Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Italian Wine Merchants

Although it's only been a few (great) months and a mere 34 posts (!) I'm afraid I will soon be ending my blog "Over a Barrel" on erobertparker.com. I won't be leaving the blogosphere altogether but joining the great team at Italian Wine Merchants, where I will be the Director of Communications, effective July 27th.

I'd like to thank my wonderful friend Bob Parker, first and foremost, for allowing me - and my blog- to be part of the erobertparker family, which has been tremendous fun. I'd also like to thank his behind-the-scenes talent (thank you, Joe and Mark) for putting the nuts and bolts of this blog together.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read my posts- especially those who took the trouble to respond. I hope we can (all) connect again on the IWM site.
I look forward to keeping in touch.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Awed by Austria

I met some remarkable winemakers and tasted some truly incredible wines during my six days in Austria. In fact, the trip itself was nearly flawless save for the fact that many of the producers were incredibly hard to find. Like Rudi Pichler (See photo below for the proof that I did, in fact, finally locate him. ) It took about three passes through Rudi's tiny village in the Wachau to find his (very) tiny sign. It didn't help that there was another winemaker named Rudolf Pichler a few streets away in the same town. (No, I didn't taste his wines).

I'd always heard that Austria was a beautiful country and my little sojourn certainly confirmed that. I want to go back as soon as possible - though with a better GPS system next time. I'll be writing about my Austrian endeavors in-depth in my next "Wine Matters" column for Food & Wine so stay tuned!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Away to Austria

I'm bound for Austria this weekend so this blog may be taking a briefish Sacher Torte and Gruner Veltliner holiday (no, that is NOT a suggested food and wine pairing). If I manage to have both the time and the internet access, I'll post a few details.

I've never been to Austria before but from all that I've heard from my friends and colleagues (not to mention my Austrian neighbors) I'm really looking forward to my trip.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Where's Aldo?

One of the highlights of my weekend at the Food & Wine Classic at Aspen was the blind tasting seminar I conducted in conjunction with Aldo Sohm, the deeply knowledgeable and articulate World Champ Sommelier and Wine Director of Le Bernardin in New York (depicted above holding his winner's hardware.)

I had been inspired to put together the tasting after reading a study made by the American Association of Wine Economists that found (after many tastings over quite a bit of time) that only experts actually appreciated expensive wine.

I put together eight wines - all excellent examples- served in pairs. Aldo and I challenged the crowd to name which wines, tasted blind, they thought were cheap and which wines were expensive. "Don't say cheap," Aldo admonished me at one point. "We never say cheap at Le Bernardin." I don't doubt that.

The wines we tasted included a lively 2007 Jadot Macon Villages ($15); a richer and oakier 2006 Jadot Puligny Montrachet ($50); a deliciously bright 2007 Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone ($15) and the brooding 2006 Domaine de la Janasse Chaupin ($75); the 2006 Feudi di San Gregorio Rubrato ($20) and its Aglianico-based "counterpart" the 2005 Feudi di San Gregorio Serpico ($90) as well as two Cabernets from Santa Rita winery in Chile: the 2006 Casa Real and the 2005 Medalla Real ($15 and $75 respectively). The wines all showed beautifully - in fact, the crowd was often evenly divided over their preferences in each pairing.

The conclusion? Well, it was interesting albeit quite unscientific: the crowd loved all the wines- regardless of price.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cheers to the New Champ

The Fourth Aspen Food & Wine Classic Sommelier Challenge (directed, orchestrated and adjudicated by yours truly) has just ended and two-time Defending Champion Bobby Stuckey, the wine director and owner of Frasca in Boulder has passed the tastevin to Jordan Salcito, sommelier of Gilt restaurant in New York. The lovely Salcito, who won by a show of (many) hands in the audience, bested not only the ever- personable Stuckey (who charmed the crowd with stories of his travels in Spain and his honeymoon with his beautiful wife Danette) but also the bubbly Belinda Chang, wine director of The Modern in New York and hometown favorite, Richard Betts, wine and mezcal impressario and former Wine Director of Aspen's Little Nell.

Betts actually conceeded the competition before the winner was chosen, saying that his three competitors were all far worthier than he. Betts, one of the best palates in the business,was certainly the most entertaining: during the forty five minute challenge and tasting, he managed to invoke the beauty of sangria, display a belt buckle given to him by Ernest Gallo (could that be true?) and enjoy a nip of his own mezcal.

The crowd (which included Robert Bohr, of Cru, the 2006 Aspen Champion Sommelier and husband of Jordan as well as Aldo Sohm, the reigning World Champion Sommelier and wine director of Le Bernardin) tasted five wines - under the direction of the competing sommeliers. They included the Langlois Cramant, a lovely sparkling wine from the Loire; the 2008 Giachino Altesse, a beautifully crisp white from the Savoie region of France; 2007 Les Cretes Petite Arvine - one of my favorite Italian whites- a relatively obscure wine from the Valle d'Aosta; the 2007 Bodegas del Palacio de Fefinanes - a delightful Albarino, and last but not least, the beautiful 2005 Cabrida, a powerful old vine Garanacha from Celler de Capcanes in Monstant.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tiny Type(faces)

How much time does the average person actually spend reading a wine list? Probably no more than a few minutes, unless that person is an avid wine drinker or the list is as long as that of Spruce in San Francisco or as fat as the two-volume tome at Cru in New York. But what if that wine list is just really, really hard to read?

I never gave this practical fact much thought until I was dining at the Oyster Bar last week. This Manhattan stalwart, located deep within Grand Central Terminal, has pretty good food (I love the Oysters Rockefeller) but a very good wine list. It is, however , the wine list with the smallest typeface I’ve ever (tried to) read.

Was the Oyster Bar list http://www.oysterbarny.com/ printed in six or eight point typeface, I asked general manager and wine director, Jonathan Young, when I got him on the phone. "It’s actually Arial ten-point," he replied, "It's the same typeface as most other restaurant lists but because we print out wines all one page it looks really small." Well, it is one of the most challenging wines lists I’ve ever read, I complained.

But surely I wasn't the only one. “Don’t other customers complain too?” I asked. Young admitted they did. “But it’s kind of a tradition. And we like to keep it all on one page,” he said. (The wine list is on the back of the menu- a very long sheet of white paper.)

But Young admitted he is thinking of making a few modifications- like removing sub appellations from the wine regions and maybe putting the cocktails on a seperate sheet altogether. And if that doesn’t work, "Our adertising firm said we should hand out magnifying glasses," said Young. He's accumulated a few samples and may start handing them out on an experimental basis.

In the meantime, a few great buys from list that I did manage to see: L’Hereu de Raventos I Blanc Reserva Brut Cava- an excellent value sparkling wine for $35; the 2008 Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc at $42 and under “Oyster Whites” the 2008 Antinori Vermentino from Bolgheri, a beautiful companion to oysters (and other shellfish) priced at $44.

My next post will be from a much higher altitude: I’ll be in Aspen, Colorado from tomorrow through Sunday at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, where I’ll be moderating the Sommelier Challenge for the fourth year in a row and conducting a seminar on cheap versus expensive wine (tasted blind) and tasting lots of great wine. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wine (and a Woman) of Passion and Soul

I recently met a remarkable woman named Alexandra Elman. She’s the founder and owner of Marble Hill Cellars, a wine importing company based on the Upper East Side of New York; specializing in wines that are organic or at least sustainably-made. She represents producers from Spain, Argentina and France but also Brazil as Alex is half-Brazilian. She's one of the few importers of Brazilian wines – a bit of trailblazer for the wines of that country- and she also just happens to be blind.

“I lost my sight about fifteen years ago as a result of juvenile diabetes,” Alex, a short, bubbly woman, told me matter-of-factly – the same way she noted that she’d had several operations on both eyes and two organ transplants as well while we sat chatting in a coffee shop on east 57th Street in Manhattan. Alex, who is about to turn 41, has been in the wine business for many years- she worked for Sherry Lehman and traded fine wine under the name Basil Winston before founding her import company and selling her own wines.

As one who sold wine to restaurants and retailers in New York many years earlier, I was almost embarrassed to tell Alex I’d done much the same thing with much less success- and a lot fewer handicaps. It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t glamorous- traveling by subway with a bag full of samples that perhaps only one account might actually buy. Alex, by contrast, doesn't seem the least bit fazed by the frequent rejection and the arduous travel- deftly navigating the New York subway system with her dog, Hanley, a yellow lab, by her side.

If it’s someone she’s never met, she doesn’t tell them much about herself. For example, “I never tell people I’m blind when I make an appointment for a tasting,” Alex says, “First they’re shocked and then they get over it. Although sometimes I’ll say, ‘C’mon Roger, you gotta buy some wines from the blind girl.’ We all start joking about it.” Alex laughs. But she’s very clear on one point: “My wines have to sell on their own merits.”

And they do – she mentions Pure Food and Wine restaurant, Jean Luc’s retail shop in the Village as two of her top clients. There’s one wine buyer at a certain prominent wine shop, however, that she’s yet to win over. “He’ll never see me,” she says. In fact, one time he even pretended not to be in his store when Alex stopped by. “But Hanley went right up and sat in front of him,” she laughs at the memory. (Guide dogs are apparently as good at detecting liars as they are lampposts and potholes.) Alex and I make plan to meet again soon- and perhaps to taste some of her Brazilian wines- or maybe even some wines from Russia- another place Alex has recently traveled – looking for wines of “soul and passion” – wines, in other words, like Alex herself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No References

I was in Connecticut last weekend, poking around a book sale. I’d been driving through town and a sign caught my eye. “Giant Book Sale.” For once this was actually an accurate adjective. In fact I’ve never seen such a vast array of books for sale outside of, say, Powell's Bookstore in Portland. There were paperbacks and hardbacks, well-used and hardly touched. They were scattered all over the parking lot, inside a garage and spread throughout the rooms of the basement. When I asked one of the women in charge if I could donate some books to the cause (it was a fundraiser for the local Lutheran Church) she looked positively panicked. “No- I’m sorry, but we really have enough books,” she said. She later relented and said I could add a few books to the vast piles “but only if they’re fiction.”

After depositing a dozen or so novels in the fiction section, I began browsing. I was surprised by how many wine books I found. And not just the coffee table tomes of beautiful wineries that their readers presumably got tired of looking at (or depressed by) but all the great reference books like Parker’s Bordeaux and the Gambero Rosso guide to Italian wine and many, many copies of Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. How did these books end up in a church basement? Had their owners exchanged them for newer versions? Or had they been gifts to people who didn’t really care about wine or had their owners learned everything there was to know about wine?

The last possibility is unthinkable of course. There's always more to learn about wine. Although I cull my books regularly (and after three moves in as many years it’s as much a practical necessity as a personal credo) I’ve never gotten rid of a single reference book. There's always more to know about wine. And besides, what if the answer to a question you had was actually in the book you’d just given away?

B the way, I’m happy to report I didn’t find copies of my books in the sale. On the other hand, maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough. I wonder: What wine books have you given away recently – and why?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Deux Dom

Of all the wine world mysteries, the quality/quantity ratio of Dom Pérignon is one of the biggest, as far as I’m concerned. The house of Moet Chandon turns out vast quantities of this prestige cuvee (they won’t say just how much but it must be millions of bottles) and yet the quality remains consistently and even astonishingly high. Some of my best Champagne memories are of certain bottles of Dom Pérignon –like the 1978 I tasted thanks to my friend Jeff a while back or the 1985 Dom Pérignon rose I had with dinner last year at Jean Georges in New York or more recently, the phenomenal 1993 Dom Pérignon Oenothéque, which was simply one of richest, most complex wines I’ve had in a long time.

The Dom Pérignon Oenothéque is a special bottling; there are only sixteen vintages in existence (so far) and they are only released from the house when director Richard Geoffrey deems the wines ready to drink. So when I heard that the next Oenothéque had just been released (the 1995 vintage) and would be sold in conjunction with the “regular” 1995 Dom Pérignon, I rushed over to the Plaza Hotel, where the tastings were held.

The two Doms are packaged together in a in an elaborate black wooden box called Side by Side with a retail price of $550. And the wines? Well, as every Champagne drinker knows, the 1995 vintage was terrific; producing wines of enormous depth and longevity. The two were similar to the extent that they were both possessed of the same concentration and finesse; but the “regular” Dom (disgorged in 2002) was more aromatically developed while the “Oeno” (disgorged in 2006) was simply more developed overall: Geoffrey’s word for it? “Magnified.” Together, the two Doms were simply stunning- Champagnes of contemplation more than celebration. If I had the money, I would certainly buy both though I could do without the elaborate box. I wonder if that might mean a few dollars off?

Monday, June 1, 2009

HEB Market Houston and my book -photo by Sammie Marth

Author on Aisle Ten

I got back from Houston (actually The Woodlands, a Houston suburb) late yesterday. I had been asked to serve as the Wine Wizard for the Fifth Annual Wine and Food Week ( a truly fun event that's extremely well-run and organized.) I still don't know what the title means but I did enjoy a lot of Texas hospitality - if not necessarily the Texas heat and humidity. Among my Wizardly duties was the hosting of a wine dinner, a luncheon discussion at a swank private club and even a Champagne seminar on a boat (which sprung a leak but thankfully no bottles were lost.) I also spent a great deal of time in grocery stores, signing copies of my book (Educating Peter).

Until I visited Texas I'd never thought about selling my book in a grocery store (I'm no Mary Higgins Clark, after all) but Texans seem to spend a lot of time in their grocery stores- and rightfully so: they are veritable palaces compared to the crummy places where New Yorkers are forced to shop. I was especially dazzled by the HEB stores (I visited three HEBs in as many days). I couldn't stop marveling at HEB's vast meat counter, acres of baked goods and miles of produce. Though their book section isn't quite so vast (and yes, there's a lot of Mary Higgins Clark), according to my sidekick for those three days, Sammie Marth, Texans buy a lot of books in grocery stores.

Sammie is the Regional Manager for Media, which places books, magazines and newspapers in stores all over Texas. Sammie is a spunky young blonde with just the right combination of moxie and charm. She helped me set up my table and arrange my books and even pulled a few customers over to buy my book. After petitioning people randomly to have come have a look, I decided to concentrate on the shoppers who actually had wine in their shopping carts.

This turned out to be every bit as much hit or miss as any other method of solicitation. For example, I engaged one woman in a long conversation about my book- how it was an introduction to wine by means of an education of famous film critic, and it was very funny etc. etc. She appeared to be listening avidly and then abruptly declared, "I don't want that," and rolled her cart away. Ouch. The wine in her cart? Barefoot Cellars. That did at least help to (slightly) lessen the sting.

But I did have some truly wonderful encounters ( a young boy on his way to a rodeo; three women who thought my book would be "great by the pool.") By the third day's book signing, Sammie and I were also offering samples of wine (notably the HEB private label Vinho Verde I mentioned in my last post - which turned out to be pleasant but a bit innocuous). My favorite sale of the week, by far, came at the end of the last day. It was to a biker named Mike (who rode a $30,000 Harley Softail by the way). "I like Merlot," Mike said, offering to let me pose with the bike in the grocery store parking lot. (I accepted.) The bike gang's leader Big Mo bought a book too. "I like a good Riesling," he said. "Nothing too sweet."

I sure do love Texas.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dateline Houston

I had an interesting chat over dinner at the Crescent Moon Wine Bar in the Woodlands (a Houston suburb) last night with David Duran, the head of Beverages for HEB, the 300-plus-store Texas-only gourmet grocery store chain. Duran’s full title is one of the longest I’ve encountered outside European nobility (“Business Unit Director-Grocery Procurement & Merchandising Beverages, Breakfast, Kosher & International Foods for HEB) but he seems to have the breadth of knowledge to carry it off. Duran has been with the company for over 30 years (his first job was bagging groceries) and he has seen a great many changes in Texas wine-drinking habits in that time. “Wine is up to seven percent of our beverage sales now,” he said. This may not sound like much, but it’s a full one percent higher than just last year, Duran noted, adding that Texas is still, quite resolutely, a beer-drinking state.

The wine selections at individual HEB stores can vary widely but one of the chain’s biggest successes has been a Vinho Verde from Portugal, a HEB-created wine called Twin Vines. “That doesn’t sound like a Portuguese wine to me,” I commented. That was the exactly the point, Duran replied. “Unless you look at it really hard, it’s difficult to tell the country. Even the fact that it’s Vinho Verde is less important than the packaging and the price." ($6)

Duran and a few others from HEB went to Portugal to find a winery they could work with (Fonseca) and came up with a light, slightly fizzy white that “looks good by a pool.” (The bottle is transparent.) The wine also fits what Duran says is the “perfect flavor profile for Texans – we like to drink wines that are lighter and sweeter- than most other parts of the country.” (Never mind all the California Cabernets I saw on the Crescent Moon wine list!)

Twin Vines is one of a staggering 270 house brands that HEB has developed with producers around the world... I’ll be tasting it later today at the HEB on Market Street in The Woodlands, along with a few other store brands and will post tasting notes tomorrow.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hello Houston

I'll be heading to Houston in a couple of days - it's a city I've never visited before (although my entire family decamped to Dallas a few years ago). I'll be the Wine Wizard of Wine and Food Week at the Woodlands in Houston, that starts on May 26th and runs through the end of the week. (By the way, I have no idea about the derivation of the title or if I'll be given a star-covered robe though I've sent my measurements for same in the hope one may be forthcoming ...)

I do know that I will be holding a mini-Champagne seminar, participating in a luncheon discussion called "Ladies of the Vine" moderated by the terrific Pat Sharpe (the award-winning restaurant critic of Texas Monthly) and signing my book, Educating Peter. There will be all kinds of tastings and dinners throughout the week with locally and nationally (and globally) notable winemakers and chefs. The website (www.wineandfoodweek.com) provides details and I'll be posting from Houston later this week.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tutored Tastings

I was at a tasting of some Spanish wines yesterday that featured a moderator and a panel of winemakers talking about their wines and those of a few others. Although the winemakers noted aspects of the production and viticulture of each of the wines, what they mainly described was the way that each wine tasted and smelled. “That’s because most wine writers can’t come up with adjectives of their own,” a wine writer next to me, darkly observed. (He’s one of the more cynical members of the profession – but a trenchant observer all the same.)

As the winemakers rhapsodized about the “stone fruits, the mineral notes, the apricot essence, the white flowers and the acacia,” they found in glass after glass, I began to feel weighed down by the sheer adjectival profusion- not to mention their inescapable repetitiveness. Indeed, one of the last winemakers to speak made the mocking complaint that the others before him had “taken all the descriptors” and that was pretty much how I felt. Of course, I also began to feel rather rebellious: the more white flowers I was told I to expect, the smaller I found their bouquet in my own glass.

Why, In wonder is this sort of thing an acceptable procedure in most ‘guided tastings’ for both amateurs and professionals alike? Do they really believe it's hard to come up with words of one's own? And if so, why not just pass out a vocabulary list beforehand and say, “Circle the ones that you think apply to each wine”?

One wine that I tasted and loved (but found no white flowers to speak of, anywhere around) was the 2008 Pazo de Senorans Albarino- a delightfully bright and refreshing Spanish white with a zippy acidity that seemed to simply bound out of the glass. At $16 a bottle, it’s one of my perennial favorites from this north western region of Spain and is imported by European Cellars (www.europeancellars.com)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tax-Free Sancerre

My friend Pat drinks white wine exclusively. She says it’s because she develops an “instant headache” when she so much as looks at anything red. I imagine this can be a bit of a hardship, especially since her husband has a pretty spectacular wine cellar- mostly filled with great reds. But she doesn’t seem to mind very much –maybe because she has one wine that she particularly likes- Sancerre.

Now I realize it’s unfashionable these days to declare a fondness for Sancerre- it’s become the French equivalent of Pinot Grigio in some ways: easy to drink and easy to pronounce – and often priced excessively high. In fact, there’s something insiders call “the Sancerre tax.” And there are certainly there are a lot of pretty simple wines around (at ridiculously high prices) that would seem to warrant such scorn - but not at the Crabtree Kittle House in Chappaqua, New York. This is where Pat and I regularly meet– in part because they have a really good Sancerre by the glass. We sit at the bar (which is rarely crowded) and dine from the bar menu: small dishes of crab cakes and spring rolls and asparagus risotto, all paired with a glass or two of Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre.

Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy (also available in retail stores in limited quantities) happens to be a highly regarded Loire producer made semi-famous by importer Kermit Lynch who turns out a terrifically brisk, bright wine with citrus notes and a lovely mineral edge. It’s the Sancerre of choice for general manager and wine pro Glen Vogt, who likes to see people drinking (good) Sancerre so much he doesn’t even levy a “Sancerre tax.” www.kittlehouse.com

Monday, May 11, 2009

The World Champ Wins Again

Aldo Sohm is the current World Champion Sommelier and the wine director of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York. And, as of last week, this Austrian-born expert can also claim to have the Best Restaurant Wine Service in America -thanks to the judges of The James Beard awards. When I chatted with him recently, Sohm still sounded amazed at this turn of events. “It came out of the blue,” he insisted. How could that be? I replied. You’re the World Champion, after all. This was different, Sohm insisted. “I’ve only been at the restaurant for five years. And we were up against some stiff competition- Patina, Bin 36, The Blackberry Farm- which has been nominated many times.”

But Sohm is not only incredibly talented with a remarkable palate – as his credentials would prove- but also quite approachable, easygoing and open-minded (words that don’t come too often attached to a top sommelier). I’ve eaten at Le Bernardin several times in the past year and found his recommendations always spot- on and his demeanor unfailingly warm.

What was his secret? What makes the wine service at Le Bernardin particularly special? “We focus on people,” Sohm replied. “And we focus on tasting menus and we really make sure to explain the wines to people and why they are matched to particular dishes. “ Sohm has also started Saturday afternoon seminars for clients, offering tutorials on various varietals. “We did a global Pinot Noir tour. We did Chardonnay,” he noted. This week’s tour is Syrah. The cost is $125 per person, all-inclusive. “Everyone does wine dinners but no one does seminars,” Sohm observed. (www.le-bernardin.com)

By the way, what wine did he celebrate his victory with? “I think we started with Pommery Champagne,” Sohm replied. “Then we went to The Modern and drank some’90 Lafite, ’90 Beaucastel and some Billecart Salmon Champagne.” There was Gruner Veltliner somewhere along the way ‘til it was around 4:30 in the morning. That’s when Sohm finally went home.

Note to would-be Le Bernardin diners: Sohm’s favorite wine on the list right now is the 2007 Karthauserhof Riesling Auslese S trocken ($150). “It’s not cheap but the wine is a killer,” he says. But don’t just take his word for it- try it yourself!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Good Cause Bad Wine

You know the old saying – “The food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it”? Well, I heard its wine equivalent today. I was at a fund-raising luncheon for an important national women’s organization where wine was served, both red and white. The lunch was held at a suburban club, which can only be praised in terms of its view (a panoramic look at the Long Island Sound) certainly not in terms of its service, its food – or its wine, which was awful. (A past official of the organization later complained to me, “I heard the wine was terrible and I couldn’t even get a glass.”)

This has happened to me – and I’m sure many of you– over and over – at fundraisers, benefits, bar mitzvahs and weddings- all the places that people gather to feel and do good. And apparently be served terrible wine. And yet there has never been more good wine around - at rock-bottom prices- than now. There are excellent Torrontes from Argentina that cost $2 a bottle wholesale; there are Muscadets that cost a couple dollars more, ditto some nice juicy Malbecs. Where does catering hall wine come from anyway? Is there some big factory in American Canyon, California that’s churning it out?

When he’s through with the auto companies and the banks, I want President Obama to consider appointing a Catering Wine Czar to ensure that all the right-minded people who gather together to celebrate (and to write checks for worthy causes- as I did) to enjoy a good glass of wine. I’ll even volunteer for the job- free of charge!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Of Swine and Champagne

Although the furor over swine flu seems to be abating, the fear of catching it – or something – was on full display at a wine tasting I attended in midtown Manhattan yesterday. I was air-kissed several times in a germaphobic rather than social way. (I can’t decide if I preferred the air-kiss or the elbow-shake that restaurant critic Gael Greene offered me at the opening of Marea restaurant last week.)

But putting swinish matters aside for a moment (though I do feel like I’m coming down with a touch of something) one of the most memorable wines of the tasting for me was Champagne Delamotte. Known as the “sister” Champagne to the vaunted Salon, this venerable Cotes des Blancs house is one of my favorite “unsung” producers. Delamotte produces three Champagnes- a Brut, a Rose and a Blancs de Blancs (the 1999 is the current vintage). They’re uniformly well made - elegant and refreshing and the clean, minerally Brut (about $44 retail) is a particularly good buy. In fact, it’s what I think I’ll be drinking if my current “malaise” - as one friend labeled my flu-ish state - develops into something more lasting. (Delamotte is imported by Wilson Daniels. (www.wilsondaniels.com)

Note to those following last week's blog: According to Kareem Massoud, the wines of Paumanok Vineyards will be available at New York Farmers' Markets starting this week. This Saturday they will be at the Abingdon Square market in the West Village and at the Union Square market next Monday, May 11th.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Expert Opinions

It’s said that the most effective form of merchandising is an expert’s opinion – even if it’s an expert you don’t know. Even if the expert only goes by one name, like Elizabeth. I learned this firsthand when I was shopping in Astor Wines and Spirits (www.astorwines.com) yesterday where they have several shelves of wines designated “staff picks” by people named Ali and David and yes, Elizabeth. “People look for wines that someone has recommended, “ said David Phillips to me. David –friendly and forthright– is a wine consultant at Astor (and the “David” of staff-recommended wines like the 2003 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi – although he tends to recommend more Italian whites than reds, said David. "I'm all about Italian white wine." )

The staff picks are designated by little cards complete with short descriptions of the wines and the names of staffers that are attached to the shelves. They may be computer-generated or hand-written - though the latter tend to disappear “Sometimes people take the cards off the shelf and take them along with a bottle,” David noted.

How did staffers choose their selections? “It might be after a tasting with an importer, or it might be a wine that I took home the night before and really loved,” David replied. The staff picks are always interesting wines with real character, he insisted.” Most of our choices are very reflective of terroir. They are like our wine list of the store,” (David used to be a wine director of “two-star Italian restaurant” in New York that he declined to identify.) But there’s a pragmatic side to the staff picks as well. “I’m not going to choose some wine that we only have 12 bottles in stock. I’m going to choose a wine that we have a lot of, “David noted. Did David have a favorite among the many staff-chosen wines? He did – and it happened to be one Elizabeth’s wines. The 2007 Beaujolais Blanc from Chateau de Chatelard for $13 imported by Wineberry (www.wineberry.com) “It’s a good transition for someone moving from New World Chardonnay to Burgundy,” said David. “And it’s unique- how many Beaujolais Blancs have you had? And it’s good. “ He had tasted the wine when the importer brought his wines to the staff. “He has an excellent portfolio,” David noted of Wineberry owner Eric Dubourg. But the Beaujolais might mark the end of Elizabeth’s wine recommendations. According to David, she’ll be moving to France soon - to work on her thesis about the effect of globalization on wine.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Light-Hearted in Long Island?

There’s so little in the way of good news right now – in wine and in life- that my automatic response is disbelief when I hear something good. Sales are up and profits are solid? What kind of gullible fool do they take me to be? And yet that was the report I kept hearing over and over from the Long Island producers I talked with in the past several days. According to Charles and Ursula Massoud, the ever-congenial proprietors of Paumanok Vineyards (www.paumanok.com) their sales have been strong and their stream of visitors steady. Of course the Massouds happen to make some very good wines, including the finest American Chenin Blanc I’ve ever tasted (the newly-released 2008 vintage is their best ever says Charles) but I still found this news of an upward trajectory hard to conceive.

And yet other Long Island producers that I spoke with said much the same thing. At Lieb Cellars (which produces a fine Pinot Blanc) and Jamesport Vineyard (home to an excellent Sauvignon Blanc) sales are up and winery traffic has been steadily growing. (www.liebcellars.com and www.jamesportwines.com) .

What accounts for this? Could it be that New Yorkers have finally embraced locavore drinking or are they simply opting out of paying the airfare to Napa in favor of a ride on the LIE? (That’s the Long Island Expressway, for the uninitiated). I think it’s due to two things: vineyard proximity and increased wine quality- and while there are a number of wineries producing some top bottles (such as those cited here- as well as a few others) the region is still something of a work-in-progress.

By the way, the good news applies not only to the North Fork but the South Fork as well, where there are two first-rate wineries - Channing Daughters (their Tocai is terrific) and Wolffer Estate (ditto their rosé) – but thanks to their Hamptons location, these two wineries have always enjoyed a steady stream of visitors. (www.channingdaughters.com and www.wolffer.com)

And for those unwilling to brave the two-plus hour drive from the city, there’s about to be even more good news; certain producers like Paumanok, will be selling their wines at greenmarkets around New York, starting the first week of May. (www.liwines.com for more information.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009


What do you think when you think of rosé? The Chateau Minuty salesman asked me as I approached his table at the Provencal rosé tasting in New York yesterday. Was he really interested in my thoughts, I wondered, or was he taking a poll for his marketing campaign?

I did what every well-trained journalist knows to do: I rephrased his question to one that I wanted to answer. ‘Do you mean ‘What are the qualities that I look for in a rosé?’” I aske, but continued with my answer, without waiting for his reply. “What I look for, above all, is a wine that’s refreshing- that isn’t too big or too alcoholic, a wine that’s crisp but savory, preferably with a beguiling aroma,’ Those are the qualities I look for in a rose. Is that what you mean?” I gave him a smile. “I guess, “ he replied, reluctantly and gave me a taste, looking over my head for someone else to talk to instead.

The Chateau Minuty rosé was one of dozens of 2008 Provencal rosés that I tasted and found agreeable, even if the vintage isn’t one of the region’s best. (The 2007 vintage by contrast was stellar; in 2008 there was a good bit of rain.) Among the other rosés I tasted and liked: 2008 Chateau de Pourcieux, a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault; the 2008 Rosé Classique of Rimauresq and the lovely, and surprisingly complex 2008 “M” Cru Classé from Chateau Sainte Marguerite, which is actually one of only 16 classified growths in Provence. (Priced around $27 a bottle, it’s imported by Dreyfus Ashby. (www.dreyfusashby.com.) For more rosé information: www.provencewineusa.com

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wine By the Numbers

It seems downright un-American to attribute success or failure to a series of random events but the effect of randomness is much greater than we realize (or acknowledge) argues Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard’s Walk “How Randomness Rules Our Lives.” (www.vintagebooks.com) Although the (hardback) edition of the book has been out for about a year, the paperback version has just been released and I received a copy last week- owing, I guess, to the second word in the title.

At least that's what I thought until I got to the book's seventh chapter “Measurement and the Law of Errors” in which Mlodinow discusses the value of wine ratings. His premise- unsurprising as he is a scientist – is that the taste perception of a wine is too subjective to be suited to numerical ratings.

He cites several sources who more or less agree with his premise and notes that a few wine editors even admit to the “nonsensical” nature of the ratings system - though theyfound that when they used verbal descriptors that wine drinkers were unconvinced- and ultimately unmoved to buy a particular wine. They wanted a wine with a number attached.

Alas, the anti-numerical wine score argument isn’t exactly new- though Mlodinow’s attempt to address it by means of a mathematical model is a great deal more dispassionate than, say, the raving anti-score editorials generally penned by British wine journalists. But (much) of the rest of the book is quite diverting and even entertaining in parts, particularly when Mlodinow cites a number of popular examples of random success (for example, the career of Bruce Willis and the books of Stephen King) and the way our culture equates success with personal worth.

In the end, Mlodinow concludes (we must) “keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at-bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized.” It sounds a bit like my dad’s favorite saying: “The harder I work the luckier I get.” Maybe it’s just a matter of chance- and a few advanced degrees – that my dad didn’t write a book like this. Leonard Mlodinow is a visiting professor of physics at Caltech and the co-author (with Stephen Hawking) of A Briefer History of Time.

The Drunkard’s Walk, by the way, is a mathematical term to describe random motion- and as Mlodinow says, “a metaphor for our lives.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

At a loss for Words

I’ve been thinking about the inadequacy of language a lot lately. Which I guess is a rather odd thing for a writer to do. But I’m thinking especially about the way people communicate how a wine tastes or how it smells and - for want of a better way to say it (see what I mean?)- how it makes them feel.

There are so many ways in which a wine’s character can be parsed. It can be summed up by a series of descriptors (berries, earth, spices and so on) or it can be delineated by its structural elements- tannin, acid etc. Or it can be described by some of the most maddening words in the English language.
What are they? I asked Joe Salamone and Tom Stephenson, the brain trust at Crush Wines in New York (www.crushwineco.com) what they thought some of the most inadequate, most difficult-to-decipher words might be. Their answers were both funny and insightful. “Yucky taste,” Tom offered. “Customers will ask us for a wine ‘without that yucky taste' - as if we have two sections in the store, “Yucky Taste” and “Without Yucky Taste.” "Harsh," is another he offered. And "bitter" too.
According to Joe, people often ask for a wine “without bite” or a wine that's “dry." That’s a really hard wine to figure out, Joe says. Dry is a pretty wide spectrum of wine, after all. But the most perplexing word of all? The word that tells a retailer or anyone else for that matter, the very least? “Smooth.” They both answered - smoothly in unison.

What do YOU think are the most inadequate words in the language of wine ?

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Glass Act

I've been a big fan of the wines of Calera (Hollister, California) for a very long time. My admiration extends all the way from their single vineyard Pinot Noirs to their Viognier. I think winemaker/owner Josh Jensen does an especially laudable job with this difficult white grape from the Rhone. (Jensen has had more practice than most Americans, having planted it way back in 1982)

I brought the 2007 Calera Mt. Harlan Viognier ($28, www.calerawine.com) along to my friends' Easter dinner yesterday because it's such an Easterish, springish sort of wine- so bright and flowery with brilliant notes of honeysuckle and all the lively acidity that Viognier can possess – and yet so rarely does. (Most show a great deal of ponderousness instead.)

The wine was a hit, of course. As was its cork. "Glass! That's a glass cork!" my friend Kathy exclaimed, turning it over in her hand. She passed it around for the others to inspect. Her husband, Michael just said, "That's a really nice wine." (Michael is the official Easter Chef. He makes a seven sometimes eight-course meal– one year he even cooked, for the first time, from the French Laundry cookbook. The man is that fearless.)

Jensen is pretty fearless too. He planted grapes long ago in a place that no one thought Pinot Noir or Viognier could do well and is currently one of only a few American winemakers who are using glass closures (there are a few wineries in Washington State that are using them as well). Josh began experimenting with these closures (they’re called “Vino-Seal”) about four years ago and now finishes several of his wines with glass corks.

Glass corks more expensive than many standard corks (about 60 cents each at last report) and I haven’t been able to find any conclusive studies on their long-term effectiveness but Austrian and German winemakers have been using them for a number of years. There’s actually a factory in Worms that produces them and the prestigious Geisenheim Institute in Germany has indicated the closures have their approval. They have mine as well though for less scientific reasons: My father was in the glass business and as he would say, “Glass always looks good.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Sin of the Second Bottle

I had dinner with some friends at Minetta Tavern last night. According to one of them it’s “the hottest restaurant in New York” right now. Unsurprisingly, it’s a Keith McNally property - an old Italian joint reborn as a trendy McNally boite. McNally of course is the restaurant impressario responsible for Balthazar, Pastis, Morandi, Schiller’s et al.

I actually ate at the original Minetta back in its red sauce days and while I have no memory of the food, I do remember the wine that we drank: Principessa Gavi. Back then, there wasn’t much in the way of prestigious Italian white wine (actually there still isn’t) but Gavi was considered a pretty sophisticated drink. The new Minetta wine list, created by Chris Goodhart (who puts together all the McNally lists) bears no resemblance to Minetta original. (No Gavi) Which I guess is a good thing.

Except that the list is largely directed to those in the know with money to spend. For example, there’s a 2004 Clos Rougeard “Bourg” Samur Champigny for $170 that my friend Glen Vogt, the wine director of Crabtree Kittle House (who was in our group of four) declared “incredible.” Not to mention a 2002 DRC La Tache for a pretty reasonable $1,500 (“infanticide” Glen declared) and a magnum of 1989 Quilceda Creek Cab at $1,200. (“We have some of that at our restaurant,” Glen mused.)

But if you’re in the market (as I usually am) for a wine around $50, the pickings are considerably slimmer. A red wine from Corsica? A basic 2007 Bourgogne? A Central Coast Grenache? None appealed. I went with a 2006 “Cuvee de la Tour Sarrazine” Gigondas from Le Clos de Cazaux ($60). This Grenache-dominant blend was delicious – perfectly balanced, lovely ripe fruit, brilliant acidity. “This is a wine that’s hard not to keep drinking,” Glen said.

But when it was time for a second bottle (Glen was right) we couldn’t find anything as interesting in the same price range. We’d have to step up another $20 or $30 for a second wine that was on par with the first. Why is this so often the case? Why can’t there be several wines of similar quality and interest in the same price range? But it was no time for rhetorical questions- there was still half of the (terrific) Black Label burger left. Defeated and thirsty, we committed what I suppose is considered a sin among adventurous wine drinkers: we ordered a second bottle of the Gigondas.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I had a few things to do so it has taken me a day longer than I'd intended to report the results of the Best Sommelier in America Competition but the results are in and the BSA title belongs to Michael Engelmann of Gary Danko in San Francisco. Englemann bested three of his finalist peers (and dozens in the semi-finals) in an arduous exam conducted at New York's Essex House hotel that included spotting the mistakes on an error-ridden wine list that the judges were rumored to have stayed up til one in the morning creating. (Sample wines: 2007 Pinot Noir Cuvee Alexandre Casa Lapostelle Patagonia Argentina; 2002 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Russian River Chardonnay) Other challenges included a four wine/four spirit blind tasting (wines could be tasted, spirits only nosed). The latter led to some pretty wild guessing- the same spirit that was identified as tequila was also called grappa and even Midori! (Who drinks Midori anyway?) The reason for such disparity was because the spirits were served in black Riedel glasses. (I used these once in a seminar on aroma and asked the class to tell me if the wine was white or red. In fact, it was an oaky Chardonnay but they thought it was a red). Decanting was another challenge and woe to the sommelier who lit the match incorrectly or blew the flame out. (A wine director friend of mine says he avoids this all together by using a mag light when decanting. I feel sure he would have been thrown out of the competition.) Other challenges included pairing specific wines to a seven course menu and opening and pouring a bottle of (Pommery) Champagne- all of which I thought Englemann pulled off with great aplomb - and that, of course, is one of the most important attributes of a top sommelier: great confidence. My congratulations to all who participated- there was plenty of talent in the room and no small amount of aplomb.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Star Sommeliers

I took a walk over to Essex House hotel this morning to check out the finalists in the Best Sommelier in America competition organized by Andrew Bell, the head of the American Sommelier Association. Actually 'orchestrated' would be a better word. What a well-run event it was... and I was only seeing a small part of it as the competition had actually been running since Sunday morning. Bell was ably assisted by a number of the biggest names in som-dom (Robert Bohr, Tim Kopec, Eric Zillier) and of course, returning champ, Aldo Sohm, who did a dry run through the stages of the test - both practical and theoretical - that the four finalists (only one New Yorker!) would soon face. I got a bit short of breath just thinking of what lay ahead for the three men and one woman who would soon be on stage. I won't detail the test just yet (perhaps tomorrow) but suffice it to say that any would-be sommelier should be practicing not only their service points but also memorizing the names of some very (very) obscure grapes.
The audience was composed chiefly of sommeliers, those who were just cheering for friends and those who had been part of Sunday's semi-finals, but I can't imagine there was anyone present who wasn't just a little bit intimidated - and more than a little impressed. More anon.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tale of Two Tannats

In the past two nights, I've attended two different dinner parties and been served two different Uruguayan wines. This may not seem like a remarkable coincidence save for the fact that both dinner parties were in suburban New York. (Tannat, a rather tannic red native to Madiran, France is the one grape that Uruguay has grown famous for, but it isn't exactly commonplace in the States.) The first party was a gathering of women, none of whom were particularly wine-savvy or trend-focused and yet... among the wines served was a 2007 Juanico Tannat- Merlot blend, an earthy, soft pleasant wine that retails for about $11 (VOS Selections). The second night was a group of media types hosted by my friend Liz Johnson, the food editor of the Journal News (who is also an amazing cook and whose blog, Small Bites (www.lizjohnson.lohudblogs.com) is the single best source of information on new restaurants, wine events etc. in the Westchester-Rockland County area of New York At the end of the meal, Liz brought out a bottle of Vinedo de los Vientos Alcyone, a fortified wine made from Tannat (imported by T. Edwards) that she'd bought in her favorite wine shop (Grape Vine) in Tappan. I've never had a wine quite like it before... it tasted like milk chocolate and smelled like essence of vanilla. It was certainly rich and it was definitely intense. Liz had bought it to pair with the lemon-chocolate tart that she'd made. To say that the match worked well would be an understatement. One woman actually swooned- something I haven't seen that happen at a dinner party in some time. And never in suburban New York. Could Cheever Country have turned into Tannat Territory?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of bold faced names and even bolder wine prices

I suppose it’s fitting that my first blog post should be about money. It’s top of mind for most people these days. Except, perhaps, for Richard Gere. (More on that shortly.) I’m thinking specifically, about the price of wine in restaurants. Although wine retailers have dropped their prices- some dramatically so – a lot of restaurant wine prices seemed to have stayed pretty much the same as they were in the pre-Madoff, pre-AIG bailout days. There are some exceptions, to be sure- but then there are the wine prices of The Farmhouse in Bedford, New York, a restaurant owned by Richard Gere. This newish restaurant (it opened a few months ago) is said to be a favorite haunt of locals like Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren, who ride their horses right up to the door. It's certainly a good-looking place in a suburban equestrian style and the food is pretty fair. But the wine prices are, in a word, outrageous. Given the job of ordering a "decent reasonably priced wine" for a table of eight, I combed the list several times, looking for something that might fit my host's request ... and found a bottle of 2007 Jolivet Sancerre for $77- and that was one of the cheapest white wines on the list. (No, I didn't buy it; I opted for an $85 FX Pichler Gruner Veltliner.)

Had Gere's last few movies made so little money he was looking to make it up on sales of Sancerre? Or had Loire Valley wine prices skyrocketed recently? Coincidentally, I ran into Jolivet's importer a few days after that dinner. I told him the story of the restaurant's prices and professed to be shocked. How much was the wholesale price of Jolivet anyway? I asked. About $200, he said, reduced to $180 with a five-case purchase. In other words, Gere's getting more than six times his bottle cost. Well, that has to be a much better return than than most of Hollywood is getting these days.