Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Fifteen Dollars

Last September Lettie Teague wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal lauding what fifteen dollars can get you in the way of a nice bottle of wine.  It was the kind of article that makes you scratch your head, not because you're confused by the assertion but rather because it's so obvious, you wonder why you hadn't thought of it yourself.

In the article she mentions the cost of movie tickets (or for that matter any kind of entertainment ticket) and food, especially food that is associated with the entertainment venue.  She might as well have just said food in general since a nice fifteen dollar bottle of wine really is a bargain compared to current grocery store food prices.

I remember reading an article quite a while ago that maintained that getting the ten percent discount on a case purchase was really much more substantial than we realized.  It's like getting a bottle and a half free on a case, or something like that, and compared to other volume discounts, that's a lot!  Today that assertion pales by comparison to the basic pricing of wine circa 2018.  Ever since the recession of 2008, wine pricing in general has been a bonafide bargain compared to practically anything else.  It has to do with global overproduction and competition and that is probably the real backstory to the fifteen dollar wine assertion.

I also remember from ten or so years ago when oil prices skyrocketed and overnight food prices seemed to double.  It was supposed to be cause and effect.  Once the oil prices stabilized the food prices would drop down again.  Yeah, right.

So if we stay with a discussion of food and wine, let's see what fifteen dollars will get us in a nice wine that might go well with pizza, which I'm quite sure would cost upwards of fifteen dollars.  In the store right now we have Riojas, Cotes du Rhones, Malbecs, a Pinotage, and a particularly nice Washington State red blend, all for fifteen dollars or less.  From Italy, which seems appropriate considering our pizza  purposes, we have Montepulcianos, Chiantis, and a particularly special little red from Manduria which is exceedingly close geographically to Campania where pizza originates.  The Primitivo (Zinfandel) we're talking about is a Wine Spectator Top 100 selection and retails here for a mere fifteen smackeroos!

Now that's a deal!  The perfect wine for the purpose!  And it's just fifteen dollars!

Last Saturday Importer Taylor Carmichael presented his Fantini Italians which were really quite good at a mere ten dollars each.  Then last Thursday Nick Simonetti did ten dollar Bulgarians.  Please join us this Thursday at 5pm when Bob Reynolds offers up a fine Pinot Gris from Oregon and three reds, one each from Spain, Chile, and California and if you think the Chilean will be a cheapie...guess again!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

2008 Nicolis Amarone della Valpolicella

Amarone is one tough nut to crack.  It's one of the great wines of Italy (and the world) but seems a bit too foreign for some of our tastes.  Corvina is the primary grape of Amarone and it contributes sour cherry flavor and acidity to the blend.  The Corvinone and Rondinella grapes both contribute herbal flavors and color while a number of minor grapes may yet be added to round out the blend.  All of the constituent grapes are native to the region which explains in part why Amarone has a marketing problem in this country.  No one has ever heard of these things.

A big, full-bodied, high alcohol, tannic red wine, Amarone is a far cry from the more common lighter, simpler Valpolicella version.  By drying the grapes in the appassimento method, the flavors, colors, and tannins all become concentrated in this rich world class red wine.  A sweeter Recioto version is also made as is the Ripasso Valpolicella which may be considered a half-way measure between regular Valpolicella and Amarone.

So how do we get the word out about this stuff?

Sometimes the trees get in the way of seeing the forest.  In a WSJ article from January 27-28 of last year Lettie Teague laments the difficulty of pairing Amarone with our typical American cuisine.  Me?  I thinks she doth anguish unnecessarily.   That and we may be missing something fundamental here.

In her position with the WSJ in New York, Teague is probably accustomed to top flight estate Amarones that are in fact more suited to the cuisine of northeastern Italy.  Now however half of all Amarone is made in co-ops and those versions are lighter with forward red fruit accents and softer tannins and that makes all of the difference.  They're also lower in price and that too makes a heckuva lot of difference for vox populi.

So, in short, traditional Amarone needs traditional Italian foods but also compliments most aged cheeses magnificently and according to Sandro Boscaini, president of Masi Agricola, if you couple that cheese with a teaspoon of acacia honey and chase it with your Amarone, well...Voila!  Instant self-actualization!  As for the co-op Amarones, try them with any pork dish and other everyday red meat and poultry dishes.  Amarone is now accessible!

As for our Nicolis of the post title, that one is great but it is somewhat old world earthy so break out the cheese and honey!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Value Wines

This is so obvious it hurts.

I was scrolling around one of those news websites that's sort of like the USA Today of the internet in that it was not so much about news as it was about entertainment.  Maybe I was looking for the Think and Do page.  Anyway, I found a wine column that asks the question, "What's the best way to make sure you're not overpaying for wine?"

Simple enough, I thought.  Then reading on, the writer said to look for wines from the parts of the world that don't have esteemed (high priced) models, and I thought of Chile and Spain.  And yes, I know there are expensive Spanish and Chilean wines...just not as a rule.  If ninety-eight percent of what we get here is under twenty dollars, then the chances of overpaying is greatly reduced, especially if you recognize the value in the twelve dollar wines from those places.

So just to make sure the point is made: If you buy a fifty dollar Bordeaux you should get a righteously fine red wine.  But it might not be fifty dollars worth of fineness.  But if you bought the twenty dollar Spanish red you are probably going to be more than pleased with the quality those guys put in their moderately priced bottle.

I am reminded here of my old friend who went to the fine wine shop in Buckhead and bought three older vintage red Burgundies at $250 each.  They all turned out to be tainted.  When he went back to the store with the bottles (with tainted wine still inside) he was informed that that store's policy was not to replace them or refund the payment.  All sales final, I guess.

Regarding older vintages of wines from great appellations, that store's policy is commonplace and understandable.  Retailers want to stay in business and some customers either don't get it or purposely take advantage in these situations.  All the more reason to purchase with care.

In the store right now we have two twenty-five dollar Chilean Cabernets and several Spanish and Chileans reds in the ten to twelve dollar range.  If you're interested, cite this article for a discount on them the next time you're in the store.


On Thursday March 29th, Frogtown winery will be here for a tasting of their fine product.  Then two days later on Saturday the 31st, Taylor Carmichael of Empson Imports will be here for a tasting from his Italian portfolio.  The Thursday tastings are from 5-7pm; the Saturday event starts at 1pm.  Please join us!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Scarbolo Sauvignon Blanc

"Tropical fruit and peaches along with spicy nuances wrapped in a supple, structured-yet-creamy body."  Or something like that.  The point is Scarbolo Sauvignon Blanc is just plain awesome.  That was my immediate reaction two weeks ago after tasting it.  I don't think I even completely exhaled after tasting it before making my breathless pronouncement.  It was honestly that good.

Hailing from Friuli in the most northeast corner of Italy where Sauvignon Blanc has been made for centuries, Scarbolo continues in the longstanding viticultural traditions there.  The grapes are hand harvested from the cool high elevation Guyot-trained Sauvignon Blanc vineyards which actually reside above the clouds.  At that height grapes receive full sun without overheating yielding full phenolic complexity and aromatic depth before the grapes' sugars peak.  Guyot (cane) pruning, where only the trunk of the vine is left brown, protects the vine from frost and limits the budding on the shoots that emerge further qualifying the fruit to follow.

Fifty percent of the Scarbolo Sauvignon Blanc harvest is immediately fermented in whole clusters while the remainder is de-stemmed but left on the skins for a twenty-four hour cold soak before pressing.  The fermentation is done in stainless steel at controlled temperatures followed by aging on the lees for six months with frequent batonnages (stirring).

...and that's how you make exemplary Sauvignon Blanc! 

The only problem is...we don't have any at this time!  However it is on order and may be here when you come by next.  In the meantime we have new Sauvignon Blancs from Patricia Green of Oregon, Bernardus of Monterey, and Henri Bourgeois of the Loire Valley of France.  Folks, these brands take a back seat to no one which means you're simply going to have to stop in for them now!


This Thursday at 5pm former sommelier, Erik Schmitt, offers us a tasting here of Roussanne white wine from Yangarra Estate, McLaren Vale, Australia and three reds: Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone, Coppo "L'Avvocata" Barbera d'Asti, and Scattered Peaks Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  Please join us for the tasting. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Sauvignon Blanc

Unless you're buying New Zealand wine the problem with Sauvignon Blanc in general is you don't know what you're getting.  Eh, maybe not so much with French wine.  But certainly with California wine and others around the globe, it's like the wine making cultures have gotten schizophrenic when it comes to making what should be a fairly simple wine style.

When you buy New Zealand wine you know you're getting a boatload of citrus flavors in a soft round often off-dry package.  It's cocktail wine.  Even considering any Bordeaux blending, with French wine you're getting minerality, flowers and fruit, acidity and lightness of body.  Dinner wine.  The superior Chilean and South African styles also seem to have settled loosely on what their products should be.  So maybe it is just California that doesn't seem to have it's act together.  Which isn't to say there isn't great Sauvignon Blanc there.  It's just a matter of knowing if what's in the bottle will marry well with your occasion.

Once again our inspiration for this post comes from Lettie Teague of the WSJ and she wrote twice last year about this subject.  In one article she posited two modal centers in Sauvignon Blanc styles; one being the New Zealand style mentioned above, the other being that of French Sancerre, arguably the finest Sauvignon Blanc in the world.  She also described modal examples of inexpensive ($10-$15) Sauvignon Blanc as "zesty and bright" while an obscenely priced example may be considered "layered and age-worthy".  Eh, I don't know about that.

Sauvignon Blanc is probably my favorite white type and with my forty year industry window to take it all in, I must conclude that superior Sauvignon Blanc should reside in the $15-$25 range and should be characterized by all of those adjectives listed above except the "layered and age-worthy " business.  Sauvignon Blanc should be light.  The $10-$15 bottles should indeed be zesty and bright and all examples at any price should be both food-friendly and July-in-Georgia porch-sitting wine!  I don't ask for much, do I?

This Thursday the 8th at 5pm Ted Fields offers us a tasting of four from his fine European portfolio including Chateau Peneture White Bordeaux, Sursum Primitivo/Montepulciano and Ujliese Negromara/Sangiovese Italian Red Blends, and Fina Spanish Red Priorat.  Please join us for that one. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Does Size Matter?

Once again taking our cue from Lettie Teague in a Wall Street Journal article from a year ago, we ponder the question, "What the heck difference does it really make whether a wine company is a big corporation or a mom and pop?"  Does size really matter?  Do the soulless conglomerates that effectively run the commercial wine industry deserve credit for making a better product than the guy on the tractor farming his forty acres?  Or is the soulful little guy better by definition?

The question is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.  The conglomerates own the chain store wine departments while that guy on the tractor is very possibly stretched to the limit financially mired in a career that wasn't supposed to be this hard.  Bucolic setting.  Simple life.  Do the rudimentary chores in the vineyard and when the time is right make the wine and God willing...it is good! Voila!

If only it was that easy.

The corporate guys have it all over our tractor guy in every way.  They have teams of employees managing the vineyards and making the wines and those vineyards aren't vineyards in any way like the tractor guy has and the wineries bear no resemblance to the farm wineries.  We're talking industrial farming over great expanses and wineries that look more like oil refineries, all of which provide the wherewithal to make things happen even in bad years.  It just doesn't seem fair.

So let's get to the point.  What about the product?  Which is better, small production or large?

My thirty-eight years or so in the business inform me that what the big guys have done is nothing short of amazing.  Back in the sixties and seventies jug wine quality (and that's what it was back then) was hardly palatable compared to boutique quality and that's putting it nicely.  So the quality leap accomplished by the large scale producers that we see today clearly outdistances the boutiques who frankly didn't have to leap at all since they were already there.  With advanced technology and the brain power to operate it, the big guys have clearly won the race.  That and the dollars to buy the boutiques they wanted to fill their portfolios kind of guarantees their success.  So the bad rap the corporate guys get needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

What the big guys cannot claim is authenticity or distinction of place of origin which is antithetical to the basic mass marketing model of wine production.  In order to please most tasters one must not offend anyone so the product has to fit the profile the popular palate appreciates.  That the giants do quite well.  So the fifty and hundred dollar Cabernets live up to industry-set standards and Joe Six Pack gets a pretty darn good everyday bottle of wine at the end of the day.  And this is good.


Please join us this Thursday at 5pm when David Rimmers pours tastes of two fine whites, Roussanne and Viognier, and two great reds, Cotes du Rhone (Syrah!) and Savennieres les Beaune (Pinot Noir).  These wines are new offerings to this marketplace and should display authenticity.

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!