Wine Review: Saintsbury Pinot Noir Lee Vineyard Carneros 2014


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saintsbury-lee-vineyard-carneros-pinot-noir__41165_1394458841_1280_1280Saintsbury is one of the classic Carneros producers releasing their first Pinot Noir in 1981. Today they make several cuvees, some single vineyard along with luscious Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Their lineup of Pinot Noir at the winery showed several distinct flavor profiles from various locations in Carneros and Sonoma but this one from Lee Vineyard was my favorite. Made from a mix of Pommard, Swan and Dijon 115 clones, it has plenty of that renowned Carneros funk and the spice notes that distinguish it from Russian River.

The nose is sensational. Layers of black cherry, dried leaves with mushroom hints,  subtle smoke laced with herb, and a tincture of stony minerality make for a heady, complex nose. Tea develops with aeration.

But on the palate, that broad dimensionality retreats. The fruit hesitates to show itself underneath the coffee notes. Just as the midpalate viscosity begins its languorous caress, the bright, lifted acidity takes over leaving a citric impression throughout its length. The fleshiness passes fleetingly like it can’t wait to reach for a cigarette. The tannins are very fine, quite lovely in fact, but allow the tart acidity to quickly assert itself.

Aged for 10 months in 25% new, 28% one year old, 47% neutral French oak barrels.

More sinewy than voluptuous, there is nevertheless an attractive, brooding quality to this wine in poised tension with its vivacity. It’s not a sunny wine but it loves life.

The reflective but hopeful Coming Home by Lizz Wright captures that tension and adds lush presence to the midpalate.

Score: 90 Pts.

Price: $50

Alc: 14.5%

The Mind Plays Tricks


liesLast week I participated in a blind tasting, the sort of blind tasting that all somms fear, where you’re tricked into falling flat on your face.

We were tasting wines in flights of three all of the same varietal, and we were informed of the varietal, region, and producer but did not know the order in which the wines were poured. This is a relatively easy blind tasting task, or should have been. For the third flight we were (allegedly) tasting quality Merlot or Merlot-based blends from Bordeaux, Colorado and Virginia.  But, alas, the pourer made a mistake and slipped a Syrah from Northern Rhone and a Southern-Rhone style blend from California into the line-up so only one wine was Merlot.

None of the gathering, which included several trained wine tasters and experienced wine lovers, noticed that two of the wines were not Merlot. (I correctly identified the Virginia Merlot but failed to identify the imposters.)

I do not mention this to call attention to blind-tasting miscues which are so frequent as to be unremarkable. This episode illustrates how essential top-down, cognitive processing is in determining what you taste. Because we were told the wines were Merlot no one noticed the meaty, black pepper, herbal,  or balsamic flavor notes typical of Rhone-style wines. The absence of plum or chocolate, typical of Merlot were chalked up to the wines being atypical.

In other words, what you taste depends on what you know. (I suppose one could argue we tasted the Rhone characteristics but didn’t attend to them but the result is the same)

This situation is structurally very similar to the renowned experiments carried out by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux.  Brochet served wine science students two glasses of identical white wine except that one wine was dyed red. The students overwhelmingly described the red-appearing beverage using descriptors characteristic of red wines. This study was widely reported in the press as demonstrating that wine tasting is BS. But of course that is not what it shows at all. Like the experience with my tasting group last week, these experiments show that what we know (or think we know) will significantly determine what we taste. Blind tasters are taught to use decision-trees in which features are excluded based on what you know. When there is deception involved those decision trees inevitably lead you to the wrong inference.

Importantly, subsequent studies performed by Burnham and Skilleas and reported in The Aesthetics of Wine confirm the dependence of taste on cognition. They gave tasters a wine and asked them to determine whether it was a red wine or a white wine dyed red. The tasters overwhelmingly correctly identified the wine. When the possibility of deception is made explicit, tasters are not fooled by visual information. Again, what you believe determines what you taste.

The important implication here is not to exonerate our tasting group from an egregious error but to point out that the appreciation of wine benefits greatly from wine knowledge. If you don’t know what to look for in a wine, you probably won’t find it.

Oh, and as a side note, in that flight which included a highly respected, very expensive Syrah from Northern Rhone and a wine of similar reputation from California, the Virginia wine, Rendezvous from RdV Vineyards, was preferred by most members of the group.

Budget Wine Review: Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon California 2014



mondavi private selection cabHistoric Robert Mondavi Winery, long noted for its vision of premium Napa wines, also makes the cheap stuff. And its very good for the price. In our survey of four budget Cabs, it’s the runner up easily beating out Rex Goliath and Barefoot.

Aromas of simple black cherry with hints of toast and vanilla against a vaguely earthy background are standard, but in the mouth crisp acidity is nicely balanced with chocolate infused fruit. Gently assertive, medium-grain tannins and a mineral seam give the wine a richness that is sometimes hard to find on the supermarket bottom shelf.

This is easy drinking but finishes dry and vivacious; highly recommended in the $10 and under category.

(FYI: This is neither  the bourbon-barrel aged Cabernet nor the Central Coast Cab, both also sold under the Private Selection label)

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

The spunky, brisk Dexterity by Charlie Parker brings out the smooth, chocolate-covered cherry dimension of this wine:

What Makes a Great Wine Great?



la tacheJamie Goode’s post What is Greatness in a Wine? is insightful because it moves greatness out of the realm of subjectivity and personal preference:

Greatness is conferred on wine by a community of judgement. When we, as the wine community, taste wines together, we recognize the great wines. It’s an aesthetic system, where we form a judgement together, by tasting together, discussing, listing, buying, consuming.

But ultimately this kind of answer is unsatisfying. When the wine community confers greatness on a wine presumably there is something about the wine that warrants such a judgment. Without an account of what that is, the judgment is threatened with arbitrariness. The job of a critic is not just to announce greatness but to explain it by giving reasons. A genuine understanding of “greatness” would include those reasons not just the fact of widespread agreement.

Such an account of course is hard to provide. As Jamie writes, “There’s no definition that we can apply to determine whether a wine is great or not.” Each great wine will be great for different reasons and general rules that mention complexity, harmony or finesse will not capture the individuality of great wines. The best we can do is use description, metaphor or some other rhetorical device to call attention to those features that seem salient yet inarticulable.

Yet, perhaps Jamie’s idea is in the right direction. A great wine is great because it appeals to a wide range of people in the wine world who agree it’s a benchmark but often for vastly different reasons. Each person’s account of why the wine is great will differ due to biological differences, differences in descriptive powers, aesthetic preferences, and the fact that we all have different tasting histories. Thus, perhaps what makes a wine great is it’s ability to generate a verdictive consensus despite those differences.

Greatness in a wine lies in a wine’s capacity to be appreciated from many different perspectives, a multi-dimensional potential that invites a common verdict despite vastly different ways of arriving at it.

Thus, it is not the fact of agreement that makes a wine great but an underlying breadth or accessibility that makes it alluring from multiple points of view.

Sadly, without some way of quantifying this “underlying breadth” or specifying its causal mechanisms that explanation is close to empty—like attributing the effectiveness of a sleeping pill to it’s dormitive power.

But it does point to the fact that this underlying breadth is not an arbitrary accident but is in some sense “in the wine” and perhaps it is something we can learn to sense if we practice looking for it.

The search for it is likely to be more interesting than picking out aroma notes.

Chile Obsession? Go to New Mexico



ristrasI must confess, I love Mexican food, even the cheap stuff, because there is nothing finer than rich, earthy, red chile sauce. And so, for me, traveling to New Mexico is like a pilgrimage because in New Mexico “food” and “chile” are synonyms and “red or green?” is an existential question. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re making some good wine in New Mexico as well.)

New Mexico is after all the home of the renowned Hatch chiles. I’m not enough of an expert to know if Hatch chilies are better than other chilies, but they have a bright vegetal flavor and an outsized reputation and can so many people be wrong? Well yes, popular opinion is often dead wrong, but anyway when something is an obsession, the obsessed usually learn to get it right. So if you’re into chilies go to New Mexico.

To be honest, New Mexican cuisine is really similar to other Mexican border cuisines but we’re talking about food here where minor differences make all the difference. And there are some unique characteristics to New Mexican food.

First, if you can’t decide between red or green chile on your plate ask for Christmas and you’ll get both. In California you would get strange looks. In  New Mexico they understand tragic choices.

Second, if you love red chile sauce there is nothing finer than Carne Adovada, chunks of tender pork swimming in a deep red, chile-based stew, not to be confused with Adobada which is  a similar stew found elsewhere but served with various cuts of meatcarne-adovada

Stuffed-sopapillaThen there are the sopapillas, rolled dough cut into triangles and deep fried so they puff up like “little pillows”, essentially a fry bread. They are ubiquitous in New Mexico often drizzled with honey for dessert. But really the best way eat them is, of course, stuffed with Carne Adovada.

The enchiladas in New Mexico are typically stacked instead of rolled, and smothered in chile sauce and cheese so all the ingredients meld into a glorious, hot mess. And you can get them with blue corn tortillas which, in addition to being pretty, have a sweeter taste.

As you might imagine in a cuisine based on chilies, their Chile Rellenos are a specialty. They are often served without sauce so the vegetal crunch of the chile becomes a prominent part of the dish.

And Green Chile Stew, distinct from Chile Verde in that it typically does not include tomatillos but often has potatoes in it, will replace chicken soup as an all purpose remedy for colds, bad weather, and hangovers.

But the best thing about New Mexico is that it’s not Texas. In Tex-Mex cuisine, everything is doused with sour cream, infused with cumin, with sauces despoiled by  tomatoes and meat sludge, and queso that tastes like Velveeta.

Speaking of Hatch and meat, chilies are not the only thing they do well. That would be the chile-cheese burger at Sparky’s, a barbecue joint serving the best burger I’ve had in some time.

If you’re heading to New Mexico this is where you find the good stuff:

For Sopapillas stuffed with Carne Adovada try Mary and Titos in Albuquerque or Nellie’s in Las Cruces.

chopes-rellenosFor Chile Rellenos, it’s Chopes, a mom-and-pop restaurant about 20 miles south of Las Cruces. But start the meal with their outstanding Chile con Queso, basically a green chile stew without the meat and with lots of melted cheese. They also feature the best salsa around.

And for Green Chile Stew I enjoyed the version at Albuquerque’s Pueblo Harvest Café at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Should you want to take a break from traditional, low budget, New Mexican cuisine and try something a bit more upscale, Albuquerque’s  Farm and Table does a nice job with local ingredients.

New Mexico’s landscapes are magical and their wine is improving but the main attraction is red chile sauce.

Wine Review: Burgess Cellars Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2012



burgessPetite Sirah is a cross of Syrah and an obscure grape called Peloursin developed in France in the mid-19th Century where it is called Durif. (It picked up the “petite” moniker because of the small berry size.) It’s now seldom found in France but Americans are finding it palatable when properly tamed. This one from Burgess, made from estate grapes about 1000 feet up Howell Mountain, is a beautiful expression of this sometimes difficult grape.

Aromas of rich, dense  blueberry pie with an enticingly subtle mushroom halo and hints of smoke give this a distinctive nose, more interesting than most Petite Sirah. Medium toast oak has presence adding that bit of smoke but it doesn’t come close to overwhelming the fruit.

Very juicy up front melding blackberry and dark cherry with dark roast coffee, the midpalate is muscular but pleasing ushering in an oak inflected finish with powerful but refined, well managed tannins, and embued with a steak of vibrant acidity that provides lift and intimates elegance, at least as much as Petite Sirah can muster.

A fine amalgam of strength and polish.

Score: 92

Price: $38

Alc: 14.1%

Benatar’s Promises in the Dark brings out the prettiness of this wine exposing floral and black olive notes and smoothing the finish.

Wine Review: Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon NV American


rex goliath cabThis week we have the third place finisher in the head-to-head assessment of supermarket Cabernet—the Rex Goliath from Constellation Brands. It finished just barely ahead of last week’s reviewed wine, Barefoot Cabernet, on the strength of the healthy shot of acidity that keeps some refreshment in the finish.

A whiff of a plastic, chemical note mars the simple black cherry and earth aromas. The palate is fruity but flat and dull up front. Chocolate and cola at the back of the midpalate sitting on a ripple of acidity give the wine some life carrying through the short but pleasant finish. Tannins are very soft. A touch of sweetness but not too cloying, the balance assisted by that tart note that creeps in to remind you that this is wine, not grape juice.

Another decent but unremarkable wine, it isn’t big and juicy but also avoids excessive sweetness. If you’re not allergic to a mildly tart finish you might find this refreshing.

The last time I checked in with this wine they were sourcing grapes from Chile. These grapes are at least 75% American. It’s basically the same flavor profile but slightly less oaky than in the past.

Should you be curious, Rex Goliath takes its name and label art from a late 19th Century circus act that featured an alleged 47-pound rooster . “HRM” in the brand’s name stands for “His Royal Majesty.”

Since I don’t understand marketing, I can’t explain it either but I guess you can’t argue with success.

Score: 83

Price: $6

Alc: 13%

This needs an up-tempo quirky vibe, electro-pop, high on the silly scale, song to amp up the juice:

Finally, a Win!



Bocuse d’Or the biennial culinary competition founded 30 yrs. ago by French chef Paul Bocuse is generally acknowledged to be the “olympics” of the world of cuisine. The United States generally finishes back in the pack although in 2015 we finished third.

Finally, yesterday, a team from the U.S. won the competition.

I promised Monsieur Paul 10 years ago that we’d make it to the top of the podium,” said the chef Thomas Keller, who is the president of Team U.S.A. “We made it in nine.”

The team’s head chef was Mathew Peters, 33, from Meadville, Pa., who was most recently the executive sous-chef of Mr. Keller’s New York restaurant, Per Se. His commis, or helper, was Harrison Turone, 21, from Omaha, who also worked at Per Se.

Both of the chefs took a year off to prepare for the contest, a fierce competition in which the American team is made up of younger chefs who can spare the time to train as well.

The task was to interpret Poulet de Bresse aux Écrevisses, essentially  braised chicken with crayfish sauce, and this year the teams were required to include a vegan dish.

The American version involved the chicken with morel mushroom sausage, braised wings, a wine glaze and sauce Américaine, a kind of lobster sauce. Alongside were a chicken liver quenelle with foie gras, corn custard, black-eyed peas and toasted pistachios, as well as lobster tail with Meyer lemon mousse. The garnishes included preparations using carrots, Vidalia onions, black truffles, carrots, peas and potatoes. They brought some of the ingredients from the United States.

For the vegan dish, the chefs prepared California asparagus with cremini mushrooms, potatoes, a custard made of green almonds, Meyer lemon confit, a Bordelaise sauce and a crumble using an almond and vegetable yeast preparation that mimicked Parmesan cheese.

The U.S has had a vibrant food culture for many years. This validates our progress. Congratulations to the team.

How long, if ever, will it take before French cooking is displaced as the standard of excellence?

Getting Played by Marketing


sexy wine bombI always have my antenna up for stories about big wine perfidy, so I found these paragraphs from the Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report  on the wine business to be enlightening.

“While cabernet is still the king of varietal growth in the $11 to $14.99 price range, red blends come in second and are the current darling of discussion in the business. The reason is obvious from the large producer’s perspective.The category allows the large wine companies that dominate production enormous freedom in the substitution of varietal and place of origin, yet they are still able to maintain overall quality and margin. There may be wide bottle-to-bottle variation, but for the price, quality is there. It’s really the jug wine craze of the 1960s on steroids.

Emerging consumers are acquiescing to branding from the large wine companies because it makes their purchase easier to understand. It replaces varietal and vintage comparisons with something simple and catchy like Sexy Wine Bomb, The Prisoner, Vicious Red Blend, SLO Down Sexual Chocolate, or Cupcake Red Velvet.”

I was going to comment on these passages but I see Dave McIntyre beat me to it so I’ll just quote him:

“In other words, they’ll pour anything into that bottle, and they don’t give a damn whether one bottle tastes different from the next, because they believe we care only about that catchy name on the label.”

Jug wine on steroids? We’re being played.”

Yup. They’ve found a way to manufacture demand by using cute names while cutting production costs and raising prices. Nice.

I thought “emerging consumers”, (AKA millennials) were into authenticity.

The only way not to get played is to learn something about wine regions and varietals. A good rule of thumb is when you see a catchy name having to do with sex or violence, buy something else.