Friday, June 29, 2012

Judgment of Paris Part 2 "The Rant"

Please scroll down to read Part 1 first.

Now here is the sobering thing about wine really is subjective.  You may taste the same lineup blind on consecutive days and come up with widely varying assessments because you are human and one day's objectivity doesn't necessarily carry over to the next.  Life is impactful and our tasting consciousness would have to be vulnerable to outside influences.

Similarly, wines tried in restaurants or elsewhere and then purchased at retail often disappoint because either the food combination improved the wine or the aura of the restaurant was a factor or the specialness of the occasion or the company or something else made the wine taste better the night before.  In the case of traditional European wines vis-a-vis California wines, the Europeans are drier and really do show best with food.  I guess that could work the other way around also with the wine tasting better at home for a number of reasons.

Now here is the dark side of the wine industry:  From the time the product leaves the winery to its arrival on your table, it has either been transported and warehoused well or perhaps, shamefully.  Rarely is it cellared at 52-54 degrees consistently.  So you may taste two bottles of the same wine and get different results if they weren't in the same sealed case.  The quality of cork, of course, could be a factor for differences within a single case of wine.

But here is the larger problem for our southern climate: We have wine warehouses similar to Sam's Clubs that have pallet racks that go up twenty feet with minimal temperature control and expensive wines being stored on the top level during the summer months because they don't sell as fast as cheaper ones.  We also have unrefrigerated trucks that may deliver the goods at 4pm in ninety degree weather.

Moreover (!) we may have an industry that values liquor sales over wine and doesn't feel inclined to correct abuses because the liquor sales are fine.  One reason for the wine tasting results of Paris '76 was that that industry had fallen into disrepair and neglect and needed to be improved.  Competition is good.  It promotes self-examination and corrects the bad habits that led to expediency in production.  One would hope that realization might lead to improvements in Atlanta's wine distribution.

Whew! I need to relax.  Please join us this evening when Curtis Gauthier of Empire Distributing presents the wines of Waterbrook of Washington State here from 5 to 7pm.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris was the historic wine tasting held in Paris, France on May 24th of 1976 in which California Cabernets and Chardonnays were pitted against Red Bordeaux and White Burgundies...and won!  Specifically the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet was deemed the best red over five other Californians and four classified growth Bordeaux and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was the best white over four Californians and four premier and grand cru Burgundies.  The tasting was blind and conducted by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant in Paris, and the judges were all French except one American who lived in France and seemed to fit the same profile as the others.

The significance of the event was huge.  Having entered this industry in the same year, I recognized this as a game-changer because the center of the wine universe at the time was Europe and France in particular.  Moreover, the contrast between the centuries old wine estates of France and the upstart Californians was absurd.  All of the Californians were no more than fifteen years old and Clos Du Val's entry, its 1972 Cabernet, was its first release! 

In 1978 in San Francisco the tasting was repeated with American judges and the winners were Stag's Leap Cabernet again and 1974 Chalone Chardonnay.  On the tenth anniversary of the Paris tasting when the whites were too old for tasting, the reds were repeated in Paris with Clos Du Val taking top honors and that same year Wine Spectator magazine repeated the tasting in America with the 1970 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet coming out on top.  Then on the thirtieth anniversary of the original tasting in 2006, Steven Spurrier returned to do the honors in France and the 1971 Ridge Montibello Cabernet was deemed best.  In every contest the Californians were judged superior to the French with the thirty year tasting being especially significant because California wines were not supposed to hold up that long.

This, of course, has been a cultural coup and industry marketing bonanza.  I mentioned earlier how euro-centric the wine business was at that time and I cannot stress that reality enough.  With this revolution-in-a-winetasting coinciding with a generational evolution from liquor to wine, the California industry moved from the predominantly jug wine era of the 1940's, 50's, and 60's to the varietals of the 80's and it continues to evolve now with new mastery of matching grape types with terroir.

Next time we will talk about the controversies surrounding these events.

Curtis Gauthier of Empire Distributors will be here this Friday from 5 to 7pm with a tasting of Waterbrook wines from Washington State.  The wines are in the popular $12 to $25 range and over-perform with quality throughout.  Please join us.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ripasso Valpolicella

Last night we tasted the 2008 Masi Campofiorin Ripasso Valpolicella along with an assortment of six others, all of which paled next to it.  The Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz had a comparable richness with the Ripasso but lacked depth and structure.

Valpolicella, along with being the name of the wine, is the viticultural region in the province of Verona east of Lake Garda.  The name first appears in print in the twelfth century but it is believed to go back to the times of the Greek Empire.  Winemaking records in Greece date to 10,000BC, the Neolithic period, with expansion into Italy around 6,000BC.  That expansion was largely concentrated in southern Italy but the name, Valpolicella, incorporates Greek and Latin terms perhaps meaning the "valley of the cellars".

In modern times Valpolicella began its world appeal in the 1960s and had a rollercoaster sales (and quality) record for the next forty years.  Better producers stopped making the wine when both profitability and quality standards flagged deepening the existing problem and it wasn't until the 1990s that world demand for Amarone persuaded the better producers back into the Valpolicella business.  Amarone is the flagship wine of the region made using the traditional "appassimento" method of laying grapes out to dry on bamboo racks in lofts for weeks or months before making a rich dry red wine from them.  The second elite wine from the region is Recioto, a sweet red wine made from those same dried grapes.

Valpolicella is made from Corvina grapes primarily, but also Rondinella and Molinara which are used for their commercial (bulk) value.  This light red table wine has a predominant cherry flavor.  In the 1980s Masi is credited with making the first Ripasso Valpolicella in which the passito grapes are "re-passed" (re-fermented) with the fresh grapes from harvest creating a richer red wine than standard Valpolicella.  Masi did not label the wine as Ripasso in the 1980s and do not do so even now with the proprietary name, Campofiorin, distinguishing it from the company's regular Valpolicella.

Passito grapes are dried grapes with resultant concentrated sugars.  When added to fresh grapes for Ripasso, they may actually be "pomace or Marc", that is, left over grape skins or other solid remains after making Amarone or Recioto.  Either way the resultant wine is less bitter and higher in alcohol than standard Valpolicella.

This Friday (5-7pm) our weekly tasting will continue as always but I will be absent.  The fellas who are subbing for me have promised to behave themselves and set out some good stuff!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Idiazabal (EE-dee-ah-ZAH-bahl) is an unpasteurized sheep cheese from the Basque region originally, but also more recently from the Navarre region of Spain.  These regions are at the northernmost-central locale of the country with Basque fronting the Atlantic Ocean and Navarre abutting France.  If the cheese is made in Basque it may be smoked; if in Navarre, by tradition it is unsmoked.  These regions are directly north of La Rioja, the most famous wine region of Spain; northwest of Pamplona, where the bulls run; and well north of La Mancha, of Don Quixote fame and home of Manchego, the most famous cheese of Spain.

Idiazabol may be aged just two months in which case it retains a distinct butteriness along with its characteristic sheep cheese flavor.  If it is aged two years the cheese is dry, firm, and sharp.  More specifically this cheese is piquant, acidic, and strong, yet buttery and nutty.  If the cheese is smoked, as you might expect, it is drier and stronger, but interestingly enough, some would still describe Idiazabal as having a smoky taste even when it is not smoked.

Spain's cheesemaking history, of course, is historic, but it was largely unregulated until recent times and much of that codification resulted from the formation of the European Union. Spain gave Idiazabol its D.O. (denomination of origin) in 1987 and the European Union bestowed its PDO (protected designation of origin) in 1992.  This legislation protected the historic cheese from non-genuine, perhaps unscrupulous pretenders, guaranteeing quality and value for the authentic product.  Perhaps as a result of all of this, modern cheese factories have emerged within the historic D.O.s, making the great Spanish cheeses in volume for the world market.

Much of Idiazabal's production value involves the treatment of the cheese rind which is salted using a dry rub or immersion in brine.  Toward the end of production the rind is smoked if it is smoked at all.  If Idiazabal is smoked, the rind is a brownish color; if unsmoked, yellow-beige.  Either way, the interior remains a pale yellow with no air pockets.  The rind is finally "engraved" with distinctive Basque symbols before going to market and, yes, the rind is inedible.

This Friday from 5 to 7pm Dave Klepinger of Northeast Sales will be here tasting out an assortment from his fine wine portfolio.  Dave is a true professional in the field and always offers best-of-kind examples and complementary expert commentary.  Please join us for the wine tasting and ask to taste the Idiazabal.  Then of course take home a wedge and a bottle of red for Father's Day!  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Recuerdo Torrontes

This one snuck up on me.  I just reported on Facebook that R8 Cabernet Sauvignon was the big hit at last night's store tasting.  And it was.  We sold two cases with two coming in next week that should go out in short order.  Then I realized that the Torrontes sold out also, at a higher price point even.  We sold one case last night and we will get another next week and it should sell well because of the season.

About three years ago Pinot Grigio surpassed Chardonnay in white wine sales at this store.  I view that as a turning point in our history.  Now Torrontes amongst other lesser known varieties is on the map.  It is another choice in a marketplace that is maturing before my eyes.

We have blogged about Torrontes in the past here but to continue with my train of thought, there is more going on here than just another white wine on the shelf.  A couple months ago we tasted the Argentine wines of Il Porvenir de los Andes, the Laborum line.  The reds were around $30 and the Torrontes at $20 was the best I had ever tasted.  Recuerdo is $16.99 and comes close to Laborum in quality.  They also have commonalities in grape variety, Torrontes Riojano, and place, Recuerdo from La Rioja, Laborum from Salta; both high altitude northern provinces.  To generalize: Torrontes Riojano seems to be the best of the three Torrontes varieties and northern high altitude, semi-arid climes seem best for making this kind of wine.

Here is what impresses with Torrontes: it is a marriage of citrus and floral flavors and aromas.  The wine is usually fermented in stainless steel tanks so it retains a light color and crisp quality to the finish.  The fruit flavors include peaches and apricots with a hint of lemon; the floral aromas and flavors are forthright and essential.  I perceive Torrontes to be a wedding of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, my two favorite white grapes.

One final observation about Recuerdo would concern the label.  I am a Chicago guy who is color blind.  Recuerdo sports a barren tree (grape vine bush perhaps?) against a pale blue background.  I love it.  It is a stark black on gray image to me that invokes winter in Chicago, the gray city.  Cold as you-know-what.  Now I've been a Georgia guy for thirty years, most of my life, and this is home.  It makes me thirsty.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Backstory and Textbook

Two of the wines we are tasting here Friday evening are Backstory Sauvignon Blanc and Textbook Cabernet Sauvignon.  I found the names of the wines interesting since they both dealt with reading material.

A backstory is a literary device, a set of facts or factors set in a narrative history, all of which are chronologically earlier than but related to the narrative of primary interest.  Moreover, a backstory may be a history of characters or elements that underlie the situation existing in the narrative.  A backstory is commonly thought of as applying to fiction but if you think about it, any history would involve backstories.

A textbook is, well, a textbook, at least that is what the overwhelmingly common responses are if you google the word.  The definition we want, though, is "being a characteristic example of kind, a classic" or "conforming or coorsponding to a standard or type that is prescribed or widely held by theorists" or simply, "typical".

The real "backstory" behind these two labels proves to be far from typical but yet in keeping with what we know of contemporary winemaking, these two projects showcase the ingenuity of their originators. In the case of Backstory that would be Jeff Gaffner; for Textbook, Jonathan Pey.

Jeff Gaffner's company is Saxon Brown Wines (est.'97) and known for Old Vine Zinfandel particularly, but also Semillon and Pinot Noir and many more varieties under several different labels.  Jeff is one of the star winemaking consultants in California, having signed off on many projects for many clients.  Usually this type of "hired gun" has a claim to fame that establishes his renown and Jeff's is the 1996 Cinc Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon of Chateau St. Jean which was the 1999 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year.  Richard Arrowood was the chief winemaker at Chateau St. Jean at the time but Jeff was on the team.  Jeff's winemaking style is characterized as restrained elegance and he relies on longtime grower relationships with site specific varieties.

Jonathan Pey's company is called Scenic Root of Marin County which is certified organic and adamant about it.  They stress cover crops, organic matter, beneficial insects and natural predators.  They practice leaf removal and canopy management to improve sunlight and air penetration but also to prevent powdery mildew, bunch rot, and insects.  Pey says it only makes sense to go organic in California because the dry growing seasons there lend themselves naturally to organic farming.  He should know having worked for Louis Jadot of Burgundy, Penfolds in Australia, and Robert Mondavi and Sterling in California.  The Textbook Cabernet (w/Merlot) is sourced from three vineyards in Napa and is "bold but balanced".

Please join us Friday for these and five other wines and the expertise of our guest host, Henry Leung, "the man who solves the Chinese puzzle" according to the Wine Specator magazine.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Portugal, Part 2

Portugal can be divided into two parts by drawing a line horizontally across the country about one-third of the way down from the top.  The top third is where most of the twenty six premier DOC vineyards are and the bottom two-thirds is where a few of the DOC vineyards reside along with the rest of the Portuguese production.  The top third is terroir-driven while the bottom two-thirds is economy driven.  The top third is old world but with new talent and investment capital while the lower part is largely new world in style, again with talent and investment money.  The top third is what you expect from Europe, the bottom two-thirds is surprising and exciting.

We have had two Portuguese tastings here in recent weeks with a total of nine wines tasted.  I thought they were all exceptional.  As I did my research for these paragraphs I learned that, with the exception of the Dao (April 21st blog), none of the wines we tasted was from a DOC vineyard!  All were from the bottom part which I think may be Portugal's Languedoc, the non-pedigreed southern region of France where most of the country's wine production originates.   I had errantly assumed that because the grapes were old and unfamiliar to me, they must be DOC wines.  This again points up just how different Portugal is from California, as we said in the first installment of this series.

Last night we tasted the 2009 Quinta Do Crasta Douro Reserva, a big robust value at a fifty dollar retail.  Douro is a DOC region of production in northeastern Portugal.  Crasta sold well here last night so we will re-order it for next Thursday along with a couple of other Douros in the $20-30 range.  We will also write about Douro here to coincide with the arrival of the new wines.

Next Friday evening Henry Leung, long time NYC restauranteur and "the man who solved the Chinese puzzle" in the Wine Spectator magazine, will taste out several wines from the Hemispheres portfolio.  Please join us for Henry's always educational presentation.