On the Wine Trail

Wine blog
  • 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. 

  • Does age matter?

    Does age matter?

    Many people spend a great deal of time musing and considering the importance and relevance of age. They pick prospective dates or, worse, dismiss ideal partners because they are "too old" or "too young". I find it intriguing how frequentlyy people rely on steadfast social rules to inform the choices they make for happiness. What are the other people doing? It's interesting how social cues and benchmark accomplishments (marriage, introducing a child into a relationship, buying a house) relative to a person's own timeline can instantly increase or decrease happiness. I've witnessed too many people, too frequently denying themselves their own true happiness because it just didn't conform. I bear witness to them instead choosing mediocrity and its accompanying security, beating back the accompanying slow syrupy sadness with mind numbing distractions and obsessions. Or meds. 

    So. What of age? There are no steadfast rules. No blanket statement that works for every wine and every wine drinker. There are those wines which will never benefit from age; those that will indeed grow tired and dull from the passage of time. There are those, however, that have an attraction & complexity that comes with age that, for the right drinker, is actually what makes wine delicious and interesting. There are those people who are themselves too jubiliant and effervescent to have the patience to await a beautifully aged bottle of wine that requires hours of planning and decanting prior to being poured into a glass at dinner. The same people who would be well passed full or bored tableside to slowly sip this wine as it unwinds its mysteries, like a genie let out of a bottle. It is rather a pensive undertaking. Some people like quick chatter while others like long conversations, deeply contemplated with few words exchanged unless woven into complex thoughts. Match the wrong person with the wrong wine and it spells disaster. I enjoyed a lovely 2008 Brunello di Montalcino today, produced by Podere Brizio. The proprietor, Roberto Bellini, is the same man who sold the larger part of this parcel, Pieve di Santa Restituta, to Angelo Gaja in 1996. Signore Bellini felt this particular parcel was of a quality that far exceeded the holdings that now make up Gaja's Montalcino property. And a lovely Brunello it was...aromas of tar and dark sour cherry, tobacco, baking spice with a hint of tar as it's laid down on a hot, sunny day with grippy yet integrated tannins. It was delicious as I drank it immediately poured from the bottle. But. All I thought of was the 1990 Livio Sassetti Brunello di Montalcino pictured above and enjoyed with a kind friend earlier this month. Long before we sat down to dinner he carefully decanted the wine swirled it ever so gently in the decanter. It sat patiently while we had a first course with a coquetish white--cute, but not a lot of thinking needed to enjoy it. So by the time we approached the Brunello, it had been breathing fresh air for over seven hours. Even still, our dinner--which lasted another three hours--went by too quickly for this wine. It revealed more elements of its personality; the confidence and sophistication that come only with age for quality Brunello--deep, dark black cherry melting into only slightly sweet chocolate with dried herbs and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. And that's only what I remember--most of what it was carried me away.  Did it have the zippy freshness of the 2008? No. Is it for everyone? Definitely not. While both wines are impeccably made and are memorable, each has the right match. And what of that coquetish white? It was fun and refreshing and perfect for some foods and some flavors. But not the first choice of everyone.