On the Wine Trail

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  • A Day in the Desert

    A Day in the Desert

    There is something to be said for getting away. Even when you have to work a bit in order to do it. For me, the desert is a transcontinental flight and a two-hour drive away. Which essentially adds up toe full day of travel. When I arrived, 1999 Laurent-Perrrier bottle in tow, the "dry" heat of the sun left me drained and parched. And when I'm tired, I have no time for wanna-be wine. There is so much in the world that lacks authenticity. With people, they pretend to be whomever they need to be to get by--steal someone's style; dress like your girlfriend wants you to; withhold your true comments and thoughts about backward thinking to remain in someone's good graces....in short, they lead with their bullshit. With wine, its the producers who create a storybook setting backed up by a label but no sound terroir or winegrowing. I'm not much for mixology in my wine. But when I'm tired, my open-mindedness shuts firmly closed. Just give me something delicious. Something with some soul.

    So I popped the cork on my last bottle of 1999 Laurent-Perrier Brut and waited to be refreshed. I wasn't sure how "fresh" this wine would taste and became worried that my selection was a mistake. Back home on the east coast, where Fall and its accompanying "snap" had arrived, the flavors of a more mature champagne would pair with the environs a bit better. But here, where the dust of the desert mixed happily with the gusty winds off the mighty San Jacinto Peak--I was thinking refreshing might have been more in order. Perhaps the Ultra-Brut would have been a better choice. The lack of dosage in that wine would have preserved a bit more of the freshness by denying the wine to energy to continue to evolve after being disgorged. 

    But oh well. There I was and there it was. The beautiful mousse filled the glass as I poured and settled in a delicate, pin-straight bead of fine bubbles. Just what the doctor ordered. I was happy to find that the wine within was still fresh and light but balanced with a concentration of baked apples and pears with notes of citrus and jasmine, all wrapped in the buttery baked notes of well-made brioche. I ripped apart the croissant and voila--I was sustained. I swear I could survive on bread and bubbles. 

    The amazing thing about authentic champagne, particularly one from big house, is the depth, balance and elegance. For me, it isn't always the complexity that makes the glass. Sometimes less complex but more depth is a happy trade-off. I would say that I didn't find this to be the most complex bottle but it was heart-warmingly deep. And real. With great substance that managed to be refreshing in a thoughtful sort of way. You could taste how unafraid and unashamed she was to be just as is. And who wants a phony when you're exhausted? Or someone you have to cater to or create the perfect meal around to be appreciated. When something is authentic, it can just be.

  • Interplanetary success

    Interplanetary success

    I have come to say fairly frequently -- the more I know, the less I know. Today proved to be no different. I was one of the lucky ones who responded quickly enough to secure a seat at the complimentary Wines of Mercurey tasting sponsored by the Bourgogne Wine Board. A world-wide tasting held live and interactive with participants tweeting questions to the host was a first for me. It was fun. Truth be told, I mostly signed up for the tasting because it was Burgundy and it was free. As a wine student, free becomes a pretty important word. Even though I get to taste wines for the list at work, there are many wines that are impractical for me to add -- too expensive, too obscure....too French. So I looked upo this as a free morning of pinot noir at the hands of my favored French. A good way to solidify my blind tasting on the Gaul expression. Little did I know that I would encounter a region of intense soil complexity and hidden value. We tasted six wines in total after the lecture. Did I love them all? No. Would I call all of them go-to alternatives to the more expensive Burgundy to the north? No. But there were a couple that were genuinely delightful and engaging. 

    The first of these that caught my attention was the sole white of the afternoon - Maison Louis Max Les Rochelles 2013. It reminded me a great deal of some of favored Meursault experiences. Nice mineral tension and notes of white flowers and citrus with a lovely texture and hints of hazelnut. It was definitely a great way to start. Though whites are in the production minority of this region, I'd scout out a few more to try based upon this experience.

    I was also really pleased overall with the texture of all the five remaining reds in the flight. That velvety texture that I love so much from French red Burgundy was there. One of the wines kinda ruined the experience for me with their heavy-handed use of oak but that's my personal opinion. The color was off and the aromas was obscured. I drink pinot noir for the full experience and its color and nose are definitely part of it. The Domaine Nathalie & Jean-Claude Theulot was lovely and engaging with notes of cherry, strawberry & Asian spice that kept me going back for more. A little cold maceration brought out the fruit and the color on this one was a bit darker. Very nice. But my favorite overall is the wine pictured above. The 1er Cru Sazenay from Domaine de Suremain is a southeast facing vineyard and so receives good sunlight to aid in ripening. The soils are heavier clay over limestone bedrock holding onto moisture and keeping the vines "feet" cool. These are considered two of the ingredients in the recipe that helps create distinctively delicious pinot noir. The domaine's delicate use of oak lended some pretty vanilla flavors and cold maceration gave this wine nice concentration of color and fruit flavors. The growing conditions helped provide a pronounced lift to the aromas. What's "lift"? I sound like such a geek when a use that term but its hard to describe it any other way. It's a freshness and an aroma that just hits you up "there" -- higher in your nasal passages. And there was that lovely silky texture. A long and elusive finish with hints of forest floor made me happy. It's fall afterall and a little of this earthy complexity seems to go with my chunky sweater and long scarf. The premier cru status of the wines of Mercurey aren't necessarily on par with those you'd find along the Cote to the north but it does symbolize "better" nonetheless. In terms of soil structure and exposure anyway. As is the case throughout France, you have to know the producer: what they do, how they do it and what you like in order to truly unlock your personal "greats". 

    It's said that Mercurey was named Mercury, patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence and thus poetry, among other things. These gods, it seems, were pretty busy back then. But I'll go with eloquence and poetry here. Those are two words I would use to describe the best achievements in pinot noir and despite their "lesser" status within the Burgundy world, I'd happily drink these Mercurey's any time. 

  • 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.

  • Exploring the Finger Lakes AVA

    Exploring the Finger Lakes AVA

    August in DC provides an easy excuse to head north for a respite in the cool lake waters of upstate New York. And in-between waterfall hikes in Watkins Glen Gourge and a side trip to the Cheez-It 355, I was able to take a long-awaited trip to Hermann Wiemer Winery, long a favorite New York producer. I was there to pick up a signed magnum of single vineyard Cabernet franc which I am donating to a local hospital's silent auction, but had the chance to delve deep into Riesling. The winery is now run by two former employees who became the boss when they purchased the winery from its namesake German founder some eight years ago. They have worked hard to continue and expand upon the mission set forth by their former boss. And if accolades are proof enough, then they have definitely succeeded. The winery itself is an idyllic, calm hideaway situated on the western side of Seneca Lake. There, underneath a giant map of their vineyards I tasted every expression of their Riesling and a few surprises from their experimental vineyards in the north. My two favorite surprises were the single vineyard Grüner Veltliner and a delicious classic method Blanc de Noir. 

  • 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. 

  • 100 Bubbles in 100 Days

    100 Bubbles in 100 Days

    I have taken the occasion of my attendance of the upcoming Fête du Champagne in NYC this November as inspiration for a fun project. Can I drink (and afford) 100 different types of quality bubbles in 100 days. I've been preaching the delight of bubbles in every day life so now it's time to put up or shut up. I have eight days left to prepare for this tasty challenge. I'm stuck on a proper name for this undertaking. I'm awful at naming things. Day 100 will be covered with plenty of Chamoagne on hand for Peter Liem's champagne spectacular--I'm so excited to be attending. So it's 99 bottles of bubbles on the wall. Wait. That's what it's going to be! 

  • The Power of Subtlety

    The Power of Subtlety

    I needed this wine. So as soon as it was in my hand, I got to planning the drinking date.  A visit to a favorite Italian/Pizza restaurant that served upscale "beige" (the color palate of my favored, bread, cheese & pasta-based regiment) in the company of a trusted, wine-loving friend seemed like the perfect setting to experience this special bottle. Pizza and red burgundy? Quite the odd pair. But, on Tuesdays, the amazing kitchen prepares a stuffed rabbit loin in one rendition or the other and I was told by my pal that this would fit the Burgundy bill. And then there would be pizza. And so the date was set. Four weeks hence. I could barely wait.

    Time flies when there is too much to do so it was soon dawn of the designated Tuesday and I found myself driving into the city with an eight-year old bottle of Burgundy stuffed in my soft canvas tote. After an aperitif of sparkling falaghina, kept company by a tasty corn pudding with marinated heirloom tomatoes, the cork was gently pulled on the special bottle. It was a bit warm from the drive--summer in DC had more than set in by now--so the bottle was dropped for a minute or two into a startling ice water bath to the take edge off. It worked perfectly... the wine seemed to soar from the glass.

    It is hard to explain the subtlety of a Burgundy. And on top of that, how to explain such subtlety can appear in so many forms and with such profound variation. I had pursued this bottle--this Jacques-Frederic Mugnier Les Amoureuses Burgundy to recover and correct past memories.  When I had this wine (2006 vintage) for the first time, I could scarcely remember it the next day. This is not to imply that I was too drunk to do so. It implies that it was so mesmerizing in the moment and I was so taken away with the wine...too enthralled being inside of its beauty...that I failed to take the time to analyze or even internalize it. In my mind, a wine like this was one I should remember. That wine set into motion a series of events that led me to the precipice of hope and failure. In the same moment. So to say that the wine was pivotal is an understatement.

    This was a wine that showed me how important passion is in creating a successful business; that even art in its purest natural form can become a commodity that is controlled, coveted and contained; it showed me that the prospect of success can frighten a person into denying their own truth and fabricating one to accommodate their fear.  Over time, it became more than just a bottle of wine. It became a part of me. So, it was more than a little important that I be able to recall its virtues.

    So here it is. Here is what haunted me and why.

    The first thing about this wine is its texture. It was pure silk. The silkiest wine I can remember ever having the pleasure to swoosh around my mouth. It is so easy to ignore or just not even address texture until there is a wine such as this coating your palate. It was mesmerizing. The delicate purple floral aromas blended with the raspberry and cherry flavors in a way that was at once light and that simplicity defied everything else happening inside the glass. It was simple. Yet hypnotic. You cannot even say that the fruit was concentrated really....it was light and delicate. It was, better stated, pure.  That necessarily makes it more subtle with less "WOW" factor than many wines. My friend frustratingly shared how many people he comes across say (cue whiny voice) "Oh, I don't like Burgundy."  WHAT? he answers to no one, leaning in closer to me. "Then they could never have tasted great Burgundy."

    And its true. There is so much that is sold under the "Burgundy" (Bourgogne) banner that passesor is conflagrated with the same elixir that was in the bottle before me. The bottle, sadly, whose fill-levelwas dropping quickly. But, though there would have been more for me had I not elected to share, there would have been, somehow, less. For great wines...and those of great subtlety, gain much through the communal act of sharing. Of talking. Of searching together for the right words to suitable capture the feeling of the liquid slurped and savored for only a moment before disappearing. It somehow makes the whole bottle last a little longer. My friend graciously let me pour the last of and greatest helping into my own glass. It was a polite and respectful gesture as the procurer of the bottle of wine. But then, when his last drops were gone, he looked at my still full glass and sheeplishly asked, "can I have a splash more?" gesturing towards my glass. "Of course." I took my glass and poured into his another generous sip. Because that.. Is Burgundy. And that. Is what great wine is all about.

  • 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.