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 ( 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 (

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.”

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. (

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. (

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 ( 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 ( “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.