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.