On the Wine Trail

  • Champagne in White

    Champagne in White

    I guess I'm lucky. The context of my daily life happens to be good wine. Sometimes even...great wine. It ends up influencing nearly every aspect of my life and generally in the best of ways. I had the pleasure of sampling my first bottle of Lanson White Label at the recent Diner en Blanc DC pop-up picnic. I became completely obsessed with the idea of this mad yet elegant evening in white last year when the event made its first apperance in Washington, DC. I had learned of the Paris event via a tangential, time-wasting googling getaway during a particulary boring study session last year. I was smitten. I spent a long year on the loser's waiting list and received an email three weeks ago annoucing my invitation to show up online at 10:00am on a subsequent Thursday morning to see if I could grab one of the last remaining tables at the local Diner. Without really thinking, I hammered away at the keys with my heart racing until I had scored a spot for my table and a bottle of Lanson's White. 

    Lanson's itself is a brand that I know but the White Label was new to me. I tend to shy away from bubbles with any sweetness and this bottling's "off dry" style wouldn't be my top choice. But, none of the other wine selections seemed to fit "me" and bubbles are....well, my calling card. But then, my attendance at this event wasn't really "me" either. I tend to shy away from highly curated events. Add a crowd of 3,000+ and my usual answer would be "count me out". So the White Label, in this context, seemed the perfect choice.

    Champagne Lanson is one of the oldest houses in Champagne. While remaining family-owned until 1980, the house, like many in the region, has been bought up by a multi-brand conglomerate. Fortunately, the conglomerate is populated by well-heeled, quality-minded producers of champagne. In addition, the conglomerate is run by Bruno Paillard, himself the owner of the still-independent Champagne Bruno Paillard. Good cred.

    The champagne did not disappoint and neither did the evening under the stars. I planned a potable meal of local baby cantaloupe & chipped ricotta salata, Chicken Salad Niçoise and Poached wild shrimp with Mediterranean Couscous. The White Label featured a touch of sweetness that was neither cloying nor distracting but made the bubbles dance on my tongue. They seemed as happy and lively as the band playing on the steps of the Carnegie Library behind me throughout dinner. And why plates were pushed to the side and sparklers illuminated as a sign of the dancing heating up to the mixing thumping of the DJ, the bubbles still held their own. Providing refreshment from non-stop dancing and a tickle to keep a smile on my face.

    All in all, a good night and a good pairing.

  • A little summer reading

    A little summer reading

    It's the quitessential summer activity. Hunting for and finding the perfect summer read. The book you carry in your purse on the plane to your favorite summer beach be it So Cal, South Beach, Punta Cana or Tres Palmas. It's the book you have to come back to...that totally enraptures you. The page turner.

    When you're studying for higher certification in wine, you learn quickly (or maybe after failing a few exams) that all your time -- and that includes summer at the beach reading -- needs to be dedicated to study. But no matter how much you love wine (and I do), it gets old. You yearn for the poetic cadences of Pablo Neruda or the inspired writings of Gary Snyder. But that is not on the summer menu.

    And so, in keeping with my new vow to never purchase a new book (full price) ever again -- I can't afford my own growing library -- I visited my favorite second-hand book purveyor in Washington. I saw the above little book snuggled in the dusty corner of the bookshelf and figured it couldn't be a bad investment since my last Diploma Class - Fortified Wines -- was fast approaching. So I exchanged $10 for the book and off I went. 

    It was at least three weeks later that I brought myself to open up yet another clinical wine exposé, and on Sherry no less. A wine I have never, by choice, consumed before, during or after a meal. I was graciously offered the chance to accompany a group to Spain about six years ago and the trip began with a high speed train visit from Madrid to Jerez to explore the greatest sherry bodegas. It was all so foreign (I speak Spanish fluently so it definitely wasn't the language). To me, Sherry seemed an antiquated beverage best left for the septuagenarians who wandered into the front door of my restaurant. I had no idea of its place within a meal or an evening. But I have to say, I totally immersed myself in the wine and food and for that moment....I got it. I understood Sherry. But that was a long time ago, and old habits die hard. And Sherry was not one of my habits.

    So, I opened the book and buckled down. The book was published in 1955 and I assumed, from the get-go, that much fact-checking would therefore be required on my part. Frankly, I wasn't sure what I could possibly gain from reading this book. Chapter 1 -- Sherry...A Wine Unique. It was obvious this book was of a different time. It's character was extolled as:

    "Finally, this sturdy and determined Sherry alone among
    wines will withstand the effects of tobacco; it can be drunk
    with a cigar or cigarette or pipe scarcely removed from the mouth
    and retain all its aroma and character."

    And while I couldn't relate to this particular musing, I could appreciate the story of Sherry on this human level. There was something in the tone of the writing. Its manner. Something that made Rupert Croft-Cooke's book speak as more a story than as a straightforward placing of facts.

    "Driving into the town now is like reaching an oasis,
    for its gardens are vivid with flowers and the whole town seems shady,
    luxiriant, full of fruit and bougainvillea, a rich, happy
    busy place in which sunlight strikes through the roadside trees."

    I can see it.

    There was something in this that made me read on. And on.

    And as I turned page after page and delved into its ensuing chapters, I realized something; that buried between the pages that smell of the cold linens sheets in a mildewy basement of my childhood home, I found my summer page-turner. Lucky for me, Mr. Cooke wrote "Sherry" as one of a trilogy of books on fortified wines. I took one moment away from reading to locate both "Madeira" and "Port" from an online thrift books retailer. They're on the way to my door as we speak.

    Summer, it seems, isn't over yet. 

  • Don't Give Up the Ship

    Famous last words.

    And in the world of improving Champagne's market share, I wish these would catch on as the famous fighting first in the march towards keeping the ebullient wines of Prosecco at bay. During my visit to Champagne earlier this spring, there was an undercurrent of concern that laced every conversation I had with a grower, producer or local marketer of champagne. There were lots of reassurances given to me (that I didn't need) affirming that while champagne volume to the US fell, dollar value increased. Yeah, yeah. But neither of us missed the real point. Prosecco sales have dominated the market and there is concern among the Champenoise that they are being overlooked, passed over and passed by. Its like the smart, philosophical, more worldly woman who sees all attention going to the simple, flirty, short-term thrill-of-a-girl that's all high notes without much depth. It's difficult to bear. And despite the recent renovation and elevation of Prosecco and the DOCGenization of two of its regions, the effort has yet to demonstrate any real validity. In fact, the market itself seems unconcerned and a little bit resentful of the effort to springboard brand Prosecco into a new price category. The premium bottles are drowning in the vast sea of Prosecco that ends up mixed with premium spirits, splashed with fruit and vegetable juice and accented with cubes of ice. 

    Which is why I'm bemused by the launch of Veuve Clicquot "Rich" in time for summer 2015. Their angle is that they are trying to maintain a history of creativity and ingenuity. I guess this is a nod to the Veuve herself who is often credited with developing the riddling phase of the champagne method, right down to her homespun puptrie made from a harvested kitchen table. I get it. What I don't get is why creativity means repurposing something as awesome as champagne into a bottle of mixing bubbles. I have been the first to criticize Champagne's stubborn insistence of maintaining and cultivating an aura of nobility and high-browed snobbery in the marketing of their Product (capital for the collective). But there is so much between that and this. How about modernizing your message through social media and marketing. Look what P. Diddy did for Circo and what George Clooney is doing for tequila. I have often thought that the fashion channel is vastly underutilized. The newest Style editor for the New York Observer is well-connected, honest, interesting and most of all...fun. Who better to introduce the world of champagne to one of the top wine markets in the world? A bottle a day, a meal away. Someone needs to let people know that even within the finite and relatively small boundaries of Champagne, there is enough diversity to reach each palate, each meal and each pocket. 

    And then there is the unspoken. The one thing that no one ever seems to discuss but that is, I believe, the number one reason that sales of champagne seem doomed to never break out of the box. The castle and the guard. The castle being the wave of restaurants and their offensive 3.5 to 4 times markup and the wine directors who enforce the policy. I love bubbles but frankly, can't remember the last time I purchased a bottle in a restaurant. The wine list at a restaurant of some note inside of hotel whose name pays homage to the rotating weather throughout the year features the simple yet admirable Charles de Fere Cuvee Jean Louis from France (not Champagne) at $44.00 per bottle. Now. I used to use this non-methode French bottling for mimosas and poured it by the glass as well. This simple offering is available wholesale to me in Maryland for just $7.33 per bottle. Yeah that's not four times mark-up...its more like six. And its offensive. That little bottle sold in my restaurant for $16.00 per bottle--my lowest price threshold. And I poured it for $8 per glass so that i would pay for the bottle in the first sale, lest no one else buy a glass and I'd have to toss it. Can't serve old, flat bubbles now, can we? I sell the delicious grower produced (RM) Gaston Chiquet Brut Special Club 2005 for $92 which provides me a healthy profit for something I didn't age, didn't make and enjoy pouring into someone's glass. That particular restaurant sells it for $165. I don't get it. I agree with the philosophy that people are exposed to new brands and bond with them in a restaurant--where it is afforded gravitas by being selected by the wine director, by being carefully served in lovely glassware in conjunction with delicious food (hopefully) and great company (I assume you have nice friends). But who will ever buy something that is priced so high? Especially something that is already viewed as the "special occasion" or something suitable for aperitif? Come on folks. We need to address this crazy restaurant mark-up thing and discuss openly how it adversefly affects the hopes of growth in market share for champagne and many others. 

  • There's More to this place than Pineapple

    There's More to this place than Pineapple

    This side trip to Maui was fueled by a desire to really explore a place far from home to which I had journeyed for work. It was also driven by curiosity. Why would a winery producing fruity pineapple wine take the time and make the financial investment to use traditional method to produce their sparkling pineapple elixir? I was also wondering if what I poured at the Luau several nights earlier represented the true character of the "wine". After chatting with retailers on Hawai'i', I learned many distributors used the big island as a final resting place for old, tired vintages. Or perhaps bottles that had been poorly handled. I, myself, had found three bottles that I had to retire and use for cooking rather than toasting during my tenure as the Wahine of Wine. 

    Thus the big, long drive all around Maui, over the slow, bumpy road that car rental houses refused to insure (not entirely true but definitely the urban myth they choose to perpetuate), and through a side of the volcano that revealed long, wide expanses of waving arid land grasses and crooked trees that were reminiscent of Japanaese woodblock prints. It was, simply, breathtaking. I tend to prefer marginal lands--the land of wine. The rough and tumble beauty and comes in areas with not quite enough rain, with soil that lacks in depth and fertility and maybe has more than its fair share of boulders, rocks and craggy ranges. I was at home here, and I didn't want to leave. But a pedal to the metal was needed in order to make it to the town of Ulupalakua, the home of Tedeschi Vineyards/Maui Wine Company. We pulled up to a quaint white, clapboard house with large deep wood-colored totem-like poles scattered throughout the front yard. Large trees and green grasses also signaled that we had rounded the coast to an area sees a bit more rain. Not quite the tropical rainforest of the east coast portion of the adventure this morning, but certainly less arid that the south coast we just left behind. Ulupalakula lies in a cut through north between the western (Mauna Kahalawai) and eastern (Haleakala) volcanoes which together make up the island of Maui. As I walked up, I saw a sign advertising a free tasting of up to three wines. I wasn't really sure I wanted to taste three version of pineapple but I definitely wanted to taste the current release of this methode champenoise pineapple sparkling (I kinda still can't believe this is a real thing). What I found on the "Wine Menu" before me was a bit of a shock. There were two estate wines that I could taste. Wait. Estate? Are you using that term in the same way? Indeed they were. So it seems that actual and real grapes are grown on the island of Maui -- in Kihei just down the road, in fact -- and are vinified for bottling right here. Chenin blanc, viognier and syrah to be precise. I was confused. I know we were at about 2,000 feet but I didn't think it ever became cold enough at that altitude for the grapes to become dormant. So apparently they force the vines into dormancy. Hmm....something new to research. The white was a blend of chenin and viognier and surprisingly, not of the high alcohol, flabby variety found in some west coast locations. Honestly, it wasn't bad. The floral aromas definitely dominated the aroma profile for me--smelled like the lei that decorated my neck my first night on the island. But the distinctly ashy quality in the mid-palate kind of obscured the fruit for me. Very sense of place though and I wouldn't turn it down. The syrah, on the other hand, was downright impressive. Filled with rich ripe berries, a hint of camphor and fresh ground white pepper this wine was fruity and savory all at the same time, balanced with minerality from the basalt dominated soils (hello Mt. Etna!). The woman in charge of the bottles in the tasting room was extremely generous when she sense my enthusiasm and poured me one extra wine in my flight--the Lokelani Hawaiian Sparkling Rosé. This wine was a blend but used some grape juice from off the island so couldn't be estate. It was delicate with a lovely floral aroma and fruity palate with citrus and black cherry, hints of almonds and really nice perlage and mouthfeel. Even at $28 per bottle, I'd definitely drink that one again. And again. My little Hula o'Maui Pineapple Sparkling? Well, in fact, I had indeed sampled and served an older vintage. The label was completely different on the bottle before me. But despite a change of winemaker since my bottle was produced and extended time on the lees (eight months), it didn't make too much difference. It was still as I described it before. A great pour for a Luau or Hawaiian-themed evening--not sweet and such a curiosity with its traditional method. But for $24.00 bottle, I think I'd opt for a bottle of Prosecco DOCG instead. Sorry little Hula girl...but thanks just the same! You inspired me to get here and explore the island in 360. And who knew.....wine-worthy grapes growing in Maui?! I wonder how much land here costs?

  • Black Sand vs White Sand

    Black Sand vs White Sand

    The first full day in Kona started with a yoga stretch in the morning and a cup of Kona coffee that I definitely brewed to about three times the stretch of a normal human. Was this an honest mistake or my subconscious plan to ensure that I was actually awake this morning? The group climbed aboard the van and made our way just down the coast to the Black Sand beach of Kahalu'u where the group was dropped off for their swim up the coast to Magics where they would be greeted by a contrasting white sand beach. My mind, of course, was on dinner and my next presentation. I had obsessed a little over this one. My wines choices were limited by the selection of one of two local wine markets recommended by Clare Bobo of Island Thyme. I cheated and had Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc and PINK rose shipped directly from the winery several weeks before my arrival. I knew whatever type of culinary curves I might be thrown due to necessary menu changes, these two wines would never let me down. I contemplated my presentation about the wines of Orvieto Classico while I munched on am amazing lunch of Gado Gado Salad with spiced tofu, blackened chicken, curried shrimp topped with a spicy peanut dressing. It was hard to concentrate--lunch was so tasty. We set off in the afternoon for bay in Kailua-Kona where an introductory Iron Man course swim and filming was going to take place, followed by a fun trip on an outrigger canoe. As I watched the swimmers take off for their shortened Iron Man course (the full course is scheduled for tomorrow), I couldn't help but think about the dedication required by a healthy athlete. It's a whole body state really, with attention to food, form and function. It struck me, in that moment, that the same can be said of the very best wine growers who produce the purest expressions of their grape and place. It's not an easy commitment but well worth the results. Thus the context of my evening discussion was born. And the lava...let's never forget the lava.

    Dinner started with Hawaiian pupus of Mushroom Crostini with the most amazing mushrooms I have had a long while and classic tomato bruschetta with those heavenly sweet tomatoes again. One of the SwimVacation bosses took to the bar and mixed up some delicately sweet Blue Hawaiian cocktails and things slowed down a bit. It was a nice change of pace. When the time was right and dinner was prepared, we all sat down with our amazing local lifeguard and two additional SwimVacation guides on island to scout for a new project, joining us for dinner. The salad course featured pomemgranate and molasses glazed cold beets stacked with one of the 200 types of avocadoes which grow on this island alone with lomi tomatoes and a truffle vinaigrette. In my imagination, the Frogs Leap Rose was going to be perfect and it did not disappoint. The beautiful, generous but dark fruit of valdiguie and zinfandel matched beautifully with the flavors and created a whole new experience in the mouth. I was pleased. Plates were cleared and here was the big one...the course I had obsessed over. Back home I found a bottle of the Orvieto sold by Kona Wine Market and enjoyed it at home with my own (though simpler) version of this meal. The Tenuta di Salviano 2012 Orvieto Classico Superiore worked well. But when I popped those green olives in my mouth...the whole thing changed into something else. Something better. So I was more than a little disappointed when the shop owner emailed me that he had sold out of the vintage. Bummer. I made another selection but Clare, sensing my disappointment over the loss of this wine, went out of her way to procure two bottles elsewhere. But the vintage was 2013. No matter...I was sold and appreciated her support. Truth be told, the 2013 didn't hold up quite as well. The body was not as weighty and that oily texture that made it work so well with the green olives was a bit lacking. But its only because I had that zen fusion inner mouth experience. It was solid but was outshined by the Frogs Leap Pink. 

    So I went to the back pocket. I hadn't planned on serving a wine with dessert but we needed a high note upon which to end. Dessert was green tea ice cream topped with Waimea Strawberries. I hesitated and then plunged forward with my gut: cru beaujolais. I was not disappointed. The fresh strawberry nose and dark, concentrated nose with silky tannins and not a touch of stemminess went perfectly with the dessert. Smiles everywhere. Warmth in the cheeks from a third wine choice. My job here is done. Goodnight.