California Fires Updates

firemenIn case you’re struggling to find reliable news about the wine country fires in California, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website has been the most updated and informative.

Thankfully, the news seems to be improving. Many evacuation orders have been lifted and most of the fires are approaching 80% containment. With reduced winds and some rain in the forecast for Thursday or Friday, perhaps a corner has been turned and people there can start getting their lives back together.

Hopefully, new fires emerging in the Santa Cruz mountains can be quickly controlled.

I’m always an advocate of drinking local wines but in the near future sampling some old favorites from Napa and Sonoma may be the best thing to do. They will need people in their tasting rooms to rebuild their communities. I’ll be heading to Sonoma in a couple weeks to make my contribution to their economy.


Wine Review: Holy-Field Vineyard and Winery Valvin Muscat Kansas 2016



holyfieldMuscat is a family of vinifera grape varieties that represent some of the oldest and most widely planted varieties in the world. In France it can make very serious dessert wines; in Italy it typically makes the frothy, profoundly unserious Moscato that in recent years has exploded in popularity. But the Muscat vines will not survive severe winter cold.  So the wine cultivar wizards at Cornell University set about creating a hybrid with the intense aromatics of white Muscat and the cold-hardiness and disease resistance of native American varietals. The result is Valvin Muscat, released for commercial use in 2006 and beginning to appear in tasting rooms in the Midwest. Holy-Field’s co-owner and winemaker Michelle Meyer was quite excited by Valvin Muscat’s potential when I visited her tasting room near Kansas City. I share her enthusiasm.

A semi-sweet, white, still wine with explosive floral aromas and Mandarin orange, it also shows prominent pine notes, against a background of apricot and ginger. The palate adds grapefruit to the mix with persistent, stony, minerality kicking in midpalate. Plump and charming with a full, round body and short, lush finish, it has a relaxed, tranquil demeanor with ample but static acidity.

Although ostensibly a light, summer sipper, it trembles on the edge of being a more serious wine than is typical of much domestic Muscat with plenty of complexity and intensity needing only some kinetic energy to achieve its potential.

Pair with the vivid nonchalance of Cibelle’s Um Só Segundo

Score: 88

Price: about $17

What Does a 240 Day, Dry-aged Steak Taste Like?


240We’re wrapping up our Texas wine tasting sojourn. It would be a shame to leave Texas without indulging in a Texas steak. According to reputation it must be the biggest, baddest, brawniest, steak. A steak leviathan, a whacking whopper of a steak. Where would I found such a beast?

Size isn’t everything, even in Texas. The most interesting steak I could find is this 36 oz. ribeye from John Tesar’s  The Knife in Dallas. It’s interesting because it’s dry-aged for 240 days. Most steaks in fine restaurants are aged for 28 days, occasionally 60 days, 120 days at the most. 240 days is beyond unusual.

So what does a 240 day, dry-aged steak taste like? The theory behind dry aging is that moisture loss will concentrate the meaty flavors. That’s true of a 28-day aged steak. But The Knife’s 240 didn’t taste more meaty—in fact it didn’t quite taste like meat. Think meat with a funky, gorgonzola glaze.  Chewy cheese.

Would I want all steak to remind me of stinky cheese? Probably not. But it was a unique, unforgettable experience, and genuinely weird.

Why Don’t We Hear about Blind Tasting Success?



blind tasting scoresWhenever wine tasters fall flat on their face the press celebrates by publicizing the fact far and wide claiming it offers proof that wine tasting is nonsense. So why didn’t we hear more about this rigorous empirical study that clearly shows trained wine tasters can successfully identify varietal and region of origin?

Two teams of seven tasters each (including one reserve per side) were presented with 12 wines, six whites and six reds….The group’s overall accuracy was far superior to what could be expected from random chance. Given the thousands of potential country-variety pairs, a monkey throwing darts would have virtually no hope of getting a single one right. But 47% of the Oxbridge tasters′ guesses on grape variety were correct, as were 37% on country of origin.

The competitors′ performances on each individual glass rarely matched these headline averages. Some wines were well-nigh unmistakable: all 14 drinkers identified the Pinot Noir, 12 called the Chardonnay and Gamay right and 11 identified the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Similarly, 13 participants recognised that the Gamay was from France (it is scarcely grown anywhere else), and nine said that the Semillon was Australian (though only four also determined that it was a Semillon)

At the other extreme, no one knew what the Friulano was made from—an unsurprising result, since the grape is little-known internationally. Only one drinker nailed the Rioja (made from Tempranillo) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (a Grenache-based blend), wines from prominent regions that should have been relatively easy to spot.

Similarly, the averages obscured wide differences in performance among individual drinkers….

The failure to identify Tempranillo is surprising but otherwise the results are what you would expect. Blind tasting is challenging but nevertheless employs real expertise.

This study was published earlier this year but it received very little coverage or discussion. I guess successful blind tasting doesn’t flatter the audience that they know more than the experts.

The Wine World Mourns


fireI don’t feel much like writing about wine  today. As fierce wildfires ravage California’s prime wine regions there seems little to celebrate. Many have lost homes and livelihoods, and there has been some loss of life. I don’t wish to diminish the import of their suffering in also lamenting the loss of several wineries and irreplaceable vineyards. This will be a devastating vintage.  Even in the vineyards that survive, with only half the crop harvested, the grapes remaining on the vine will shrivel in the heat, acid levels will plummet, and smoke taint will be impossible to eradicate.

A friend of mine, who makes wine and lives in Santa Rosa, had this to say in response to my inquiry about his safety:

We have our rich people problems in spades, but this is not Puerto Rico.  Those folks really deserve our attention.  We’ll be fine.

He is of course correct. There are places in the world that suffer devastation and lack the resources to quickly bounce back. Napa and Sonoma are not among them; they will recover.

But today feels like a day of mourning tinged with hope that firefighters can get the fires under control.

Wine Review: BlueJacket Crossing Veritas Lelyon Vineyard Chambourcin NV



bluejacketThe French-American hybrid grape Chambourcin is probably the most popular locally-grown red grape in the warmer states in the Midwest. It’s not quite cold hardy enough to survive Wisconsin or Minnesota winters and requires a relatively long growing season, but as you head south into Illinois, Indiana, Kansas and Eastern states with moderate winters Chambourcin is highly favored for its versatility, aromatics, and supple mouthfeel. The fact that it does a fair imitation of lighter bodied v. vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Franc endears it to winemakers who prefer vinifera.

Should you want an example of the best of what Chambourcin has to offer, this perennial award-winner would be a good place to start. This is an intriguing wine with many dimensions. Focused aromas of blueberry jam, loam, cedar, sweet vanilla and hints of soy give this a rich and complex nose. On the palate it’s mineral driven and herbal up front. Bright berry flavors emerge at midpalate just as the acidity is kicking in which knocks down the fruit intensity and flattening the wine, until releasing into a long, slowly evolving finish showing gravel, then black pepper, and finally sour cherry. As is characteristic of Chambourcin, the tannins have a meager presence, yet the finish has good length. Texturally it’s quite interesting; underneath the layer of tense, electric acidity, the wine is soft and warm with some suppleness and nuance.

As with most of the hybrids, Chambourcin has high acidity which takes some getting used to and very reticent tannins which makes the wine seem unbalanced when judged against vinifera standards. There is an argument to be made for using varietal-specific criteria although I lean toward using an absolute scale.

This winery is on the Kansas side of the border but the grapes are from Lelyon Vineyard, a Missouri vineyard 45 min. east of Kansas City.  There is very little information available about how the wine was made and my queries to the winery have not yet borne fruit.

Electronic music with a tense upper register, linear dynamics, elongated phrasing, and soft underlying chord beds match this wine. Everything in its Right Place by Radiohead is a perfect fit.

Score: 88

Price: N/A

Is Alinea the Best Restaurant in the U. S.?


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alinea-7editedFor the 12 years it has been in existence,  Grant Achatz’s Alinea, located in a utterly non-descript building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, has been at the top of best restaurant lists. It earned its 3rd Michelin star in 2010, is consistently rated in the top 20 restaurants in the world on S. Pelligrino’s top 50 list (although it fell to 21 this year) and is widely recognized by other publications as the best restaurant in the U.S.

Is it really the best in the U.S.?  I have no idea how to answer that question, having sampled only a small portion of the candidates for such a list. Furthermore, lists and rankings give the illusion of commensurability. They assume that there is a set of easily comparable standards and a single scale along which restaurants can be ranked. But when comparing restaurants that strive for originality, there is no such scale. What is the relative worth of innovation and creativity, authenticity, accessibility, and sheer deliciousness? There is no clear answer to that question.

A better question to ask is whether Alinea achieves its artistic aims with something left over that exceeds artistic intention, that uncanny “something”  that great art possesses. The answer I think is not quite, although the experience was surely enjoyable and unforgettable.

In 2016, Alinea was at the top of its game when Achatz decided to close for several months to remodel the restaurant and retool the menu. After all, if your entire reason to exist is to be on the cutting edge of culinary art, stale familiarity is the kiss of death. Alinea is not really a restaurant. It’s performance art and artists are in the business of creating the new. The decision to revitalize seems inevitable when contextualized as a move within an art world. Chef Grant Achatz the patron saint of modernist cuisine in the U.S. has no tradition to which he’s beholden, no constraints other than the outer limits of what his patrons will accept, and he has an obligation to test those limits. At Alinea diners have no choices; you put yourself in the hands of a chef who has always relished disrupting expectations and challenging assumptions. Like a well curated art museum, at Alinea it’s the allure of surprise and fascination that brings success. In that light, the logic of shutting down for several months in order to create new experiences seems unassailable.

The former Alinea offered one, 16 course menu for all. The new Alinea features three experiences: for the Gallery menu downstairs there are two 16-18 course seatings each night replete with a communal introductory course, a visit to the kitchen while the dining room is transformed into more private spaces, and lots of emotion-invoking aroma and musical theatrics to accompany the food.  [The cost is around $300 per person]. Also downstairs, there is a single group table enclosed in a glass box with a view of the kitchen that could be reserved only for groups at least when I was securing my reservation. [$385 per person]. And then there is the Salon upstairs which offers a paired-down menu of 10 courses similar to the Gallery menu but with fewer theatrics, for about $200 per person depending on what time in the evening you want the reservation.

To dine at Alinea has been a goal of mine for many years and I was lucky enough to score reservations this year as we meandered through the upper Midwest heading toward Chicago. Reservations are difficult but not impossible to secure if your timing is right. Tickets for the upcoming month are released on the 15th of the current month at 10:00 A.M. If you’re at your computer at the appointed time and have a generous range of acceptable dates and times, you will likely get a suitable reservation. Unfortunately, even with my good timing I could not get a reservation in the Gallery during the short window of time allotted for our visit to Chicago. (I suspect VIP’s had the opportunity to book before tickets were available to the public since many slots were already filled at 10:00 A.M.)Thus, I had to settle for the Salon reservation and opted for their standard wine pairing ($135 per person).

Achatz is one of the more prominent proponents of what has come to be known as modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy)—the use of food science and technology to break down food molecules and recombine them in surprising new forms. The rap against modernist cuisine is that it’s idiosyncrasy for its own sake, dishes that are interesting without being satisfying, pleasing to the chef who can display virtuosity but not necessarily to the diner  who is confronted with unfamiliar mash-ups of incongruous flavors. However, I found none of that idiosyncrasy and innovation for its own sake on Alinea’s new menu. There were no dishes that failed, and none seemed just odd with no other purpose behind them except novelty.  If fact I was surprised by how traditional the flavor combinations were. Each course consisted of flavors typically found together in the region of the world from which the dish originated, but always with a twist that made the dish seem innovative. And of course there was always something about the form of presentation that was surprising and unexpected.

I had never dined at Alinea so I can’t speak to earlier menus. But in recent interviews, Achatz claims that in the reinvented version there is plenty of  molecular gastronomy going on but it is disguised with ingredients appearing in their natural form with less manipulation than in its previous incarnation. Some of the dishes were in fact quite simple in appearance although flavor complexity was always present. Achatz’s current style is to play with form but leave the content in tact. There was less flash than I expected, less eye candy and more focused, robust flavor and clarity.

The other feature of the meal that stood out is how weightless and delicate each dish felt. The bold, often earthy flavors were conditioned by ethereal textures, tender, melting, and ever evolving in the mouth. In almost every dish, flavor contrast was achieved through the judicious use of fruit that contributed to the impression of buoyancy.

Why then do I claim the experience is only partly successful? In interviews with the press, Achatz has said that he’s interested in the capacity of food to evoke emotion. He wants diners to feel surprised, intrigued, nostalgic, exhilarated, puzzled, etc. That is all well and good. But food is ephemeral, not a stable object like a painting but an object that is consumed, disappearing relatively soon after it appears. Grasping its point crucially depends on memory and reflection. If we just eat without thinking, without mindful attention, the experience is gone before we can fully understand it. The problem with our meal is that it felt rushed. We barely finished a course before the dishes were whisked away and a new course appeared on the table. We had little time to discuss the dishes, ponder the feelings they evoked, or think about their meaning. The experience was like standing before a painting in an art gallery and being told you had only a few minutes to enjoy it before moving on. This is in contrast to tasting menus I’ve experienced in Europe where the pace is more leisurely. I get that restaurants need to turn tables to make money. But if chefs such as Achatz are serious about food being art, restaurants must provide the opportunity for reflection on what you’re eating. Savoring happens not only when the dish is in front of you but afterwards when memory and thought performs the crucial task of clarifying feelings, sorting though confusion and contradiction, and synthesizing random thoughts.

On a related note, we were told we would be given a list of dishes served after the meal. But the descriptions on the list turned out to be too perfunctory to be particularly informative. Thankfully I took photos, a practice which Achatz used to ban, and a few notes to help reconstruct the meal and remind me of how ingredients in the dishes were related.

Here is a blow by blow account of the meal with commentary where appropriate:

alinea-lynn-6edited           alinea-11edited

Two amuse buches led off the proceedings. The first was a spear of romaine lettuce filled with avocado and garlic flowers, the second a banana pancake perched on a lime and filled with Osetra caviar. The contrast between the aggressive spear and the soft, comforting avocado had some emotional resonance. The caviar and pancake was paired with a textured, bready Bollinger Brut Rose Champagne—the only emotion it evoked was pure delight at the classic, perfect pairing.



The first main course was one of the highlights of the evening. A  rich, unctuous, umami-infused seafood and caramelized tomato broth was poured into a bowl containing a gelatin sheet of langoustine that formed a noodle when hydrated and then slowly melted into the broth. Called bouillabaisse on the menu, this bold, intensely flavored broth was accompanied by seaweed encrusted nori wrapped around a filling of creamy, spicy rouille, a chile and saffron sauce traditionally served with bouillabaisse in the the South of France. A melding of Asian and French flavors, the presentation was dark in color, the flavors deep and impenetrable like the sea, set off by the cheerful, encouraging rouille. This was paired with a Rouilly Premier Crus (Chardonnay) from a region in the south of Burgundy.

alinea-8editedNext up was one of the reversals for which Achatz is famous. The dish is called Bocadillo which is the name of a Spanish sandwich often filled with jamon and cheese. In this case, the gossamer-like crisps forming the sandwich contained the flavors of jamon and cheese; the filling was essentially a viscous, liquid bread (pictured above). The large fruit basket in front of us was drizzled with liquid nitrogen, the “smoke” pouring forth laced with aromas of orange, mingling with a deconstructed gazpacho salad of heirloom tomatoes, frozen sherry and orange, marcona almonds and gooseberries (salad not pictured). As noted above, these are all traditional flavors commonly found together but radically transformed. It was paired with a Rhyme Vermentino from Carneros.


Our trip to Spain was then erased by a pan-Asia dish with Thai and Japanese inflections. A coconut broth surrounds a simple piece of black bass and mussels obscured by a garden of flowers, passion fruit, grapes, kaffir lime leaf, and dehydrated yuzu accompanied by compressed melon. An explosion of flavors and textures, the briny, plump fleshiness of the seafood was continually foiled by sweet fruit. The relentlessly, sunny joy of this dish was tempered by the mysterious black pot of flames set on the table as a centerpiece without explanation. Only a Riesling would pair with this dish—a lovely Weingut Brundlmayer “Heiligenstein” from Kamptal Austria.

alinea-lynn-4editedThis visually gorgeous dish was entitled Glass, referring to the stunningly-hued sheets of blueberry blanketing earthy, maitake mushooms and foie gras, in a sauce inflected with the Chinese tea, lapsang souchong. Once again, Achatz achieves a seamless marriage of French and Asian flavors with fruit providing acid and sweetness to give the dish a lifted, delicate countenance, an impression encouraged by the cool-climate, acid-bomb Syrah by Peay from Sonoma Coast.

And now we finally discover the reason for that mysterious burning pot in the middle of the table. It contains a bed of salt concealing a buried potato. Just a potato, but cooked sous vide for 12 hrs. and kept warm by the burning embers. After digging out the potato, the waiter crushes and mixes it with butter, crème fraiche and black truffle puree. This is rich enough to buy a yacht. One might complain about being served a mere spud but this was a soul-stirring spud, the humble potato proudly dressed to the nines by the velvet truffle.

alinea-lynn-2editedThe last savory dish may be the best single dish I have ever eaten. And it was quite simple. Wood-smoked veal cheeks in a coating of fried wild rice—very Midwestern—and served with a puree of vanilla flavored beef jerky, pineapple and hearts of palm. The contrast between the exterior of crunchy rice and the melting, almost fluid, yet deeply concentrated veal was one of those magical moments of sheer beauty, a fitting end to the savory portion of the meal. These last two dishes were paired with the standard but always reliable Argiano Brunello.

alinea-1-editFor me desserts are an after thought. The sweet potato, chocolate, miso dish called Rock was sweet, crunchy, and gooey, great fun even if desserts aren’t your thing. And finally the dish called Nostalgia was essentially bubblegum ice cream and cake. Even as a kid I wasn’t a huge bubblegum fan so this didn’t resonate. But that’s just me.

Finally, the only dish that survived from the earlier incarnation of Alinea was the grape-flavored balloon filled with helium that ends the meal. When eaten it does the helium thing to your voice. When I read about this years ago it sounded gimmicky—it was.

So in the end I think Alinea richly deserves its reputation. The dishes are thoughtfully conceived and just delicious. Buoyancy, a delight in surprise, a healthy respect for tradition, and a sensibility for how Asian and European flavors and textures can be combined define Achatz’s current cooking style.

And if you make yourself available for the emotional resonance of the dishes, they do acquire added meaning. If Achatz succeeds at making us more aware of the subtle almost imperceptible feeling states that are continually regulating conscious experience and are expressed by the food we eat, he will have greatly expanded our enjoyment of food and life.

The next time I’m passing through Chicago it will be hard to resist the temptation to discover what’s cooking at Alinea.

Wine Review: Cold-Hardy White Wines



The quest for a full bodied red varietal that will survive the frigid winters in the Northern U.S. is on-going, but winemakers for years have had several options for making crisp white wines from non-vinifera grapes. St. Pepin, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Brianna are among the varietals popular in tasting rooms throughout the upper Midwest that have the cold hardiness and disease resistance required for this region. All of these varietals have high acidity and so benefit from some residual sugar which  also pleases their local patrons who enjoy some sweetness in their wines. Thus far I have not found anything to make me forget about Russian River Chardonnay or Viognier from Condrieu but all of these wines make pleasant quaffers and versatile food wines and as winemaking continues to improve in the region these varietals have enormous potential.

Here are some of my favorites I discovered in my recent journey through the wine regions in Wisconsin and Iowa.

cold countryCold Country La Crescent Wisconsin NV $16

Jay Stoeger and his wife Kay opened Cold Country in 2014 and they are already making some very serious wines. Their 16 acre vineyard is one of the largest in this area. This La Crescent was particularly striking. A beautiful, exuberant nose of rose and tangerine, matched by voluptuous tangerine on the palate, and a mineral-inflected finish, this intense, full-bodied, semi-sweet wine is one of the best we tasted. La Crescent was developed by the University of Minnesota and has a complex lineage which includes St. Pepin and Muscat. It is difficult to grow but its high acidity and sugar levels and explosive aromas reminiscent of Riesling make this a very promising grape.


blue_moonParallel 44 “Blue Moon” St. Pepin Wisconsin Ledge $18

This off-dry white wine has a pleasing, intense nose of grapefruit, lime and a bit of flint. It shows simple pear on the mellow, gentle palate with a refreshingly crisp, fruit-laden finish.  Bred by Elmer Swenson and released in 1983 with Seyval Blanc as one parent, St. Pepin is unusual because it doesn’t self-pollinate and must be planted next to closely related male vines.


firesideFireside Winery Frontenac Gris Iowa 2016  $13

This semi-sweet wine has gobs of apricot, pear and tropical fruit on the nose and palate. Intensely aromatic and full bodied, it starts out sweet, but it finishes with plenty of crisp, refreshing acidity. The complexity, clarity and focus of the aromas on this wine are remarkable.  It is quite beautiful. Frontenac Gris is a mutation of Frontenac that emerged while the latter grape was under development at the University of Minnesota. It produces gray fruit and the color of the resulting wine can vary significantly.


Brick Arch “Honey Bee” White Blend Iowa NV $15

brick archOne strategy many winemakers adopt is to blend wine from local, cold hardy grapes with wine from more familiar vinifera grapes imported from New York, making for some interesting flavor profiles. “Honey Bee” is 80% Brianna and 20% Finger Lakes Riesling. Brianna adds tropical notes and tangerine to the apple aromas from the Riesling. Off dry to semi sweet, the palate shows prominent tangerine on a medium plus frame, well balanced with good acidity, and fresh, clean fruit on the finish. A distinctive, subtle earth note hangs in the background giving the wine some complexity. Brianna is another grape developed by Elmer Swenson with Muscat in its parentage, it performs very well in blends.

Hold On To Your Wallets


hold onto your walletAt a conference for wine business financial officers, Wine Searcher’s Blake Gray reports that:

  • two-thirds of wineries in the U.S. plan to raise wine prices this coming year.
  • over 85% of wineries responding to a survey expect to see increased profitability.

As Blake notes, apparently we like paying more for our wine. This phenomenon of charging more for wine is called “premiumization”. He also writes,

“And, to be clear, “premiumization” also includes the concept of providing a better product for more money.”

I’ll believe that we I see it. Not to be too cynical but for many wineries if they can get more money for the same product, they will.

In the same report, there is a data point that suggests we might not see higher quality:

David Bowman, executive vice president of Jackson Family Wines, showed an interesting chart averaging the prices of the top 10 selling Chardonnays in the US that cost $11 or more per bottle. (It won’t surprise you to learn Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is still the champion.) Some of the names on the list have changed from 2013 to this year, but the average price was key: it is $4 per bottle higher than four years ago. That’s a huge price jump, percentage wise, in just four years for a very significant market, as Chardonnay is still the country’s best-selling varietal.

So, has your average supermarket Chardonnay gotten that much better over the last 4 years? $4 per bottle better?

I didn’t think so.

On an unrelated matter, here is a useless fact to start your week. Have you ever wondered how many grapes it takes to make a glass of wine? Bob Hunnicutt has done the math:

A bottle of wine equals about six to eight grape clusters or 600 to 800 grapes. So that’s maybe 150 grapes in a glass. You get two or three bottles of wine per vine.