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 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.