Drinking Wine

Future Tense

nebiolocappellano2 It's rare these days when you have to write about a wine in the future tense. Most wines are all they can be upon release with their Rubenesque charms right there for any palate to perceive. These wines don't require the encyclopedic knowledge of a Michael Broadbent to be put into perspective: Brittany Spears can handle the description on her way out of the limo. However, there may be some of you who are old enough remember when it was common to have wines that weren't as charming as they were ever going to be on the first day they hit the market. These were wines that excited you because of the riches you knew awaited you if you nurtured them through grouchy adolescence into majestic maturity.

Such a wine is the 2003 Cappellano Nebiolo d'Alba, a wine that will someday surpass many a Barolo in complexity and intellectual pleasure. This wine is no pleasure to drink now, however, in a decade or so it will bring pleasure hard to put into words in a commentary such as this: meaning that you're going to have to take my word for it. If you ever wondered what nebbiolo is all about this taught, tight and bracingly tannic wine is a good place to start. Cappellano wines teach everyone a lesson about tannin. That is that powerful, mouth-drying young tannins don't have to be green or brutally bitter. Tasting these streamlined, intense tannins teases and taunts you to wait for what only time can bring. While Cappellano Barolo itself is otherworldly and more complex than this wine, the Cappellano Nebiolo (yes they spell it with only one "b" at Cappellano) is an outstanding wine at a fraction of the price. Frankly, it's a far better wine than many wines sporting the name Barolo on their label and price tags. This is a buy as much as you can type of wine.

Another revelation for most drinkers will be the 2005 Cappellano Dolcetto d'Alba Gabutti. No purple glop here, but a real wine that will improve and develop for years. I never understood why so many wine guides refer to dolcetto as the Beaujolais of Italy and tasting this wine will make you wonder what the heck they were drinking. The Cappellano Dolcetto has zesty, bright fresh fruit, but it doesn't stop there like so many dolcetto wines these days. The brilliant fruit is layered with bitter tar, black truffle, rich porcini mushroom flavors and aromas that remind you more of nebbiolo than dolcetto. This is dolcetto at its best and most complex. Don't waste this on pizza, but save it for more elevated fare. I would seriously consider aging this wine for at least two more years. That's my plan with my remaining bottle.

The Cappellano wines are some of the finest examples of pure, classic winemaking coming out of Italy today. They are wines of place and variety that radiate purity of character. This means they are not wines for everyone and that you must age them to realize their greatness. You become part of the process that brings these wines to their finest. It's that personal involvement that adds an extra level of complexity to the enjoyment of such wines. As you carefully age them you become an integral part of the winemaking team and part of the process that makes that bottle extraordinary. There is nothing quite like opening a bottle you have kept for many years. The emotion and experience of opening such a wine can never be replaced by the simple hedonistic pleasures of a wine manufactured to be drunk the day the cork goes into the bottle. While there is nothing wrong with easy wines made to be drunk young, (after all, what would we drink while waiting for our best wines to mature or with cheeseburgers on a Tuesday night?) it's a waste when potentially great wines are emasculated by winemakers in the name of making them ready-to-drink beverages instead of reaching for the heights that could be achieved with bottle age.

As it becomes harder-and-harder to find wines designed to improve with age, producers like Cappellano become more-and-more something to be treasured.

Celine's Kind of Wine

celine dion Americans equate quantity with quality. Big plates of food and big voices like Celine Dion fill seats in restaurants and amphitheaters alike. The same proven concept has overwhelmed the wine industry: (big wine x price)+big points=sales. Everything is about power and we no longer can hear or taste the nuanced pleasures of complexity. In music the artistry of Ella Fitzgerald is replaced by the vocal pyrotechnics of Celine Dion, while in wine the layers of Lafarge have been replaced by the variety-free jammy characteristics of Loring. Can Dion sing and Loring make good wine: sure. However, they leave nothing to the imagination or the individual forcing the drinker/listener down the path they have chosen instead of creating art that awakens their spirit and intellect and invites them to become part of the experience. A Loring wine or a Dion song happens to you like a sit-com with a laugh track that tells you when to laugh.

Michael Foley, an outstanding chef in Chicago, once told me that Americans were so used to flavor overloads that they could not understand simple foods. That palates raised on the dozens of flavors of a Big Mac could not understand the subtle beauty of a simply poached fresh salmon. I think he was right and palates and ears accustomed to Whoppers, Dion and Loring lack the ability to experience anything beyond that first wave of flavor or sound.

To be art, the work should involve you and make you think. The same goes for great wine.

Think For Yourself


beatlesthinkforyourself A big wine tells you what to think, while a more elegant restrained wine forces you to think for yourself. One happens to you, the other involves you; seduces you.

A perfect example of a wine that invites you into such an experience is the 2005 Bourgogne, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Joseph Voillot. This is a wine that can only be described as vivaciously alive. The drinking of it releases its spirit and that essence flows into you. Is this a great pinot noir? No, but it is a wonderful one and a great value selling for under $30. It is also the perfect entry point for those wondering what all the angst surrounding the crafting of fine pinot noir is all about. Unfortunately all too many consumers are exposed to pinots that taste more like syrah than pinot and after that palate dulling experience can't appreciate the delicate flower that is pinot noir; that characteristic that no other variety can mimic. This is sad both for pinot noir, which is not very good at being big and for syrah, which is very good at it. With confused consumers using pinot noir as a syrah surrogate all too many fine syrah wines are ignored.

The 05 Voillot Bourgogne is a delicate beauty, shy at first, but soon opening its full radiance to you. At a lilting 12.5% alcohol, today's sandblasted palates may not get it, but those whose taste buds still live will discover a myriad of haunting flavors and aromas that linger in a perfect balancing act that expands with every sip.  This is what pinot noir is all about.

Old Hippies

sumi label I was under the Eiffel Tower drinking some of the best wine I had ever tasted. It had no brand name other than 12%. It was 1974 and I had picked up the jug in the Parisian version of a corner grocery, where the wine was sold by the level of alcohol, not a brand name. I know it didn’t cost very much because I basically had no money. That bottle was my ticket to lunch as my contribution to the myriad communal meals being shared by small groups of traveling hippies like me scattered on the broad green expanse surrounding the tower. It was great, you just showed up with some wine, bread, cheese or salami and joined into a group meal. I still remember those meals with a certain psychedelically enhanced sentimentality.

Recently I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Washington D.C. that I had just wandered into as it was close to my hotel, it was late and I was hungry. It turned out to be swankier than I expected and I, still wearing my standard issue Oregon attire, felt quite underdressed. First one gentleman, than another, joined me at the bar. Both were wearing dark suits, white shirts and red ties, which I now believe are the only items stocked by men’s shops in D.C.. I had ordered the excellent 2004 Giacosa Nebbiolo d’Alba, while the other ordered an expensive Super-Tuscan, which to save a few more oak trees, will remain nameless and as boring as almost that entire genre. The other ordered a bottle suggested to him with great Italian accented flair by the chef. At first we were all quiet, but by the second glasses of wine we had become friends and bottles were passed around. One was in the oil business (Cheney must have been busy that night) and the other was, not surprisingly, a lobbyist.We were all a clearly 50+ bunch, so these guys could have been sharing wines with me under the Eiffel Tower some 33 years ago. Not only had the wines we shared gone up a lot in price over the years, but also increased a lot in alcohol. That 12% wine I bought three decades ago had been the top-of-the-line jug wine, but that D.C. evening’s expense account driven meal did not bring a wine under 13.5% to our glasses. Needless to say we were best friends and exchanged cards and hugs as the evening came to a close. You can’t beat a reunion of old hippies.

The chef had recommended the 2001 Braida di Giacomo Bologna Barbera d’Asti ai Suma to my new best friend. This is a wine that combines eccentricity, exoticness, excess, and expensiveness into the perfect wine for Washington D.C. expense accounts. It’s a late-harvest, barrique-aged barbera that instead of a wine flavors, creates kind of a strange, sweet, raisiny grape stew in your mouth. Like Amarone, it may be a great combination with some delicious, stinky, runny cheeses, but the idea of matching this glob of wine with any kind of refined cooking is not very appetizing. Just to give you an idea of how over-the-top this wine is, Parker gave it 94 points, and you know what that means. I’m not saying this is a terrible drink, but it certainly is nothing to match with a meal.

Those few Francs I paid for that simple French wine in 1973 brought me far more pleasure and luck than this big buck Barbera in 2007 as Nixon resigned while I was drinking that little French wine under the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, even with the increased price of the Bologna ai Suma, it brought no such luck in 2007.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

kingandiI was beat. Harvest is upon us and I can’t exactly remember the last day off I’ve had. While few things are more exhilarating than harvest, few things are more tiring. The thought of cooking tonight was just too much so I grabbed some pizza on the way home. With it I popped open a bottle of 2005 Rosso Piceno Brunori, Torquis. Now I’m a big Marche fan and love the montepulciano/sangiovese blend of Rosso Piceno, but this wine did not thrill me and I considered opening something else. I guess I was just too tired to get up, but that appears have been a good thing. Indeed it was a good idea  I waited for, as I took a sip of my second glass, the wine suddenly changed. What had seemed flabby and uninteresting suddenly transformed itself into a firm, enjoyable wine with good character and backbone. What had changed? It was me. The wine was the same, but a bit of food and wine made me relax after a hectic day and my palate finally woke up enough to appreciate this very nice wine.

So the fault was not with the wine, but with me. You have to take time to get to know a wine and take into account that you may not be at your best. Mario and Giorgio Brunori worked hard to make this wine and I was wrong to judge their work so quickly and at a time I was not at my best. Once again, this reality must make anyone question the validity of the 100 point scale where wines are rated based on rapid fire tastings. Not even a tasting machine like Robert Parker can work at the same level of effectiveness every day and under every condition. This is where the king and I have divergent views on how wines should be evaluated.

Every time you taste a wine you should remember that the faults you find may be more yours than the wine’s.

Drinking Local

iron%20horse_classic-vintage-brut.jpgWhen I travel I am committed to eating and drinking local. Whenever I’m in a wine region I make a special effort to seek out new and interesting wines. A week in California recently put this to the test. Food friendly wines were few and far between and after just a few days I was suffering from serious palate fatigue.

Upon my return home, I immediately pulled the cork on a bottle of the  Domaine Domaine des Terres Dorées Moulin a Vent 2005 by Jean-Paul Brun. I have written about this wine several times before, but the first sip of this wine after a week of palate busters was an extraordinary experience. This wine was so vibrant, alive and exciting after the ponderous wines of the week before that I was absolutely transfixed by its energy.

Its at moments like this that I realize just how far my own tastes are out of sync with what’s hot in the world of wine today. 

One wine did stand out from my week of California drinkin’, the 2002 Iron Horse Vineyards Classic Vintage Brut is a stunning example of California sparkling wine. Rich, racy and toasty with perfect creamy texture on the palate and a long complex finish, this wine is a great pleasure to drink. Iron Horse long ago discovered how to make California sparkling wines that show their own unique personality instead of being poor copies of Champagne. On top of that it’s a great value at $31 a bottle.

What makes the Iron Horse such a interesting wine to drink is that is displayed the richness and ripeness that defines California wine without excess. It is a wine that is naturally rich without giving up its balance. It is a wine that is comfortable in its own skin instead of bursting at the seams like most California wines these days. 

Farallon: France or California

farallon.jpgI have had the pleasure of eating at San Francisco’s Farallon Restaurant many times. Last week I ate there one more time and the food was once again wonderful. However, I could not help but be struck by the wine list, from which it was far easier to pick a bottle of wine from Europe than from California. How is this possible in a city surrounded by California’s most famous vineyards?

I can understand that an Italian or Spanish restaurant may want to feature wines from those countries as part of their ambiance, but a restaurant specializing in fresh local seafood? How can they justify not featuring the wines of their area, which are highly respected.

Anyone who reads this blog knows of my love of the wines of Europe, but I often see this type of reverse snobbism that infers that the wines of Europe are somehow inherently superior. Maybe the wine buyer of Farallon prefers the crisper, dryer style of European wine , as do I, but I don’t believe that such wines cannot be found in California. They may be hard to find, but they can be found.

A California cuisine restaurant in San Francisco featuring local ingredients should not have a better selection of white Burgundy than it does of west coast chardonnay. 

Drinking and Tasting

Having just completed the triathalon of pinot noir tastings, Oregon Pinot Camp, the Steamboat winemaker’s conference and the International Pinot Noir Celebration, the contrast between the tastings and the lunches and dinners could not be more clear. During tastings people look for faults and drama, while during meals people look for pleasure.

We have ended up with a system, the 100 point scale, that only measures how wines taste with other wines, while ignoring their primary reason for existence - pleasure at the table. Buying wines selected in this way is a bit like buying a car after sitting in it with0ut ever driving it. When you sit in it you can see all the bells and whistles, but without driving it you can’t really get the feel of it. That’s what our critics offer us, wines ranked without ever really getting a feel for them. Can there be a less pleasant picture of enjoying wine than someone speed tasting dozens of bottles in an attempt to rank them in numerical order?

Anyone that pays even the slightest attention to the wines they drink knows that over the course of a meal fine wines evolve tantalizingly and this evolution is exactly what makes the best wines most exciting. Power, speed tastings to give wines a ranking based on points ignores this most beautiful aspect of enjoying wine. Hiding under a guise of helping the consumer, today’s critics point consumers to wines that are too expensive and not very good with food. What’s that protecting the consumer from?

Automobile writers drive a car for hours or days before reviewing it, while major wine writers may spend mere seconds with a wine. Would you want to buy a car based on the review of a writer that only sat in the car for a few seconds? This is exactly how wine criticism works today. 

Dunn Gone Too Far

Flaming_cocktails.jpgRandy Dunn makes big wines. At least he used to make big wines, but now most other winemakers have left him in the dust. It’s hard to think of a Dunn Howell Mountain wine as medium bodied, but that’s exactly what has happened. The alcoholic powerhouses of today are over-the-top for even Dunn and recently he sent a mass email to the press decrying the 15% ethanol Port-like wines being produced by so many of his compatriots. You can read that email and other coverage on Appellation America at:

 A telling point in all of this is that Dunn notes that his famed Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon has consistently come in between 13.2 and 13.8% alcohol over the years. That’s how far things have swung out of control in just a few years as those levels used to be thought of as big, while today they seem restrained. Dunn’s Cabernet is certainly a substantial wine, but gains its complexity and power though the distinctive character of that vineyard and the fruit grown there instead of using overripe fruit flavors and big alcohol to fool consumers with sweet upfront flavors that masquerade as complexity to inexperienced tasters or palates overwhelmed by tasting too many wines in one session.

Dunn is to be applauded for taking such a public stand on a topic that is sure to displease many of his neighbors. I hope it makes a few winemakers think about this issue of out-of-control alcohol levels before flaming shots of cabernet become the next college fad. 

Virtual Corky Paranoia

corks.jpgCorky paranoia, the fear of getting hassled for returning a corked bottle of wine, was an ongoing problem that we had learned to live with. We just accepted that look of contempt from a waiter or store clerk as they refunded your money or replaced your bottle as part of being a wine aficionado. I remember one experience in Chicago when I returned a spoiled bottle only to have the restaurant refuse to bring me a bottle of the same wine assuming that there was nothing wrong with the wine and that I just didn’t like it. Even with all these hassles over the years there was always a real person there to whom I could actually return the bad bottle to prove my point. In fact, I always kind of enjoyed watching the restaurant manager or store clerk taste one of these stinky bottles to check on me. As a grimace of disgust crossed their face, I could hardly resist the urge to pleasantly quip, “I told you so.” Of course, the reason we have corky paranoia  in the first place is because all to often they taste a brutally bad bottle only to respond, “It seems fine to me.” before they grudgingly refund your money or bring you a new bottle.

Now that I am buying quite a bit of wine via the internet, the new issue of virtual corky paranoia has settled in. Now when I get a bad bottle there’s no one to hand the offending bottle back to and the best you can do is call and complain. All to often I have shrugged my shoulders as I poured a bottle down the drain that I have purchased online and just let it go, but this kind of attitude can make things quite expensive. After all, if you buy 6 bottles for $20 and one of them is bad, you just increased your purchase price to $24 a bottle. When you remember you also had to pay shipping on these wines it can soon become a very bad deal to buy online. Considering that the minimum number of corked bottles you’ll get is 5%, not being able to return spoiled bottles purchased online could put a good dent in your wine budget.

Last week a bottle I had purchased from Chambers Street Wines was corked and, after I poured it down the drain, I decided to shoot them off an email to see what would happen. Within the hour I had a return email where they gave me  a credit to apply on my next purchase. Now, I know that Chambers Street is no ordinary wine merchant, but what this proves is that it’s well worth your time to seek out a real wine merchant like Chambers Street as they understand the issue and can respond appropriately.

Merchants like Chambers Street are the only proven therapy for corky paranoia. 

The First Three Glasses Were Fine

corks.jpgThe restaurant had an excellent wine by the glass selection and it was with anticipation that I watched the bartender pour me a glass of a lovely Rhône rosé, the  2005 Au Petit Bonhuer, Les Pallières Rosé, out of a bottle over two thirds gone. I lifted the brilliant light salmon colored wine to my nose and deeply inhaled a noseful of dirty, moldy aromas - the wine was corked. Upon informing the bartender, she put the bottle (yes, the bottle) to her nose and made a funny face at me. After all, it had been good enough for the other three people for whom she had poured a glass. Fortunately she brought me another glass without comment and indeed this is a charming wine. Bright, racy and substantial, it was a great match with some very fresh, rare roast salmon.

Industry estimates  say that 5%+ (some say much higher) of all cork finished wines are spoiled by TCA infected corks and nowhere near that many bottles are returned to restaurants and wholesalers. That of course means that the vast majority of these faulted wines are consumed, with the drinker either not paying attention or thinking that producer makes crappy wine. Take a second to really smell a wine, which should smell of fresh clean fruit, not old moldy books.

Tasting Walla Walla

An impressive group of Walla Walla's winemakers recently cruised through town and hosted a fairly definitive tasting of the wines of this exciting AVA. Over forty wineries showed a full range of their wines to some eight hundred wine enthusiasts and trade.

Such opportunities bring out the focused madman of my personality and, foolishly, I seriously attempted to attack the room by varietal. Saving the whites for last, which I always think is a good strategy in mass tastings, I first powered through the merlots, circling the room and skipping other wines so as to focus my attention on that variety. Completing the merlots, I headed back to confront the cabernets, which I followed by the blends.

Once again, I confirmed the truth about these mass tastings. That is, that the wineries in the second half of the alphabet, in general, make less interesting wines than those in the first half.

I'm a pro, obsessed with tasting, with three decades of tasting experience and I can't do it. The wines offered by tables in the last half of these tasting marathons just don't have a chance to show well. While a great promo for the AVA, this was certainly no place to judge the quality of the wines or make buying decisions. These mega-tastings should only be considered social events, with a good time for all the only goal, but getting anything but the most general impressions of a certain wine's quality is all that you can hope to discern. Recognize these events as the promotional cocktail parties they are and leave your tasting notes book at home.

Saturday Suppers at the Gelbers

cornasvoge.jpgDinner invitations from Christopher and Teri Gelber are a cause for celebration. Teri is an extraordinary cook and co-author of many fine cookbooks including Sunday Suppers at Lucques: Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table  and  Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book: The Best Sandwiches Ever—from Thursday Nights at Campanile among others and Christopher is just as much of a wine geek as I am so a great culinary evening is guaranteed.

While Teri worked her wizardry in the kitchen we sipped on 1996 Argyle Willamette Valley Extended Tirage Brut, a stunning wine, which I recently wrote about, with olives and fresh roasted almonds. This lovely wine mingling with the aromas of Teri’s cooking put our taste buds into high alert for what was to come.

To match Teri’s luxurious lentil soup, which was followed by fragrant roasted chicken tossed with arucola and gigantic fresh croutons (that must have contained something addicting as I still crave them), Christopher selected two contrasting wines from the last decade.

Older California pinot noir can often be suspect, but this bottle of 1996 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane Pinot Noir was not one of the usual suspects. Despite its 15% alcohol this wine was surprisingly refined and balanced. Sure it had a bit of heat in the finish, but the layers of earthy complexity were more than rewarding enough to make up for it. This is a wine that has completed itself and should be consumed soon.

While the pinot noir was a delicate wine made in a big style, the next wine was just the opposite. The 1998 Alain Voge Cornas Vielles Vignes is as graceful, balanced and refined as a syrah can get. Richly earthy and meaty throughout and laced with a freshly crushed black pepper tang, this now fully mature wine has more grace than brawn and proves that syrah has far more to offer than simple raw power. Perhaps this wine is just past its peak, but what a peak it must have been for this is still an outstanding wine.

With an assortment of French, Oregon and Italian cheeses arrived a bottle of Château d’Arlay Red Macvin from France’s Jura region, which is produced from unfermented pinot noir juice blended with one third marc-brandy, much like Cognac’s Pineau de Charentes . The brandy is mellowed four years in cask and then the blend is aged for another year in old barrels. A deliciously unique drink that, while tasting a bit like a tawny-style Port, has its own distinct fruity sweetness combined with the warming sensation of the brandy. A more charming match with cheeses you will not find.

Sunday suppers at Lucques may be wonderful, but so are Saturday suppers at the Gelbers. 



Gallo Hearty Burgundy - In With the In Crowd

heartyburgundy.jpgFans of Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy are scouring the Internet and retailers to grab every bottle of what has become one of the world’s chicest wines. Demand has continued to force prices ever higher and crossing the $50.00 a bottle threshold seems to have only increased demand.

Now the darling of the celebrity circuit, Hearty Burgundy was recently splashed across the covers of all thedomperignon.jpg tabloids as Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears downed more than a few glasses at L.A.’s most exclusive night spot. In New York the paparazzi caught rapper P Diddy’s limousine well stocked with Hearty Burgundy for a night on the town. Famed actor George Clooney recently laid in a large supply at his villa on Italy’s Lake Como.

Fans are even more excited about Gallo’s plans to introduce a new prestige cuvée of Hearty Burgundy in a bottle designed by Ralph Lauren. The price is rumored to break the $300.oo per bottle mark and will be allocated to each market based on their purchases of other Gallo products.

Ridiculous, right? Everyone knows that the worlds finest wines are from small producers and very specific vineyards. Mass produced wines like Hearty Burgundy will never be among the world’s elite and were never intended to be. This is a rule that seems to apply to every wine region in the world but one - Champagne. The great pinot noir and chardonnay wines of Burgundy are defined down to the row. Often less than a few hundred cases are produced of the greatest wines. In a testament to their marketing skills, the Grande Marques of Champagne have turned the wine world on its head by convincing consumers that their mass produced brands are their finest wines. Indeed this is just as if Gallo had convinced us that Hearty Burgundy was California’s finest wine.

Consider this, some 2,000,000 bottles of Dom Perignon are produced. That’s almost 167,000 cases and this is supposed to be an elite wine? By the way, Gallo now makes about 200,000 cases of Hearty Burgundy.

I would not ague that Hearty Burgundy and Dom Perignon are on the same quality level, but Hearty Burgundy is a better value.  The stunning part of wines like Dom Perginon and other “name” Champagne is that their quality is as good as it is considering how much wine they make. 

Fortunately there are now many outstanding grower produced and bottled Champagnes available that reflect the same passion and terroir as Burgundy’s finest domaines as reported on in my previous post, Grower Fizz.  It is only in these Champagnes from small producers that you will find the same distinctive and diverse characteristics that have made Burgundy the most interesting of wine regions. That same range of personality and terroir is expressed in this new and growing category that is transforming the Champagne region from a homogenized blend into a region full of nuance and diversity.

Let’s raise a glass of fine grower bubbly and make a toast to the marketing acumen of the big Champagne firms. Its not easy or cheap to impress Paris and Brittany. Let’s let them drink Dom, I’ll take the grower fizz please.

The Eddie Haskell of Wines


“That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Mrs. Cleaver.” 

Leave It To Beaver’s Eddie Haskell was always ready with a empty compliment designed to cover his real character - or lack thereof.  Drinking the 2003 Opus One would be a familiar experience for June Cleaver as this wine well reflects the superficial personality of Haskell.

The 03 Opus is always at the ready with a charming compliment for your palate. Round, sweet tannins here, sweet plush oak there - everywhere your palate looks it’s greeted with oozing charm. However, politeness is the only defining character of this wine.  Behind its charming veneer is emptiness. Just when you think you’ve found something interesting it fades away into the sweet, round velvet of bland consumer correctness.

This is probably not a problem for most Opus drinkers who seek nothing beyond that initial charming compliment as it passes their lips without causing an undo interruption of their conversation, causing not another thought until the check arrives.

At $125+ a bottle, polite is not enough.


Kissing the Frogs

froginglass.jpg• 2005 Petrus: $3000 a bottle
• 2003 Château Margaux: $460.00 a bottle
• 2002 Domaine de la Romanee Conti, La Tache: $1300 a bottle
• 2003 Pegau Châteaunuef du Pape, Cuvée de Capo: $500 a bottle.

Let’s face it, when we think of French wine, we think expensive, elegant, sophisticated and chic. They are the wines you drink at Daniel in Manhattan while wearing the latest from Paris. Unfortunately for the French, only a small percentage of the wines they make fall into this elite category, and the vast majority of the wines they make are unknown and ignored by American consumers.

The world’s most famous and expensive wines are French. French wines are the only wines truly sought after by collectors. While pretenders like Screaming Eagle cause feeding frenzies with American collectors, it’s only the elite French producers that really whip both American and international collectors into a lather.

Certainly no one would argue anymore that the French have a monopoly on great wine. While bruised a bit by the worldwide explosion of interesting, well-made wines, the elite French wine juggernaut rolls on. Evidence of this is the massive coverage of the futures offering of the acclaimed 2005 Bordeaux vintage, which has been a focus of the wine media for months. In fact, a good vintage in Bordeaux still has such an impact that those vintages become great vintages for all regions in the mind of the consumer; even those wine regions with weather, vines and geography that have nothing to do with Bordeaux bask in the reflected glory of great Bordeaux vintages.

As great and historically important as the most famous French wines are, the most exciting thing about French wine is not the bottles for those with trust funds and Ferraris, but the fact that the French are making the best wine values in the world. They simply cannot be beat in the under-$20 a bottle range for making wines that still offer character, personality, and, most of all terroir — that unique sense of place that makes a wine distinct and exciting to drink.

I’ll repeat that: the best wine values in the market today are almost all French. It’s not the new world that offers wine bargains: Australian wines should actually be singular not plural, as they’re all the same jammy syrup with different labels. California wine is personality-free industrial wine produced from the same UC Davis oak-chip recipe; South American wines are thin, flavorless and produced from hopelessly over-cropped vineyards. Only their European neighbors Italy and Spain offer the French any real competition in this under-$20 category.

Ironically, as good as the French (with a lot of help from the British) were at marketing their wines over the past centuries, today they don’t seem able to sell their way out of a brown paper bag. They’ve been blasted out of the value end of the wine market by a bunch of New World wines with cute animals on their labels and snappy names that are easy to remember. This is not to say the French are blameless for this situation — all that junky wine with varietal labels from the Languedoc that flooded the market in the ‘90s convinced a lot of consumers to look elsewhere for everyday wines.

The French Appellation Contrôlée (controlled place-name) system of wine regulations established the structure that allowed French wines to dominate the market for so many years. These regulations established minimum standards for how a wine was grown and made before it could be sold with a particular name. These names were based on place above all else. The variety was important and precisely controlled. For example, a red Burgundy must be 100% pinot noir, and a Sancerre must be 100% sauvignon blanc. You won’t see those names on the label, but their regulation is far more stringent than varietal labeling as used in the New World. For example, a winemaker in California has to use only 75% pinot noir to use the name. While the best California producers would never do that to their pampered pinot noir, you can bet few under $20 are not blended with other, less noble, varietals.

While I love this commitment to place and individual personality in winemaking, the plethora of wine names this has created made a marketing nightmare for the French. Should they give up and change over to naming a wine for the grapes instead of the land? I hope they don’t, and considering the French attitude about all things French I think the names will stay the same. This means that consumers who want to drink good wine at good prices will have to do some homework.

There are so many wonderful French wines out there — the Loire Valley alone is so packed with wine best-buys that to try to keep track of only them can seem daunting. Muscadet shines as the best white wine value in the world right now. Sancerre/Pouilly Fume neighbors Quincy and Menetou-Salon produce stunning, racy sauvignon blancs. The cabernet franc wines from Chinon and Bourgueil are incredibly fragrant and seductive. The list of values from throughout France is endless, with stunning wines coming from Beaujolais, the Rhône, Provence, Lanquedoc-Roussillon and the southwest. Many of these wines come from grapes you have never heard of, but should have — like tannat, manseng, cot, picpoul and poulsard.

Such an extensive list of new words and places can be more intimidating than inspirational, and can make that giant stacking of Yellow Tail at the grocery store look tempting. However, as a few importers are willing do to the work required to not only find such wines and then to hand-sell them bottle-by-bottle, instead of memorizing The Oxford Companion to Wine, just learning the names of these brave few is enough to begin rescuing your palate from the industrial wine that has lulled it into a nap. A quick poll of the patients at came up with a list of key importers to search out for French wine bargains:

• Louis/Dressner
• Kermit Lynch
• Weygandt/Metzler
• Neal Rosenthal
• Robert Chadderdon
• Charles Neal
You’ll find their names on the back label, which means all you have to do is pick up that bottle with the strange name and turn it around to see if it’s something worth trying. That’s not too much work, is it?


Originally published in The Daily Gullet at

World Wine Cup

worldcup.jpgFrench wine writer Francois Mauss and his Grand Jury European just could not leave well enough alone. Instead of letting the Judgement of Paris 2 fade into memory they had to try, try, try again. Seeming determined to prove the superiority of French wines he staged his own head-to-head competition under what he deemed more fair conditions as he selected a year that was equally fine in both Bordeaux and Napa - the 1995 vintage. Once again the California wines whipped the French wines - much to the delight of the Californians. Check out the comments on the blogs listed here.

Vinography    Fermentation PinotBlogger

I think both sides are missing the point as all such tastings do is show what wines taste better when compared with other wines. What they don’t show is what bottles will better grace your dinner table. Proving that we all come from the same genetic code, the French judges showed they have the same human faults as Americans when presented with rows and rows of glasses to rank the bigger, oakier and fruitier wines won out.

Think not? Check out the results for the most part the bigger wines are at the top of the charts, while more elegant bottles languish at the bottom. So you get winners like the Beringer, Valandraud, Latour and Shafer and losers like Margaux, Spottswoode, Dominus and Cheval Blanc.

It is ridiculous to try to prove somehow that French wines are better than California wines or Italian wines or Australian wines for that matter. The wines of each country and region are supposed to taste different. All these competitions do is fuel the fire that is burning away those individual characteristics in the pressure cooker of commercial realities.

Hopefully, someday we once again can think of wine as part of a meal instead a culinary World Cup. 

Below are the results of the Grand Jury. What each of these wines have in common is their excellence - something demeaned by putting them in such a ranking. There in last place at #39 is the Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill made by winemaker Al Brounstein who recently passed away.  Such a wine and such a winemaker deserve more respect. As the Californians rejoice over their latest victory they should remember as long as we judge wines in such a pointless way that their turn will come - just like it has for the French. We can only hope that the Australians don’t catch on.

1 Abreu (Madrona Ranch)
1 Beringer Private Reserve
3 Pahlmeyer Propriatory Red
3 Valandraud
5 Latour
5 Shafer Hillside Select
7 Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve
7 Ausone
9 Leoville Les Cases
9 Phelps Insignia
11 Mouton Rothschild
12 Mondavi Reserve
13 Cheval Blanc
13 Palmer
15 Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet
16 Trotonoy
17 Araujo
18 La Jota Anniversary Reserve
18 Le Bon Pasteur
20 Pride Reserve
21 Haut Condissas
22 Spring Mountain
23 Petrus
23 Rollan de By
25 Chateau Montelena
26 Mouton Rothschild
27 Monte Bello Ridge
28 Cheval Blanc
29 Dominus
30 Colgin
31 Margaux
32 Spotteswoode
33 Le Tertre Roteboeuf
34 Haut Brion
35 La Mission Haut Brion
36 Croix de Labrie
37 Screaming Eagle
38 Harlan Estate
39 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill

IPNC 06 #4: Wine and Food


There was a seemingly endless stretch of fine pinot noir wines to taste at this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration held in McMinnville Oregon. Table after table of of wines produced by some of the most passionate pinot noir producers on the planet. I tasted and tasted - concentrated and concentrated - took detailed note after detailed note. It was a wonderful intellectual experience.

The next day it was off to the vineyards and our bus drew the lovely Lemelson Winery in the Yamhill Carlton district of the northern Willamette Valley of Oregon. There waiting for us with a staff busily at work creating our lunch was the outstanding Portland chef Cathy Whims whose restaurant Nostrana was selected as Portland’s best new restaurant in 2006. The menu was sumptuous starting with huge platters of Salumi salami (from the famous Batali family) followed by spaghetti with roasted eggplant sugo. The suitably dramatic main course was Bisteca alla Fiorentina followed  by a refreshing Cavaillon melon with a counterpoint of rich Montellet cheese from Northwest cheese producer Fromagerie Mejean.  Cathy’s menu was a delight and served as an amplifier for the fine wines chosen to marry with these lovingly prepared dishes.

The wines for this mouthwatering lunch were from the host Eric Lemelson and the guest winery from Burgundy, Domaine Christian Clerget. An extra bonus was our moderator Allen Meadows of Burghound.  The wines presented with our luncheon - excellent all and all highly recommended - were:

  • 2004 Lemelson Vineyards Pinot Noir, Thea’s Selection
  • 2002 Lemelson Vineyards Pinot Noir, Thea’s Selection
  • 2004 Lemelson Vineyards Pinot Noir, Stermer Vineyards
  • 2003 Domaine Christian Clerget, Chambolle Musigny
  • 2003 Domaine Christian Clerget, Echezeaux Grand Cru

Feeling perhaps a bit whimsical from Cathy’s wonderful lunch, I could not help but ponder the fact that all five of these wines seemed far more alive than the wines tasted at the other formal tasting events. I concentrated on these wines too, took plenty of notes and discussed them ad nauseam with the other pinot noir nuts in attendance. However, you could not deny the clear fact that everything about these wines was brighter, more alive and more exciting than the wines tasted complimented only by other wines.

At both tastings there was plenty of focus and intellectual appreciation of the wines presented, but there can be no greater experience of a fine wine than with fine food. One without the other leaves gaps in the other. When I experience wines of this quality, produced by people with the passion of Eric Lemelson and Christian Clerget I want to taste their delights as the winemakers intended - as part of a dining experience.

(pictured above: “The Enterprise” at Lemelson during crush.) 


Snake Oil

eischglasses.jpgIn front of me are three glasses each containing 1999 Barolo Villero, Giuseppe e Figlio Mascarello, which is a hell of a wine. However, each glass is very different, yet they have all just been poured from the same bottle. There can only be one reason for the clear differences and that is the glasses themselves. The glasses are:


  1. Riedel Vinum Burgundy
  2. Stölzle Burgundy
  3. Eisch “Breathable Glass” Burgundy

What’s that? Breathable glass? I thought it sounded a bit like a snake oil salesman or the huckster at the county fair. In their brochure, Eisch claims that four minutes in their “breathable” glasses opens a wine up like an hour or two in a decanter. What do they take me for, a fool?

But, believe it or not - it actually seems to work.

The Barolo in the Riedel glass was focused and precise. Clean and tight just like you would expect. In the  Stölzle the wine seemed less precise and the bouquet more defuse. In the Eisch after just a few minutes this lovely Barolo was clearly more floral and softer on the palate. No, I can’t explain how this happens even after reading their literature, but you can’t argue with the glasses in front of your nose.

The end result of this is that I have purchased a set of Eisch Burgundy and Bordeaux glasses because the reality of the situation is on a day-to-day basis I (like everybody else) drinks wines that are too young. As always, nothing can replace slowly letting a wine develop with time, but when you pull a cork on a wine that is too young these Eisch glasses are a crystal clear alternative.