Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Report - The Making of a Great Wine: Gaja & Sori San Lorenzo

Really an excellent book for all levels of knowledge and interest.  Many books on winemaking are mired in theoreticals and what ifs.  And that isn't a bad thing if you are trying to learn all you can about every decision point possible.  But it can be overwhelming at times.  Just wait for my review of "General Viticulture!"  In our book for today, however, Edward Steinberg has taken the welcome approach of narrowing his focus to one vineyard and one harvest that would ultimately produce the 1998 Gaja Sori San Lorenzo Barbaresco.

For those who have not tasted Nebbiolo from the Piedmont, go and try it.  The color is light, which can deceive a newcomer into thinking the wine is medium or even lightweight.  The nose is redolent of rose petals, raspberries, tar, black tea and spices.  Tasting will blow you away with a wall of puckering tannin unless you choose a wine that's well aged, the wines are HUGE!  They are expensive (good ones start at $50), and cellar for decades.  I've never tried the particular wine from Steinberg's book, it goes for between $450 and $600 at auction, but I know and love the type.

Read and you will fall in love with the uniqueness of Piedmont, its grapes, land and producers.  Along the way, Steinberg absolutely packs the book with knowledge of enology and viticulture.  We learn about Nebbiolo's unfortunate vigor, which bacteria grows where and when, and why Gaja plants straight up and down the hillside instead of across.  Esoteric details are really brought to life and his characters are colorful and eager to tell their stories.  We visit an oak auction with the guy who provides the staves for Gaja's barrels, his cork producer, many of his vineyard hands, even his chemist.

If you truly want to immerse yourself in a sense of place and time, and you think discussions of yeast strains are interesting, this book is for you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Report - The Vintner's Apprentice

Some time ago, I took a couple of courses in air conditioning repair.  My theory was to save the restaurant money by doing simple things myself instead of calling the $85/hour crew whenever a drain got clogged or an air filter needed changing.  Anyway, the bulk of HVAC repair turned out to concentrate on electrical systems, and so I took a week or so to learn how to read circuit diagrams. They were fairly straightforward and easy to understand.

On the first day of  actual repair, however, this is what I saw instead of a simple diagram:

And I suspect that phenomena is at work as I learn about viticulture (growing grapes) and enology (making wine).  I am reading about five of these books at once, so as I write the reviews, take them with a grain of salt and remember this metaphor.  I have no experience in actually tending vines or making wine, so what I think of as good writing and clever useful insight may well be a load of crap once you reach the crushpad.

That being said, Vintner's Apprentice was quite good and a more entertaining treatment of the subject than I have seen.  It approaches the basic steps of growing grapes and turning them into wine through a series of interviews with famous and important wine people.  There are many pictures.  The book itself is gorgeous.  It is geared towards an enthusiastic amateur lover of wine, and instead of providing knowledge, it tends to lay out the land and ask the pertinent questions without answering them.  There is a good framework here for more study, it is worth checking out.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Calling Ceasar Chavez

I just read a very disturbing report from Human Rights Watch concerning the conditions of grape farmers in South Africa.  The 111 page report details workers being housed in pig stys and outhouses, spraying pestacides without safety gear, and being harassed and threatened when they ask for more.  A shortage of state inspectors and a rule providing advance notice of inspection work against amelioration.  The full report is available at  I will post updates and responses from the SA wine industry.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Road Trip!

A break in the action at work left me with a weekday off and an unquenchable yearning to leave the environs of Washington DC.  Those of you who know that I used to be a lobbyist are familiar with my bipolar swings of desperately missing politics and wearily hating this city and all it stands for.  Thus it was that I traveled to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a day trip, in search of Chenin Blanc.

No other white wine so confounds me during blind tasting as Chenin Blanc.  I usually guess that it's a lightly wooded Chardonnay, a lower acid Riesling, or something nondescript.  I am fond, however, of thinking it's just my lack of experience with the grape and not a hole in my palate that is to blame.  So I have been gathering lots and lots of examples of Chenin for a grand tasting sometime in the early autumn.

The wine I was looking for is from the Breede River Valley in South Africa.  Most of what we get here is the States is from the coastal regions of SA, and Breede is right behind that, with a more continental climate.

 It is also stunningly gorgeous.

Alas, I didn't find the bottle I was looking for; which sucks because the WSET loves Chenin and South Africa and London is lousy with Breede River examples.  I did, however, find a few other gems - A Walla Walla Chenin, One from Baja Mexico, and ...wait for it...India.  I sorta knew on some level that they made wine in India, but it never occured to me that they export the stuff.  Stay tuned for tasting notes from the gala event.  And enjoy a few pics from the trip!

 Pink Mercedes!

The Blue Ridge

Winchester, VA

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Custom Made Knife

A non-wine interlude from a professional chef. I have been on the waiting list to buy a Bob Kramer custom knive for 5 years. Kramer is a brilliant and creative master knife maker, and the only certified master who specializes in kitchen knives. He's pretty darn famous right now, having three exclusive lines of knives at Sur la Table and Williams Sonoma from Henckles and Shun.

The custom stuff is incredible, and incredibly expensive. But yesterday I received my knife. The specs were mine, but the artistry is all Kramer. Check this out.

Quite simply the most gorgeous knife ever.  I was tempted to just hang it on the wall, but instead I took it to work to put her through her paces.  The shape is a Japanese kiritsuke, really a slicer.  I used it to break down an 80-pound halibut, a bunch of salmon, and a tuna loin.  It was like butter.  And I'm a harsh critic to begin with - all of my knives are very high quality, most Suisin and Masanobu.  I regularly have arguments with my cooks about which powdered steel alloy makes the best core material...I'm a knife snob.

If you love cutlery and can wait five years, go ahead and put yourself on the waiting list.  You can spend that time learning how to use and care for it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wine at the Movies

It sounds like a cool idea, the Washington Wine Academy sponsors a tasting event prior to the 7:30 showing of a movie at my local Arlington Cinema Drafthouse.  The movie was pretty good, Hangover 2.  The tasting was a hot mess.

I'm a little reticent about blasting this tasting.  I am a student at the other wine school in town, Capitol Wine School, and I don't want you to think this is inter-school rivalry.  I might actually need to take some classes there for my WSET Diploma.  Let me just give you the facts.

The woman running the tasting intimated that she had passed the WSET Advanced test, the same level as me.  But she knew nothing about the wines save the breakdown of a Rose.  She kept telling me to just read the back labels because they were interesting.  Second, she put a sweet Norton right into the middle of the lineup instead of at the end.  Putting sweet wines before dry ones makes the dry ones that follow taste like crap.  Third, they were charging $1 for a 1oz taste of wines that wholesale for about $5.  That's a 260% markup, which is restaurant level.  For that kind of money, one should expect white linen tableclothes, crystal glassware, and knowledgeable servers.

Last, she was serving a wine that was clearly off and telling customers how wonderful it was.  The wine in question was Tarara Rose 2008.  I know the folks at Tarara, and while I am not a huge fan of Virginia wine or their particular version of it, I know they don't put out flawed wines.  I may or may not like them, but they are clean winemakers.  I actually sat with my book "Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures," by John Huddelson, trying to figure out what made this wine taste so bad.  Finally, I figured out it was both cooked and sun-faded.  But no WSET advanced certificate holder should have served it.

Here are the wines I tasted:

2010 Fire Road Sauvignon Blanc - Marlborough NZ
Actually very good.  Flint and Grapefruit on a racy acidic frame with a medium-plus finish.

2009 Alvarez y Diez Rueda Mantel Blanco Verdeho - Spain
Restrained nose.  Lime and green apple flavors.  Lots of stemmy, unripe flavors too.

2008 Tarara Rose - Virginia
See note above.

2010 Chrysalis Norton (Barrel Select?)- Virginia
Nose has some fruit, but is dominated by Diacetyl and Acetyl Pyrazine.  Diacetyl smells like butter, and is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation.  Though it is key to production of obnoxious Napa Chardonnay, most consider it a flaw at dectectable levels.  Acetyl Pyrazine is the stuff used to make "butter flavored" popcorn.  So, this wine had huge levels of buttered popcorn aromas but wasn't a chardonnay.  On tasting, it was also sweet and fizzy.  It had started a secondary fermentation, which is the result of unclean winemaking.  Flawed wine!  Also sweet, which makes the next wine taste thin and crappy.

2010 Pongo Pinot Noir - Marlborough NZ
Once I got past the other wine, this was fine.  Earthy, with dried cherries, leather and smoke.  It wasn't very generous.  At the price point, it's quite a buy.  Blind, it is merely acceptable.

All told, I won't be going back for the wine.  The drafthouse does have a full bar with excellent beers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Special Occasion Wine Bar

I just worked the fish station for a record week at Willow, in terms of attendance.  Having survived with only minor injuries, I was ready to celebrate.  Wendy had some job related success to celebrate, so it was off to our favorite wine bar! 

The Enoteca is located almost 45 minutes from our house in 'the burbs' of Northern Virginia, near Dulles Airport.  It is also inside a Whole Foods grocery store.  Not the most glamorous of locations, and it is almost always deserted, but the place is just amazing.  Sixty wines by the glass are in a series of Enoteca machines, available in 1, 3, or 5oz pours via a smart-card.  You can even order cheese plates from the store below.

Okay, so it' spacious, pretty and has a lot of options.  But let me tell you about the stock.  The guy who runs the place, Kyle, they pretty much let him do whatever he wants.  Once, he put six Leroy Grand Cru Burgundy's in the case.  He's always got Chateau d'Yquem for $25 per taste.  1982 Sassiacia?  Sure!  20 year-old Vouvray, vertical collections of Super Tuscans, inexpensive but rare wines like Portugese's a wine geek playground!

Here's what Wendy and I tasted:

2007 Newton Chardonnay Unfiltered - Napa
Pale gold.  Aromas of honey, apricot, orange blossoms, lots of oak treatment.  Surprisingly crisp (1/2 malo?), long finish.  Not acidic enough for food unless it's very bland.

2003 Vignobles Brisebarre Vouvray Moelleux Grand Reserve - Loire
Delightful.  Peaches, honey, apricots, lemon cream.  Medium acidity, it seems to be at its peak.  Drink it alone or with some angelfood.

2010 Joao Pires Muscat - Terres do Sado - Portugal
Very restrained nose.  Not much going on in the flavor department either.  This is muscat?  Lean cucumber and melon, lime and a bit of spice.  Short finish.

2009 Pierre Prieur & Fils Sancerre - Loire
Pale lemon with green highlights.  Very classic flavor profile, some oak treatment.  Lemon and lime.

2005 Jean-Michel Guillon Santenay "Les Bras" - Burgundy
Medium gold color, well developed aromas and lots of oak treatment.  Very well integrated.  There's an herbaceous quality here, a fresh note I've never gotten from Chardonnay, mint or eucalyptus.  Long finish.

2008 Beaux Freres Pinot Noir - Willamette Valley
This is Beaux Freres basic bottling using purchased grapes.  The texture is the fine grained tannins I expect from this producer, but it's way lighter than anything I've ever had from them.  This is despite the fact that 2008 was pretty much the best year ever in Oregon.  Good but disappointing.

2006 Jean-Michel Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Crais" - Burgundy
Bacon, savory, plums and smoke.  That looks like Syrah aromas, no?  Only the prickly raspberry aroma would prevent me from guessing it's a Rhone.  ...until I tasted.  Bright cherries, smoke, white mushroom, earth, lots of finesse.  Very classic and drinking at its peak now.

2006 G.D. Vajra Barolo Albe - Piedmont
Profound aromas of red cherries and spices.  Tannins that threaten to dissolve my teeth.  If you can get past that, it's really lovely.  Gorgeous texture and flavors of rose petals, cherries and tar, with finishing notes of tobacco and pepper.  Give it another 5 years.

2007 Ramey Claret - Napa
Cassis.  Youthful nose with a bit of herbaceousness.  Medium-plus acid and pretty big tannins.  Very elegrant in style, as the name would suggest, with a creamy finish.   

2007 Domaine du Vieux Telegraph Chateauneuf-du-Pape
The nose is jammy, with black licorice, pepper and tar.  Infanticide!  Acid and tannin are holding back a tidal wave of flavors, but good luck parsing them.  Wait five years.

2006 d'Arenberg Shiraz The Dead Arm - McLaren Vale
Aromas are of lots of black fruits.  Pure and profound on the nose.  I had this shortly after release and the taste was quite a bit more forward.  It must be in a dumb period because it wasn't giving much.

2007 Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa
Not much nose beyond faint cassis and blackberry.  Infanticide!  I've never tried Cakebread because I was turned off by it's cache, but this is the real deal.  Massive tannins, savage fruit.  Gonna be great is about three years.

2003 Castello dei Rampolla Vigna d'Alceo - Tuscany
Creamy nose of red cherries and over-ripe red plums, spices, black olives, thyme, graphite, and tar.  In other words, smells great.  On the palate, not so much.  It's muddy, tired-yet-still-acidic, and unimpressive.  Over $100 a bottle?  Right.

2004 Castello dei Rampolla Vigna d'Alceo - Tuscany
More of the same.  Kyle had a vertical going to 2006, but I passed.  For $10 an ounce, I can be disappointed elsewhere.

Okay, after this, Wendy and I switched to dessert wines.  It's tough for me to be critical of dessert wines because I love them all.  I didn't take careful notes on each, but here are the highlights.  The Taylor 20 year-old Tawny port tasted like a Tawny ought to, with excellent intensity.  The 1997 Fonseca Vintage Port was a bit confusing and muddled.  Out of balance and perhaps in a dumb period.  Steindorfer Cuvee Klaus Eiswein 2001 and Suduiraut Sauternes 1990 were both the freaking bomb.  

But here is the shocker of the entire tasting, in my opinion (and Wendy agreed)...Inniskillin Vidal Icewine 2007 beat the hell out of Chateau d'Yquem 2003.  Yes.  That happened.  To be fair, both were proundly wonderful.  And 2003 was the big heatwave in France.  But still, the Canadian is perhaps a quarter of the price, and ungodly good.

A stellar tasting.  Really.  Visit poor lonely Kyle if you get a chance, and ask for a tour of the reserve room.  He's got about 20 bottles of Screaming Eagle stashed in there.