Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Wine Business

Back in March of 2014 we posted about the 2013 film documentary, Somm, which I thoroughly enjoyed, albeit guiltily as the four main characters obsessed in their pursuit of the Master Sommelier credential.  Not only was that pursuit expensive ($2,000+ per test) but the accrued knowledge to pass the test seemed to be more about a drive for self-satisfaction than about practical vocational information.  But the wine business can be like that.  If we're in it we tend to get caught up in the minutiae.

Today we're posting about the far from glamorous grunt work of the wine business and once again we're taking our cue from Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal from an article entitled "A Closer Look at the Making of a Sommelier."  In that article Teague says the physical work often leads to an early retirement from the profession by age fifty.  Really?  I'm way older than that and I'm still hefting cases.

Also in the article she says the pay isn't that good (unless you're in a great restaurant) and there is continual pressure to "upsell" your patrons.  Frankly, your raison d'etre is to increase the revenues at the end of the day and that increase really needs to be substantial enough to justify your employment.  I think that comes closer to the truth about why sommeliers get out of the business.  Are you starting to see where I'm going here?  It's a job with performance pressures like any other.

The wine business attracts all kinds of personalities.  What we all have in common is we all get the wine bug, that romantic notion that there is more to the stuff than just getting an alcoholic buzz.  We want to learn about the history, chemistry, agriculture, and anything else that's culturally related to wine and we want to feel accomplished in this field we have chosen.  Then we take a job and reality whacks us in the face.  It's a job.

Most sommeliers and other restaurant people (and retailers) who are interested in this field end up working for distributors, importers, brokers or other businesses further up the wine food chain.  Not only is that where the money is but if one of your values is self-determination then that's where you want to be.  Me?  I just don't have good sense.

This Thursday at 5pm James Murray leads us in a tasting of 2016 Scarbolo Italian Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Zorzal Argentine Malbec, 2015 Domaine du Somali Minervois and 2014 "A Proper Claret" from Bonny Doon of California.  Please join us. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pecorino (the wine, not the cheese)

You learn something new every day it seems.  This week I learned about an Italian wine grape called Pecarino which has nothing in common with the Pecarino cheese except I am told they go well together.  I learned about Pecarino wine by way of a vendor tasting here last week.  There were three Italian whites in the lineup and the Pecarino was clearly the winner as far as I was concerned.  It was straw-yellow in color, floral in the nose, and minerally and fruity yet dry to the taste, which brings us to what is wrong with Italian white wines in general.

First of all let me say that Italian white wines are some of the finest white wines on earth;  fine, being the operative term here.  You talk about subtlety and nuance!  Treat these wines with the utmost respect.  Serve these wines on your finest platter before dinner!  What's wrong with Italian whites, with all humility, is there are so many that are so similar (in that fine sort of way) that the poor retailer can't stock them all for a wine-buying public that is not yet ready for that degree of fineness (finesse).

Compounding this logjam of delicacy is the fact that the Pinot Grigio category is way too successful.  It surpassed Chardonnay in sales in this store long ago.  It's hard to get around that sales monster to offer the legions of others that no one has ever heard of, wines that are much more European in style than the Pinots that are shipped here.  Their lightly acidic structure frankly yields a winier flavored product in contrast with the forward cocktail pinots we like so much.  These alternative Italian whites really need a table setting with seafood entrees and sauces to show their potential.

Pecarino also has a great story behind it.  The name comes from the culinary habits of the sheep in Central Italy.  Pecarino means "little sheep" and those guys apparently loved to dine on the sweet wild grapes of the region to the point where the low yielding Pecarino grapevines have had to be propagated back to commercial viability from near extinction.  That effort was begun in the 1980's and now yields the high quality dinner wine we have in the store now.

Please join us at 5pm Thursday the 15th for a tasting of Italian wines.  Brian Espaniol leads us in a tasting of one Pinot Grigio and three blended reds.  Not coincidentally Italian cheeses will be on the table!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Syrah and California Pinot Noir

I can't believe it's been over two months since I've posted!  While the holidays have certainly been a factor in this lapse, other interests must have tripped me up from fulfilling my obligations here.  Anyway here's what I'm thinking about now...

Some of the finest big red wines in the world come from the northern Rhone Valley of France and by definition those wines are Syrah-based.  North of the Rhone Valley lies Mecca, Burgundy, where the finest Pinot Noir in the world originates.  While Syrah works wonderfully as a blending grape, Pinot Noir, by virtue of its stature in the wine world, stands alone as a varietal.  Except...when the rules have been broken and the two are mixed together.

The rules, by the way, are French rules.  Laws, actually.  Syrah is not allowed to be blended into Burgundian Pinot Noir.  Not even in a bad vintage when the pinot could use a little beefing up with the stronger Syrah.

In California things are different.  If a California wine is labeled as Pinot Noir it only needs to be 75% pinot.  The other 25% can be anything, but because Syrah is such a wonderful blending grape it seems to have become the go-to for that purpose.

So what does Syrah add to Pinot Noir?  Syrah from cooler climes offers blackberry, mint, black pepper and tannin or, my favorite description, violets and tar.  Syrah from warmer climes gives a blend soft tannins, jammy fruit, licorice, anise, and leather.  Does that description sound familiar?

From their own website Meiomi Pinot Noir is described as having "blackberry, black current, dark chocolate, cola, espresso, and vanilla."  According to princeofpinots.com it also has approximately three times the sweetness of French pinot.  So what's going on here?

In 2011 Constellation Brands, the second largest wine company in the world bought Meiomi from Joe Wagner of Caymus fame, for $315 million dollars.  Whenever a label like Meiomi changes hands it usually is just the label that is being sold.  Constellation already owns enough Pinot Noir vineyards and they don't need the winery.  They also own Mega Purple, the most popular branded additive used in domestic wine making.  Mega Purple is a grape concentrate that is capable of covering a multitude of sins in mediocre wines.  So that in combination with likely 25% Syrah will yield the style of wine marketed as the domestic industry leader, Meiomi.

In the wine business we say, "You have to sell it."  In this case the makers of Meiomi have done a wonderful job of selling their product.  In our store at this time we have two Meiomi knockoffs according to princeofpinots.com, Diora and Mark West Black.  Diora is priced similarly to Meiomi while the Mark West is half that price.  So if Meiomi is your cup of tea stop in and try our Diora or Mark West.  Maybe they're even better than Meiomi!

This Thursday at 5pm David Rimmer joins us for a tasting of three Italian reds and a French Sancerre.  David has the best wine portfolio in this market so we strongly urge you to be here for the tasting.  Please join us!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Chateau St. Jean/Treasury Wine Estates

This week we got in ten cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay from the historic Chateau St. Jean of Sonoma Valley, California.  Established in 1973, St. Jean has been a legendary producer of Chardonnay in particular; but also, courtesy of generous Wine Spectator magazine accolades, the Cinque Cepage Meritage Red has now become the winery's primary attraction.  None of this is really relevant though considering our ten cases are lower tier wines probably made from co-op juice at a facility unconnected to St. Jean.  It's all marketing, ya know.

Treasury Wine Estates is the current owner of Chateau St. Jean as of 2015.  Who are they?  Well, Treasury is an Australian company that basically owns all of the Australian wine labels marketed in this country excepting those owned by our own multi-national wine conglomerates.  Treasury also owns Beaulieu Vineyards, Sterling, Provenance, Sbragia, Rosenblum, Beringer, Stags Leap Winery, Etude, St. Clement and a whole lot more that are not household names.  A w-h-o-l-e lot more.

In 2015 Treasury basically bought the entire book of California wines belonging to Diageo, the English equivalent of Treasury.  Curiously, they bought the Acacia name but not the winery or vineyards which is what I thought was normal and customary for transactions on this scale.  Treasury did buy the vineyards belonging to most of the wineries listed above and that speaks well for them.  In fact Treasury has made a statement with this purchase.  They obviously believe in the future of our higher priced domestic wines in the world market.  Treasury intends to market heavily to Asia.

They also believe Diageo, a liquor company primarily, didn't exactly hoe the row properly in the wine business and having attended a Diageo tasting or two where all of the wines in the room tasted remarkably the same, I wholeheartedly agree.  This, of course, is the problem with mass marketers.  The wines all taste the same.

So Treasury plans to utilize two wineries to produce most of their wines.  Twenty dollar-plus wines will be made at Beringer in Napa while under twenty dollar wines will be made in Paso Robles.  Treasury Wine Estates, itself, is headquartered in Napa.  The great estate wines of Beaulieu and Sterling will continue to be made on the respective properties.

On Saturday November 11th from 1 to 3pm Brian Espanol holds court here with a tasting of California Red Blends.  On Thursday the 16th at 5pm Bob Reynolds does much the same and then on Saturday the 18th at 3pm David Rimmer returns with new French wines for us to sample.  Please join us for the tastings.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Rosey Goat

Rosey Goat has always been one of the most predictably popular cheeses we have offered here at the store.  All you have to do is keep it in stock and set it out for tasting occasionally and it's off to the races and we're sold out again in no time.  So why haven't I had it here for the better part of a year?

Usually when I don't have a staple like Rosey Goat it's because the supplier is out of it.  But then if I'm not on my game and it's nowhere in sight to remind me to order it, well then, Ol' Don forgets to order it.  That and I tend to buy off the monthly promotions circular instead of just keeping the popular cheeses in stock.

So what is this Rosey Goat stuff we're talking about?  In Spain it's called Caprillice and it hails from the Castilla La Mancha region of central Spain.  Yes that's right, Don Quixote country.  The cheese is  semi-soft in texture, mild in flavor yet because it is goat cheese, it has the requisite goaty tang.  It is aged six to eight weeks during which time it receives its resinous rosemary crust.

In La Mancha Rosey Goat is considered a sister cheese to "Winey Goat", a similarly styled cheese that receives a red wine bath during ageing instead of the herbs which brings up the fundamental naming issues many cheeses have.  While we have never sold "Winey Goat" we have sold that cheese by other names.  The same for Rosey Goat and many other cheeses from other countries.  Sometimes it has to do with the appellation system, sometimes it's branding, and I'm sure other times it has to do with proprietary rights.  Hey what's in a name anyway?

Rosey Goat is great with tapas, rustic bread, Marcona almonds, and European dry red wine.  I would even give it a try with white wine.  And it's here in the store now...but for how long?   

David Hobbs joins us this Thursday at 5pm with a tasting of four wines from Long Meadow Ranch of Napa Valley.  Please join us for the tasting.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Something For Everyone

Last Thursday's tasting featured four red wines: an inexpensive Spanish Garnacha and three twenty dollar reds from Chile, France, and California.  The Spanish red was really quite good so if your need is for respectable everyday fare that Spanish bottle would be an excellent choice but if you wanted something more distinctive the latter three were exemplary.

Our Chilean option was the 2012 Terra Noble Gran Reserva Carmenere and it was a spot-on example of type down to the off-putting earthiness of the wine when first uncorked.  Carmenere is the storied premier grape of Chile first planted in the 1850's and then labelled as Merlot throughout the twentieth century before genetic testing in 1994 revealed its true identity.  It is characterized by red fruit (cherry) flavors, spice, earthiness/smokiness, with ample leather, tobacco, and dark chocolate rounding out the profile.  Our Terra Noble opened up beautifully, losing its earthy mustiness and becoming a real head turner in the second hour of the event.

Our California red was the 2014 Smith & Hook Central Coast Proprietary Red Blend.  From the back label - "Crafted from superior quality Merlot, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, this blend features vibrant berry, cherry, and plum flavors."  This one was just as advertised and not surprisingly, it needed no time to open up.  There was no need to ponder over this one.  It was a fun crowd pleaser with no pretension. 

By contrast our French red was one with a pedigree.  Not only was the 2014 Crocus L'Atelier Malbec de Cahor representative of the grape variety grown in the place known for that type (in France!) but it also carried the Paul Hobbs Selections moniker on the back label.  Mr. Hobbs may be the best known winemaker in the world with wines featuring his name prominently commanding high dollar prices.  This one is actually made by Paul Bertrand.  Tellingly, all of our tasting wines came with tech sheets with the Crocus carrying about five times as much information as the others.

So which one was the best?  We're not saying!  The California wine would be a great apertif or pizza/hamburger wine.  The Chilean would marry well with red meat or game on the grill.  The Crocus would be what you need for fine dining.  This tasting really offered something for everyone...unless you required white wine!

We have Europeans next week with David Rimmer bringing new French and Italian wines to the tasting table.  Forget about Ruffino, Banfi, Louis Jadot, and Louis Latour; if you want to taste real quality from Europe be here on Thursday the 26th at 5pm for the good stuff.  Count on great European cheese on the table for this one too!   

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


This is a relatively new cheese here and elsewhere since it just received its IGP place of origin protection in 2010.  Currently the cheese is made by Casa Madaio in the Basillica region of southern Italy but it really goes back to antiquity.  Raising sheep in southern Italy seems to have always been an historical way of life for mountain towns like Moliterno, one of many villages known there for their cheese.

At 2,500 feet elevation Moliterno is one of several towns in the area that were important to Italians from the southern flatlands.  It was a seasonal refuge for recreation for the flatlanders who could also utilize the cheese cellars there to store their perishables.  When necessary the mountains also provided a natural defense against invaders, allowing ousted flatlanders to rest and regroup before any counterattack was in the offing. Shepherds also took advantage of the various elevations to graze their sheep during different seasons.

Moliterno cheese falls into the Pecarino family.  It may be called Pecarino di Moliterno or Canestrato Pecarino, canestrato meaning the cheese is formed in baskets for the first twenty-four hours.  For the ensuing months of aging the cheese is repeatedly rubbed with olive oil to maintain its moisture.  If the cheese is aged just two to six months it is called "Primitive"; if six months or more, "Mature"; and if a year or more, "Extra".

While Pecarino is solidly sheep cheese, Moliterno may have up to 30% goat's milk.  If aged long enough Moliterno may be hard and crumbly in texture, a darker golden color, aromatic with rustic grassiness and sweet caramel, and having strong rich flavors and saltiness.  Locally the cheese is served with hot pepper jelly, on raw vegetables and pears, and grated on soups and pasta.  It also pairs well with the local white wines of southern Italy.

Please join us tomorrow, the 19th of October, at 5pm when Nick Simonetti presents a tasting of Burgans, Albarino, Evodia Garnacha, Crocus Malbec (Paul Hobbs), and Terra Noble Gran Reserve Carmenere.   The Moliterno will be on the table.