was reminded of root beer with a splash of Hershey’s syrup and vodka. The wines were rich, syrupy and heavy.

But she praises the “savvy” decisions to design wines that panels of “newbies” approve of.

In an industry faced with global competition and the rise of craft beer, spirits, and exotic cocktails how will wine attract dedicated consumers if it’s aiming to have the appeal of soda? Are all those craft brewers out there striving learn to make beer that tastes like Budweiser?

By the end of the article total delusion sets in:

At the very least, these mass-market bottles are an invitation to people who might otherwise never pick up a glass. Ms. Mikawa sees her wines as training wheels for future oenophiles.

“Training wheels for oenophiles”? Of course. And I’m sure Shakespeare scholars cut their teeth on “Fifty Shades of Gray” . You learn about quality by sampling quality. There is no short cut.

For the wine industry, who needs enemies when you have friends such as Ms. Bosker.

Wine Review: Villa Parens Metodo Classico Sparkling Wines from Northern Italy

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villa parens blanc de noirsPremium sparkling wine from Italy? Zut alors!

Italy is not exactly renowned for their white wines, a reputation earned by the boatloads of ordinary Pinot Grigio that finds its way to our shores. And high quality sparkling wine, outside Franciacorta, is also relatively rare. But there are plenty of exceptions especially in  the Fruili-Venezia Giulia region tucked away in the Northeast corner of Italy where white wine and Prosecco are specialties. For the past several decades, Villa Parens has been at the forefront of the quality revolution taking place in the region. If these two sparklers are any indication we should be giving Italian white and premium sparkling wines a bit more love.

They are simply gorgeous. Made in the traditional method with secondary fermentation taking place in the bottle, they are a world apart from the simple Prosecco we’ve come to expect from the region and rival comparably priced Champagne.

Rosé de Noirs 2013 Dosage Zero    

Made from 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes, this is aged for 36 months in the bottle on the lees, and that patience pays off. The color is a lovely pale salmon with copper highlights with surging, energetic bubbles enhancing the visual display. Aromas of strawberry and rose petal play on the nose, but it’s the textural evolution that makes this wine shine. It opens with creamy fruit, gains tensile strength in the midpalate as the dynamic mineral core emerges, and then finishes with great length and purity. Delicate and silky but with an underlying tenacity that lends a hint of seriousness to the proceedings, it is quite dry with no sugar added but maintains its suppleness without becoming edgy or angular. Exquisitely poised. (Dosage Zero, aka Brut Nature means that no sugar was added before bottling.) Score: 93  Price: $54

Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut NV

This is a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Ribolla Gialla, the latter an acidic, floral grape indigenous to the region that complements the richness of Chardonnay with stony minerality. The Blanc de Blanc has a complex nose showing lemon and hints of tangerine, with slight almond notes, whisps of fresh cheese, and a faint, subtle smokiness that played hide and seek—sometimes it was there, sometimes not. On the palate, it’s all charm and generosity. The 24 months spent on the lees lends it a plump texture supported by racy acidity, and a shorter more playful finish. Score: 91  Price: $42

Produced from grapes grown in Collio, a sub-region bordering Slovenia, both wines have a pure, mineral core that unfurls at midpalate and sails through the finish. It is that and the chiseled textures that make these wines standout.

These are small production, artisanal wines that can be purchased in the U.S. only through DOCG Imports in San Diego. They have a fine line up of carefully selected, Italian wines from small farm, family-owned wineries that are the soul of Italian winemaking. As wine lovers, we often complain about homogenization and the increasingly corporate nature of the wine business. Just as it’s important to support small, local wineries, it’s also important to support the small, independent distributors and importers such as DOCG Imports who make these special wines available to us.

Sparkling wines are too often associated with wild celebrations and special occasions. But serious wines like these can be appropriate for more reflective moments as well. The heady melodies and drums that flutter and kick like bubbles in Terence Blanchard’s Ghost of Congo Square put these wines in a quieter, more pensive space:

Review based on industry samples

Wine Review: Closerie Du Bailli Blaye Cotes De Bordeaux Grand Reserve 2014

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This co-op wine from Alliance Bourg is interesting and unusual. Aromas of dried black cherry, dust, and hints of fennel contend with more raw wood than is common for Cotes de Bordeaux but I found it intriguing. My guess is it’s designed for the International market.

Up front it’s a bit meager in the mouth with dried fruit on a light to medium body. Angular, but with plenty of back end structure, the texture fills out as it lingers on the palate with good length on firm tannins. The menthol character on the finish is quite refreshing. It could use some more time in the bottle to allow the oak to integrate.

This is made by the co-op Alliance Bourg and features a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Blaye is a large, diverse region on the Right Bank across the river from Medoc. Now part of the Cotes de Bordeaux appellation with the designation Blaye subject to more strict standards they produce a lot of ordinary table wine but there are some good bargains to be had. I picked this up for $12 at Costco but I’ve seen it listed at $37 upon release. It is definitely worth $12, at $37 I’m less enthusiastic although its eccentric, yet rustic charm will still satisfy. It will likely age well and may be worth laying down.

Rustic but a bit garish and bohemian in the way it flaunts its originality, a good wine for the hungry women on Rue Morgue Ave.

Score: 88

Price: $12-$37

Alc:  13%

The Joys of Aged Wines

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aged wine 3Esther Mobley’s paean to aged wines is a wonderful evocation of the joys of finding that gem still going strong after 30 years in the bottle. But that is often a solitary love affair as most wine lovers like their wines young and fresh finding the aromas of old books and dank basements to be off putting if not disgusting.

I share Ms. Mobley’s passion, but even she is puzzled by the lure of old wines as she runs through several possible explanations, all found wanting:

Maybe we project the aura of an aged wine’s rarity, and its often-accompanying expense, onto our sensory perception of it. Precious things taste better than ordinary things. The liking-it stakes are higher.

On the other hand, some of the pleasure may be chemical. As it ages, wine can reveal more umami flavor, that nebulously delicious taste sensation.

But she rightfully rejects these explanations because they fail to acknowledge that love of old wines is more an intellectual pleasure:

That doesn’t satisfy me, though. The joy of aged wine can’t be merely chemical, because I know that it rewards knowledge. This joy began to reveal itself to me only once I began to speak wine’s language of aroma, flavor and structure. In a cruel paradox, the more old wine disappoints me — and boy, does it love to disappoint — the more I’m drawn to it.

Why?

For me the attraction is in part sensory. There is a remarkably beautiful, fragile delicacy to well-aged wines that can be achieved only through many years in the bottle. Nothing else you can savor has it. But I agree with Mobley that part of the attraction is intellectual.

Aged wines reveal in a particularly evocative way that wine is a living organism in vital communication with its environment, undergoing mysterious transformations that can neither be predicted nor explained. And to sense that flicker of life amidst decay, to find an organism clinging to life suffering the travails of time—that is a classic and very human story. Wine has that uncanny resonance with human endeavor, a capacity for allegorical correlation that in part explains its allure for those of us who feel at home amidst musty books and dank basements

Perhaps We Should Be Tipping More for Cheap Eats

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waitressThe fundamental problem with tipping in restaurants is that employers should be paying their workers, not customers. But the practice of tipping is also grossly unfair, especially to servers in less expensive restaurants as this data reported by Eater show:

In small restaurants where the average bill is around $10 per person, servers earning the federal tipped minimum wage have to wait about four tables an hour in order to make the equivalent of a $15/hr hourly wage, data from FiveThirtyEight shows. That’s assuming a 15 percent tip from tables of two. Meanwhile, servers who work at more expensive establishments can get through their shifts barely serving one table of two an hour (0.2 tables to be precise) and still make close to that amount. That means casual workers have to serve nine times as many tables as fine-dining servers to make a comparable amount.

Furthermore, servers in the less expensive restaurants are disproportionately women and people of color.

Part of the solution to these inequities is higher minimum wages and the elimination of tipping, which some restaurants have attempted with varying degrees of success.

But we might also think of changing some of the norms surrounding tipping. Some of the inequities of tipping could be mitigated if it were customary to tip servers in less expensive restaurants at a higher percentage of the cost of the meal. It’s standard to tip everyone 15%-20% for satisfactory service. But perhaps we should be tipping servers in less expensive restaurants 30% and servers in fine dining establishments 10%-15%.

It is true that service in some higher-end restaurants requires more skill—some knowledge of complicated dishes or the wine list, for instance. But in my experience demonstrations of such skill are more the exception than the rule.

I’m in the habit of tipping 20% across the board, in most cases, regardless of the quality of service. But I’m thinking I should be more generous to the person serving my tacos.

Wine Review: Angeline Reserve Pinot Noir California 2015

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angeline pinotWhen pleasant is good enough.

A little context helps to understand this wine. Angeline is the value label of Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery with an annual case production of about 45000. Martin Ray is owned by Courtney Benham, the creator of the Blackstone brand which he and his brother sold to Constellation  in 2001 for big bucks. He knows how to build a brand. And his stated goal when he set out to make wine was to “raise the bar on everyday value wine”. This is a wine built to please—everyone—and in that it succeeds admirably. It is a resolutely middle-of-the-road wine. Not too sweet, not too tart, not quite dark fruit but not quite red fruit, a little spicy but not overly so, a touch of oak but restrained, a perfectly coiffed wine, not a hair out of place, but pleasant enough to spend an evening with.

Black cherry shares space with red raspberry capped with a candied note that is vaguely reminiscent of Red Hots if you remember that confection, but with the spice obediently subdued. Simple and pleasant but develops a satisfying earthiness as it sits in the glass.

In the mouth there is a touch of apparent sweetness up front. It’s medium bodied with soft midsection until acidity gathers and urges the wine forward giving it some length. The finish is nicely fruited and it stays so through its terminus, giving you a little grippiness and the end like tiny daggers.

Neither refined nor particularly subtle, and there is not much depth. Everything remains on the surface. A little generic but balanced and polite and really quite a good value. It’s a blend of Mendocino and Russian River, and fruit and you really can see the influence of each in this precisely made wine.

The 12 months is 40% new oak is worn well.

Trying to find a budget Pinot that gives some of the satisfaction of which this grape is capable is challenging. This one falls just outside what I call a budget wine but its one of the better values around.

Score: 88

Price: $16

Alc: 13.9%

Superficially candied but just enough dark fruit and oak to turn it slightly somber, its pop with a mood like the Gin Blossoms

In Praise of Imperfection

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artisan winemakingIn modern culture we are too easily seduced by perfection. We want the perfect job, seek the perfect look, strive for the best life we can achieve. We try to eliminate all the rough edges and imperfections until in the end we achieve—uniformity, everyone pursuing the same ideal. We strive for that ideal because we fear being different or showing weakness.

That’s boring. There is beauty in the imperfect and incomplete.

Asymmetry, simplicity, raw, unadorned austerity have their own attractions. Drinking from an old, cracked coffee cup, a face marked by an unusual line, a chilly, fog shrouded shoreline, or parched forbidding desert—when something is not quite right we not only experience a sense of  profundity but witness the source of vital creativity in life. A system that is too perfect lacks the diversity to cope with uncertainty. Only systems that allow for imperfection can evolve. There is no growth without adversity.

The Japanese call the appreciation of the imperfect Wabi Sabi.

In the wine world those rustic wines from Chianti, the table wines from Portugal, or from Cahors in Southern France express the same aesthetic—the delight in simplicity, the sincerity of the unsophisticated, the determination to resist homogeneity, a stubborn refusal to be assimilated. They express the heart and soul of their regions and the people who inhabit them because those traditions were themselves forged out of the need to overcome adversity.

While we’re chasing down the best wines in the world in the desperate search for 100 pt. blockbusters we should not forget about the pleasures of the flawed and the messages they carry.

Budget Wine Review: Mural Reserva Red Wine Douro 2011

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muralThe land best known for its Port makes red wine as rugged as the slopes on which their vineyards sit. They typically deliver big flavors and firm structure at a modest price but they aren’t for the “soft and smooth” crowd. Most are blends dominated by the robustly tannic Touriga Nacional. But this wine is a bit different being a blend of 40% Touriga Franca, 40% Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) and only 20% Touriga Nacional. It’s still well structured but the tannins have softened, especially now that it’s 6 years from its vintage date and it doesn’t quite have the midpalate heft and concentration of many Portuguese reds.

It is nevertheless a good value  as it delivers a seriously strange evolution.

The nose of roasted meat, earth, and saddle leather surrounding a core of dark berry is stunning. But in the mouth the full, structured fruit flattens out midpalate acquiring a metallic tone and a bit of severity, with powdery tannins lingering as the textured, prickly finish slowly fades in a cloud of dust. This is an odd trajectory starting round and full but hollowing out and then becoming exceedingly long and granular.

It’s good, cheap and weird. Points for originality.

25% of the wine saw used French oak for 9 months.

Works well with some dirty synth layered over a repetitive pulsing beat.

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

A Guilty Pleasure

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waffle houseJoseph Rogers, one of the founders of Waffle House, died last Friday at the age of 97.

If I had a flag it would be at half mast. Those hash browns scattered, smothered and covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, and country.

What? You don’t know what that means. “Scattered” hash browns are thrown randomly on the grill, “smothered,”includesf sautéed onions. “Covered” gets you melted slices of Kraft cheese on top. “Chunked” indicates diced ham, “diced” adds grilled tomatoes, “peppered” means jalapeño peppers, and “capped” gets you grilled button mushrooms. “Covered” hash browns are topped with chili and the “country” version gets sausage gravy.

As Anthony Bourdain said:

Its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered all across the South inside.

How to Order Wine in a Restaurant

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sommelierConfronting a wine list in a restaurant can be daunting—so many regions, varietals, and styles and so little information offered about what you’re getting. Even wine experts can be in the dark because no one has the time to become familiar with every producer in every region.

When I look over a wine list and nothing jumps out as something I must drink now, I choose the most off-beat wine I can find on the list, something unusual, unfamiliar and unexpected. After all, a sommelier chose to use up precious space by putting it on the list and likely had a reason for doing so. Because it’s unusual and unknown most people won’t order it so it’s not there because it’s a best seller. It’s likely on the list because the somm thinks it’s a great wine. Something about it is unique and worthy of attention, and she wants customers to try it.

Take a risk. It’s only wine.