Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bernard Portet

I started my wine career back in 1976 when I was a student and living in Berkeley, California and, of course, in need of a job.  So I stocked shelves in a liquor store and took note of the boutiquey looking California wines that lined the shelves, thinking they must surely be the best wines available.  Something called "Fred's Friends" was the most expensive wine on the shelves (I wonder why that one didn't work.) and J. Lohr was the only label I recall from that time that is still around today.

When I moved to Atlanta in 1981 I took a job at Ansley Wine & Cheese in Ansley Park which, unknown to me, was where the fine wine business in Atlanta had begun.  Jim Sanders, "the father of the fine wine business in Atlanta", had opened that Ansley Park shop ten years earlier and had actually created the market for fine French wines in Atlanta back in the sixties.  He had long since sold the Ansley store and moved to Paces Ferry where I worked for him for a couple of years in the early eighties.  Jim, always more of a curmudgeon than a cuddly teddy bear, had somehow accrued the "who's who" customer list of Atlanta and according to 1960's lore, Jim  had once even brought together Lester Maddox and Martin Luther King for a wine tasting in his office!

I say all of this as preamble to my introduction of Bernard Portet into the discussion.  Portet, along with John Goelet, founded Clos du Val Winery in the Stag's Leap District of Napa Valley in 1970.  Portet was born in Cognac, France and raised in Bordeaux in a family of winemakers going back nine generations to 1668 Cognac.  Portet's father was the technical director of the first growth, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, where the young Portet no doubt learned plenty before his formal winemaking training at Toulouse and Montpellier.  With this kind of a background, Portet set off to America where he and Mr. Goelet partnered to create Clos du Val.

Clos du Val marketed several wines like most early California wineries but their claim to fame was always Cabernet.  In 1976 at the elite "Judgment of Paris" tasting (blogs 6/25/12-7/5/12), the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet finished eighth out of ten California Cabernets and French Bordeaux tasted.  Ten years later when the tasting was reprised, the 1972 Clos du Val was first.  Twenty years later in 1996, it finished fifth, a testiment to the longevity (and superiority) of Napa Cabernet.  The 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet, by the way, was its very first vintage!

So why this blog now?  Clos du Val has always been my favorite California Cabernet, so French in style I may have been able to slip it past Jim Sanders in a blind tasting.  For the French it is always about terroir, the environs of the vineyard that impart "place" as a dimensional attribute of the wine.  Now terroir takes on new meaning for Portet who retired from Clos du Val in 2009.  Portet is now introducing his new "winery without walls", (ed. note below) which is what we have been talking about all year long here at the blog.  When Portet joyfully proclaims, "I don't own anything!", he is authoritatively "owning" his contracts with the right growers in the right Cabernet terroir along with his contract with the right winemaking facilities to turn out his new label, Heritance Cabernet (and Sauvignon Blanc).  I can hardly wait to taste this one.

Editor's note:  A clos is a walled-in vineyard.  Clos du Val = walled-in vineyard in the valley?

Now we are into my busy season and the blogs are going to be coming fewer and farther between but we will try to continue writing between wine and cheese sales and gift basket orders.  We are tasting as usual on every Friday but nothing is set in stone for November second yet.  We also continue to feature St. Supery Napa wines through the end of the year.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


I guess when each of your past two tasting winners are from the same place, you probably should acknowlege that place in writing.  Montsant is a Spanish viticultural D.O. (denominacion de origen)which lies toward the southwestern tip of the country.  Spain is sort of triangular shaped with the most acute angle hanging to the southwest, if that helps. 

The D.O. was established in 2001 when the higher altitude Montsant mountainside vineyards surrounding the esteemed Priorat D.O. were recognized for their own superiority.  The great red grapes of the region are Garnacha and Carenina with eight other types in the supporting cast.  Whites are also made there but our tasting winners were reds so we'll stay with that.  Montsant is actually a horseshoe-shaped ring around Priorat with the opening at the bottom.  It is a sub-region of Falset, which used to be the primary name on the wines, and the place lies within the Tarragona province in Catalonia.

Montsant has a dry Mediterranean climate with soils of lime over granite with slate below that.  The D.O. is 360m above sealevel on average.  Winemaking in the region is done mainly by young people trained in modern winemaking and their employers are largely family farms and co-ops.  Formerly these venues produced somewhat musty, oxidised sweet reds in the bad old days.

A week ago we sold out of 2006 Tossals Junior, a $14.99 bottle composed of 60% Garnacha, 30% Carenina, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Interestingly enough when introduced initially this wine commanded a $35/btl price.  A characteristic of Montsant reds is that they age gracefully, becoming more velvety with time in the bottle.  That was the case with Tossals and happily it is back in stock.

Last night our clear winner was the 2008 Besllum Montsant composed of 45% Garnacha, 45% Carenina, and 10% Syrah.  From the 93 point Robert Parker review: "16 months in new French oak; deeply colored; alluring bouquet of wood, smoke, exotic spices, incense, lavender, blueberry, and blackcherry; opulent; drink 2013-2023."  Similar to Tossals, Besllum was introduced at $34/btl and we have three bottles in stock now.

Both wines would work well with red meats on the grill or well-seasoned burgers.

Next Thursday, October 25th (5-7pm), Gail Avera of Lafayette Selections returns with an array of "coastal" wine selections.  These wines hail from Spain, France, and Italy and promise to return us to our youthful beachboy (and beachgirl) romps at the sea.

On Friday, October 26th (5-7pm), Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage returns with, oh I still don't know what, but it'll be fun as always!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tangent Albarino

A week ago we wrote about "wine with pizza" and I'm not so sure we covered that subject adequately.  Sure, Italian red wine is a no-brainer but my not-so-serious suggestion of any white from the refrigerator actually has much more truth to it than you might think. Spicy foods, at least those that aren't too red meat-centered, do seem to work better with whites than most reds and keep in mind that as a wineblog, beer is off the table here.

So these are the whites I would turn to for spicy foods: Gewurztraminer (naturally), Riesling, Viognier, Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), Tokay and Torrontes.  These would also be my choices for Thanksgiving Day dinner too...but I digress.  Because Riesling and Gewurztraminer have been so maligned in the marketplace because of inferior representation on the retail shelves and less than tangible issues with varietal characteristics, I lean toward the other types above, all of which are capable of holding their own with, shall we say, some of the more assertive flavors on the table.  Lighter examples of these types simply need not apply here.

This leads me to Albarino, another varietal type that I would not consider except that I recently tasted Tangent from California and, as God is my witness, it was better than the Spanish, at least in the context we are discussing here.  It is a forthright, masculine (for type), structured white with clean and lively acid and concentrated aromatics and flavors.  I have nothing against Spanish Albarino, honest, it's just that it always struck me as being floral and restricted to the lightest of food pairings.  Tangent displays phenolic ripeness in the nose and varietal intensity in the mouth.  Since I have always deferred to the European oenological example in the past, this is indeed a new development for me.

So what makes the stuff so good?  It's always terroir, right?  In Edna Valley, California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the temperature is as cool as Napa/Sonoma with alluvial soils containing the trappings of a cryptozoic pre-history under the seas.  First planted two hundred years ago by Spanish monks (Isn't it always the monks?), these vineyards, four and a half miles from the coast, contain soils of dark humus, loam, and clay with embedded ancient marine sedimentary materials.  Albarino is called "Vino del Mar" or wine of the sea and Edna Valley's Tangent gives that moniker new meaning.

Here is the newest Vine & Cheese wine tasting schedule:

Friday Oct 19th: Henry Leung, "the man who solved the Chinese puzzle" according to the Wine Spectator magazine, with his own assortment of superior European and California reds and whites.

Thursday Oct 25th: Gail Avera, "the woman who solved the Gwinnett County puzzle" according to the Vine & Cheese blog, with French and Chilean reds and whites.

Friday Oct 26th:  Tommy Basham: "the man who started the Chattanooga crime wave" according to the Chattanooga Police Department Most Wanted List, with, oh, I don't even know.

BTW:  Our first drop shipment of specially priced St. Supery wines arrives on Friday.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Reggianito/Amauta I

I have been selling Argentine Reggianito for most of the last thirty years.  When I first started in the cheese business I was frankly stunned by the quality of the cheese compared to similarly priced domestic Parmesans, so I consistently sold Reggianito as opposed to the domestics.  My current vendor for domestic Parmesan maintains what I already know, that there are better and lesser domestics, but to my tastes, Reggianito rules.

Reggianito of course is the Spanish diminutive of Reggiano, the great Italian Parmesan and arguably the finest cheese of all.  Italian immigrants to Argentina recognized the potential for cheesemaking with the vast pasture lands of Argentina and of course they recognized the need for transplanting their industry in the new world for both personal and cultural reasons.  The "ito" in Reggianito, by the way,  refers to the 15lb size of the wheel in Argentina as opposed to the 80lb Italian Reggiano drum.  Early ox carts in Argentina just couldn't handle the eighty pounders.

In the early twentieth century, ethnic Italian Argentines recognized the marketing potential for Reggianito on the world stage.  It was marketed to America as Parmesan and while it lacks the depth and complexity of its namesake, it has much in common with it.  Reggianito is a natural rind cow's milk cheese aged 5-6 months with an intended purpose for grating and cooking in the kitchen.  Reggianito has a saltier flavor than Reggiano and a grainier texture which, ironically, is caused by amino acid crystals and not salt.

In my research on the subject only one other article writer maintained Reggianito's place on the dinner table as a red wine accompaniment, something I have always felt, which leads me to our other Argentine subject, Amauta I.  Amauta I is a red blend from the far northwest corner of Argentina made up of 60% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Syrah.  The producers are Bodegas El Porvenir de los Andes who also market an excellent line of reds called Laborum which sells in the $35 range.  When we tasted the $25 Amauta with the Laborum line I thought they were comparable.

Amauta I comes from the Cafayate region of the Calchaqui Valley in the province of Salta.  Salta holds the possible distinction of being the wine growing region at the highest altitude (3,000m) and the lowest latitude (24 degrees) anywhere.  Of course it has a dry, temperate climate with requisite diurnal temperature shifts and alluvial soils comparable to Mendoza.  The capitol city of Salta also boasts some of the oldest architecture in Argentina along with grand natural vistas to go along with their incredible climate.

The Amauta I is now in stock as is the Reggianito ($14.99/lb).  Buy them both (naturally), mention this article, and we'll find a way to work in a 10% discount.

On Friday October 19th from 5 to 7pm Henry Leung of Hemispheres Global Wines returns here to share tastes from his portfolio of superior reds and whites.  At this writing the lineup is not set at all, but with Henry, it doesn't have to be.  Henry is just that good!  Please join us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wine with Pizza

I make pizza.  It's good pizza, not great.  My family says I'm a work in progress.  I guess that means I'm getting better at it as I go along.  My crust is either a simple homemade recipe or Publix Bakery pizza dough.  I grease the pan with olive oil, spread the dough, and then spread fresh spinach on top of the dough.  In season I will slice fresh garden tomatos next, to weigh down the springy spinach.  The following ingredients then follow: mushrooms, onions, bell pepper, artichokes, olives, garbanzo beans, and jalapeno peppers.  Please realize I don't always have or use all of these same ingredients so it varies each time. 

Since this is the store blog, you should know that Vine & Cheese has absolutely wonderful pepperoni and Greek mixed olives that work great for your own homemade pizza.  We also offer fresh Mozzarella balls, and Pecarino and Parmesan for your own pleasurable grating at home.  That last part was an attempt at humor since that process is a real knuckle-buster. 

I'm from Chicago so the sauce goes on top and I am not particularly brand loyal in this area.  Anything that says "traditional" is okay with me and please go easy on the application of the sauce because it can get soupy if you go too heavy.  Bake for 20-25 minutes and "Voila!", it's Pizzarific!  Eh, sometimes.

Now if there is one wine pairing that I have historically been downright adamant about, it is that Italian red wine must be on the table for Italian cuisine.  Always in the past, forevermore in the future...unless I have an open bottle of anything that needs to be drunk up in the fridge.  It only makes sense, right?  And if it's summer and you have an unopened bottle of Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc in there then that's your pizza wine, right?  Convention be damned!

I think though, that my dogmatic Italian red-only rule may be entering the "endangered list" zone.  Last Friday we tasted Blackburn California Zinfandel here at the store and I remember thinking that it may work with my pizza.  This week I tasted Michel Torino Coleccion Pinot Noir from Argentina and I thought that may work with my pizza.  Freakin' Pinot Noir!  What's going on here!  I'm sixty years old and if I am to believe what I read in the media, I should be getting more set in my ways.

In fairness, Zinfandel was originally an Italian grape and it has an inherently fruity flavor so that one sort of makes sense and the Argentine Pinot is a round, earthy style that I naturally gravitate toward and not the prototypical light and lean French style.  Moreover, my pizza is so busy with spicy flavors that these two non-Italian examples actually do make sense contextually...but something here just ain't right.

Society must have rules or we will inevitably lapse into chaos, right?  The first rule that could lead down that slippery slope may be the "Italian red wine with pizza" rule.  What if this is the first chink in the armor of civilization?  What if by lapsing on the Italian Red Wine Rule, we metaphorically fall asleep and something like the pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" take over.  What if we turn into zombies!  (I guess we don't have to worry about craving pizza then.)  I've gotta take a stand here and now.  No more deviating from the norm.  We're back to Italian-only and all you who seek to destroy the gastronomic order...begone!  This ain't no free-for-all!  We have rules.  Now excuse me while I take a chill pill.

This Friday from 5 to 7pm Christy Dart of Gusto Brands joins us here to taste out the French Rhone-style Rocca Maura white and rose, Cuevas del Sur Chilean Carmenere and Sauvignon Blanc, Tossals Spanish Red Blend and El Xamfra Cava, and a certain Lambrusco Rose.  This sounds like a fun tasting so please tell your friends and join us for this one.  By the way, I understand all of these fine wines will go with pizza just fine.  There, I said it.  I'll be alright now.  Whew!


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Maggio & Blackburn

Thursday we tasted five from Maggio of Lodi.  On Friday we tasted the Zinfandel from Blackburn of Paso Robles.  All were priced under $15/btl and all impressed me because of what I took to be terroir and "place" in their makeup.  Thirty years ago when I really dove into this stuff, I remember tasting the differences that wines from Paso Robles and other venues had from Napa and Sonoma.  They were less polished, perhaps a little rough, and because of such, they had a certain charm in their humble distinction.  At least that's the way I remember them.

On Thursday the Maggio Petite Sirah was like that.  Thirty years ago I don't remember Lodi wines as being anything special.  Lodi was actually jug wine country back then as I remember it.  On Thursday the Petite was the bottle most tasters affirmed vocally.  I liked the whites; Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio: not because they were "knock your socks off" good, they were just different.  Maggio is obviously an Italian name and I thought these wines may have been an ethnic American attempt at Italian production.  At least they weren't cookie-cutter copies of every other California white type out there.

The Blackburn Zinfandel was nothing if not solid as a straight ahead masculine red wine.  It was muscular with no nonsense sensibilities and most definitely not that flabby, off-dry, muddy style so many have adopted.  I just knew this wine had to be from the dry, eastern inland half of Paso where Zin production seems to be a more serious venture.  Blackburn Zin, by the way, was the overall best seller over the weekend out of about fifteen tasted.

If you have been following this blog, you have probably noticed the continuing thread about mega-wine company domination (consolidation) in the industry, bulk wine sales, contract wine making, and industry advocacy through the lobbying group, The Wine Institute.  It should be no surprise then that both the Oak Ridge Winery (Maggio) and Blackburn both offer "custom crush" services, ie., they are contractors.  Moreover, the whites I liked from Maggio weren't Lodi sourced at all and the Blackburn Zin was not Paso Robles designated as I had thought.  "Estate" labeling seems to be no longer relevant in modern America.

On their website Oak Ridge offers these benefits for custom crush clients:
     1. Fruit sourcing from a range of appellations.
     2. Custom winemaking designed to meet individual styles, volume, and cost requirements.
     3. Custom bottling.
     4. Bonded tax-paid warehousing.
     5. Barrel storage and management.

Blackburn actually doesn't advertise their custom crush services at their website but I suspect their services would be similar.

The remarkable thing for me is that these companies make really good wines from sourced fruit and as we said about the O'Neill Beverage Company, perhaps a historical understanding of where to go for what fruit really makes a difference. Maggio is a longstanding winery with roots going back to 1934.  Like their lack of information about their custom crush, Blackburn divulges nothing about their history but having tasted several of their wines, they sure seem to have it right.

So I find myself back at square one and confounded by my plight.  The wines I liked over the weekend remain a mystery to me, but a mystery with a happy ending.  Maybe the proof really is in the pudding.

Join us this coming Friday the 12th (5-7pm) as we continue our exploration into the contemporary California wine culture with a new lineup of exemplary samples of the genre.  Christy Dart of Gusto Brands hosts that event.  On Friday October 19th Henry Leung returns with another grab bag of his incredible wines from Hemispheres Global wines.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Consolidation in Contemporary America

This is where we left off last time, right?  The large dairy companies buy up the small cheese factories for the purpose of closing them to eliminate their competition in the marketplace.  Wisconsin Brick cheese then exists as whatever the large dairy company wants it to be.  The same paradigm exists for wine companies with the purchaser controlling the new future of the purchased, which often means just the brand name since the wine will henceforth be sourced elsewhere.

I used to work for a volume package store in Atlanta that had a bulletin board in the office that had a local map pinned to it.  There were thumb tacks placed on the map wherever small mom and pop package stores were in the area.  The stated goal of the ownership was to put those small players out of business so we would be the only show in town.  Oh, okay.

I also have a background in grocery store management and got some insights into how all of that works.  One day I was talking with the vendor who had the premier brand of bottled water in that aisle.  I asked him what his company had to pay the chain for that shelf space.  It was a thousand dollars per month for a one bottle facing and that was month to month with no guarantees for the next month.  Moreover that vendor had to pay for space in the store that he couldn't even use for his product.  That payment was to keep his competition from getting into the store.  At those stakes the smaller companies just could not play at that level.

Here's another grocery store story.  A small local coffee roaster wanted to get into a regional chain with a store here in town.  They were asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars for that privilege and they did, but had to wait until the brand to be replaced had sold out.  After a couple of months, they asked when they could stock their shelves.  They were then told that they would have to buy the existing inventory of the other brand in the chain in order to sell theirs in that store.  They had to walk away from the deal at that point, sans their down payment.

Here's another one.  Do you remember the line of diet foods that had actually made it into all of the grocery stores in the Atlanta market as a regional brand?  I don't either.  It was twenty-five years ago...but they had actually made it to that level and they were a legitimate brand growing in sales until a very large player bought their shelf space and put them out of business.

I swear all of the above is true to the best of my knowledge and as hard as it it to swallow, it is fair by the rules of commerce in our society.  Competition is tough, by definition.  To win requires nerves of steel, will, acumen at your sport, and especially, deep pockets.  If you can't meet the requirements, get out.

Since most of my experience in retail is wine experience, those stories exist there too but I have to be careful because I am still in the business and have ongoing dealings with major players.  The winners in wine company consolidation though seem to include both the buyers and the sellers.  The buyers enrich their portfolio with additional brands and the sellers get a nice payday for selling and then no longer have to struggle in this very tough business.  The losers appear to be the small wineries that are left to struggle with fewer options for distribution because the large companies so dominate the market.  The small players are marginalized by effectively being locked out of large retail chains.  Then they come to guys like me.  Selah!

Please join us Thursday evening (5-7pm) when Gail Avera of Lafayette Selections offers us the wines of Maggio of Lodi, California.  Friday evening from 5 to 7pm we will be tasting California Cabernets and other reds at our regularly scheduled tasting here.  Join us for that one too.  Henry Leung rejoins us in two weeks on Friday the 19th.