Sunday, May 31, 2009

Three "Wine" Books: One traditional, two not.

I’m constantly being asked to recommend wine books, and when I am I recite the usual litany---Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas, Jancis Robinson and the Oxford Companion, etc., etc. The usual list of usual suspects that you can usually find anywhere.

But three books I like to recommend somehow seem to catch people off guard. Interestingly enough, they have always been amongst my most favorite on the subject. Neither academic nor ordinative, with little in the way of facts and figures, they are simply the most inspiring and lovely and eloquent of books. They are, in point of fact, superb books first, and “wine books” second.

The first is the least controversial and the most wine-focused, On Wine by Gerald Asher. An amusing and amazing twee little man (and he’ll tell you so himself), Gerald is one of the most pleasant and stimulating conversationalists I’ve ever known. He elevates it to a high art form, and that ability carries through perfectly into his writing. He’s perhaps best known as a long time wine chronicler for Gourmet magazine (and lo, he has a book of those columns), but he is worthy of more than an occasional brief read every month or so, and comes to full fruition in a concentrated reading. Reading, one would hope, with a pleasant glass of wine in hand. Gerald is singularly responsible for writing the most evocative and compelling treatise on the joy and simple splendor of Beaujolais it has ever been my pleasure to read. Seriously: I defy you to read this piece, which is primarily a simple lunch in Beaujolais, without falling in love with the region and the wine.

The second book engenders some puzzled looks when I mention it: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. “That’s a wine book?” people say. “Yes, in the most important way, it is,” I reply. Wine is a portion of the book only, subsumed within and among Hemingway’s descriptions, but again, I defy you to read the passages where he talks about wine and food and Paris and people, and not clearly, and precisely, and emotionally, and sensually understand the power, the effect, the influence of wine. Hemingway eventually became a parody of himself, true, but here, in his youth he had an amazing power couched in a new and startling style that was electric in its force and intensity. Early on, read the passage where he writes…about writing, really… but describes the day, the place, the food, the wine. No one has every described what a Sancerre is quite as well as he did. It is a goosebump moment of writing, and you cannot read it and not salivate at the Sancerre and oysters. (I understand that there is a new revised issue of the book coming out, with the reparation of roughly sixty pages excised from the first printing; I expect it will be even better than the original.)

The third book is the most powerful, the most compelling, and easily the most poetic. Again, it’s not about wine, per se, and wine features prominently in only one of the stories----it’s a trilogy piece---having to do with the poet and translator M.S. Merwin and his stay in the upper Dordogne of France.

It’s called The Lost Uplands. It’s three stories about people, and although it takes place in a particular place and a particular time, a time that is ‘lost’ in more than one meaning of the word, it’s really about all of us. The central story is about a humble local wine merchant---not in the modern sense that you would think, but the more traditional rustic rural wine merchant, a man who was part and parcel of the community in a very intimate way…think more of the old idea of a milkman, only with a more volatile and culturally important beverage than milk! Merwin’s writing pulls you softly into this lost world, and you feel it so intimately, so immediately, so completely, that you sense taste and texture and tone. Wine, in Merwin’s story, is integral to, and integrated into the fabric of the society. It’s a beautiful story, beautifully told.

So if you want to learn about acreage or varieties, farming philosophies or winemaking techniques, if you’re interested in the auteurs and critics and promoters---you really won’t find it in either of these books. What you will find, though, is an implicit love of, and understanding for what wine is. And that’s what makes these three books great wine books.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

What's In A Name: As Promised, Burgundy!

Chambertin, one of the most famous vineyard plots in the world, is named after a peasant! A peasant named Bertin cultivated a piece of land which became known locally as “Champs Bertin”, or “field of Bertin”.

For the follicly challenged amongst us, the perfect wine would probably be Le Montrachet. Why? Because the name is derived from Mont-Rachat, or “bald mountain”. And if you are standing at the foot of the famous slope, gazing reverently at Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, try not to be startled when you think you’re in a war zone---you’re not really: those explosions are from the rock quarry right next to the vineyards. Hmmm: Wonder if Moussorgsky spent a night in le Montrachet?

And while we’re on the subject of Montrachet…. Am I the only one confused by all those names in that tiny space? (I thought not!) Here’s a little story related to me by a Burgundian to help you keep some of the names straight (and if you take this seriously, you’re more gullible than I thought):

The powerful Sieur de Montrachet (Le Montrachet) had a legal heir who was a famous knight (Chevalier-Montrachet). But one day, as Milord was riding through his domain he was attracted by some lovely ladies (Les Demoiselles; now Les Caillerets) from the local convent (Les Pucelles), and he dallied. The result was an illegitimate child (Batard-Montrachet), a handsome but colicky lad. The Lord loved him but was dismayed by his constant fretting (Criots-Batard- Montrachet—“The bastard is crying!”). When the Chevalier died tragically in the Crusades, the illegitimate child became the heir and was welcomed to his inheritance by the happy villagers (Bienvenue-Batard-Montrachet).

(It sounds more plausible after the third bottle of Burgundy. Especially if you're sampling the wines mentioned.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

What's In A Name: Let's Go Italian.

You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine!

Hey, the Italians know about the importance of sun on the vines as well. In the Piedmont several of the choicest vineyards incorporate the words bricco and sorì in their names (Ceretto Bricco Rocche and Gaja Sorì Tildin, for instance). Bricco is the local word for where the crest of the hill first catches the sun; sorì, in local dialect, is the place on a southward facing slope where the snow melts first.

Next, we'll go to Burugundy!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amaro Montenegro and Bitters in general...

I have, of late, rekindled my fascination with amari.

I have always been intrigued by them, but recently they returned to front of mind when I was researching the entire category of bitters/amari. That got me back into dabbling in mixology once again (these things go in cycles, dontcha know), particularly the use of bitters in cocktails

Bitters have certainly come back into the international cocktail scene, thank the gods. They add intriguing components of both aroma and flavor that can enhance the necessary balance of a good cocktail, and they keep the mind and the mouth from being fatigued by the sugars and alcohols.

I suppose I have the “Standard Plus” set up in my liquor cabinet---the obligatory Angostura, of course, with Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange Bitters as the base set. The biggest addition is the line up of Fee Brothers Bitters, including their version of Old Fashioned Bitters, which contains angostura bark (which, oddly enough, Angostura Brand does not!), Lemon Bitters, a luscious Peach Bitters, and the wonderful Grapefruit Bitters (!!!). The Fee Brothers Mint Bitters I’m not so fond of---if it’s mint, I want it fresh. And the Cherry Bitters? Bit sweet; not the right balance for me. Tried Stirrings, but immediately rejected them: almost cloying in their sweet base, and singularly without complexity or interest. Good marketing; mediocre product.

But the amaro that was the most astounding find---well, re-discovery, but it has been so long, it’s like a find---was the Amaro Montenegro. I cannot for the life of me understand why this incredible beverage is virtually unknown in the United States market. For such a concoction, which is in a category of its own in Europe, pretty much an icon, to be the occasion of shrugs and blank looks here, is bewildering to me.

Made in honor of Princess Elena of Montenegro (and, hey, don’t we all remember her so fondly?) this venerable European staple is the standby-goto when I’m looking for bitter. Or would be, if I could find a steady supply of it here. Which I can’t. Last found it in Canada, when I snagged some and brought it back in my luggage. And wouldn’t that have been something to break in transit!?!? But alas and alack, there’s alas a lack around here. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the low volume that means it is of low interest to importers. Maybe it’s in that ‘tween category, the death zone of the retail store, when you’re not quite sure if you should put it in the Liqueur section or in the Condiments and Barware section, so it gets lost and eventually ends up in the Closeout Bin.

In contrast to my usual style, I won’t even attempt to describe the myriad aromas and flavors steeped into this elixir. You’ll have to ferret out some for yourself. Let’s just say it will be worth the effort if you do. It is one of the most complex and compelling beverages I’ve ever had, suitable for singular consumption (which, to me, takes it out of the Bitters/Mixers category only) but eminently useful for mixing as well. Like fine wine---well, maybe like fine wine on steroids---it has an incredible nose (spices/herbs/undefinable other things), followed by an astonishing mid-palate of awesomely bitter intensity tempered with slowly emerging nuances of flavor seeping out from that, and lingering with surprising delicacy for quite the longest time.

You should get some. If you can. And if you can, would you please tell me where?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rum: Zaya and Zacapa. Zounds and Zoiks!

On a wine forum I peruse, Jamie Goode, Wine Anorak, gave a shout out for Matusalem. He meant the fortified wine, but another denizen immediately seconded it, specifying the Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva as the best rum out there.

While I am a big fan of Matusalem, and consider it fine stuff indeed, I’d have to reserve my highest accolades for two other rums that I think are truly superlative: Zaya and Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 YO. These two never fail to impress, and often simply amaze me with their complexities.

Zaya has been a favorite since the first sip some years ago. It is molasses dark in color, but that’s not from molasses, it’s from sugar cane juice (this is an agricole-style rum) distilled then slow aged in fine old whiskey barrels for twelve years. That aging process imparts some of the most intriguing aromas, combining the aromatic dregs of the whiskey, the vanilla of the white oak, and the floral and spice of the rum, to tame and soften the fiery spirit, and give it almost a liqueur status---but most definitely without the sugar a liqueur would have! Vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, nutmeg, allspice, clove, cola nut---it’s all in there, and the combination is mellow beyond belief.

Ron Zacapa Centenario, if anything, is even more complex and compelling than Zaya. (I should mention that here I am specifically referring to the Centenario 23 yo; there is a 15 yo, and it is splendid, but the 23 yo is the epitome of rumness.) The lushness and aggressive aromatics are actually toned down a notch, and emerge with more elegance and restraint. Where the Zaya jumps from the glass with its exuberance of character, the Centenario teases you with whispers and glimpses. Seriously, it’s a flirty, enticing, understated but nonetheless powerful rum, and it belongs right up there with the best scotch or cognac. Descriptors abound, from fresh coconut, to orange peel, to citrus zest, to honey, all the way up to dark brown sugar and the intense tang of cocoa. Fair Warning: the Centenario is expensive. But suck it up, and shell out the money. You’ll be glad you did, because this, my friends, is about as good as it gets. (Rationalize it however you wish: Life is short. You deserve it. It's only money. Just get the damned stuff, okay?)

Now pay attention, because here’s where the intricacies of international commerce make things difficult, and not a little dismaying for rum aficionados.

Zaya was a twelve year old rum made in Guatemala---by the folks who made Ron Zacapa! When the global drinks giant, Diageo, acquired Zaya, they increased the popularity so quickly, they decided to move the estate rum from Guatemala to…Trinidad? Yep, Trinidad. To ‘ensure quality and supply’, Diageo says. To bump up production and lower costs is more like it. How in the world they can switch from Guatemalan estate rum to Trinidadian bulk rum boggles the mind---but that’s the cold, hard, fact of industrial booze these days. The words "mockery" and "travesty" come to mind. So when you look for Zaya on the shelves, paw through all the bottles. If you can find one that says “Guatemala” as the source….BUY IT!!! They are hard to find, as the hiccup in production shift over resulted in an outage, and most of the older stuff sold out. But there’s likely some original Guatemalan stuff lingering in small shops and out of the way places. So be on the lookout.

Ron Zacapa, on the other hand, is still in Guatemala, and still doing what they do. Find it. Buy it. Drink it. Slowly, and with exquisite pleasure. You can thank me later.

What's In A Name?: Enough Bordeaux Already! Let's go Deutsch.




Urziger Würzgarten, Mosel
This vineyard is so named because of an iron-rich pocket at the bend of the Mosel near the town of Urzig that produces noticeably spicy wines. (“Wurzgarten” translates as “Spice Garden”.) Almost every vineyard on this stretch of the river is covered in schistous black slate; in Urzig, suddenly, the vineyard soils are a dramatic bright red from the iron in the soil…which some enthusiasts say imparts a definite ripe cherry flavor to the Riesling made there.



Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Zeltinger Sonnuhr, of course are famous for the large sundials in their vineyards. Sonnenuhr means “sundial”.

Why is the sundial so important, you might ask? Good question! Since the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is so northerly, and commensurately cold, the vineyard with the best sun exposure on the slope has the advantage for getting grapes ripe, and sundials are always located exactly on the spot where the slope gets the most sunlight all day long (Duh!).

Graacher Himmelreich is next door to Wehlen. Himmelreich = Kingdom of Heaven. (Most German vineyards were at one time owned by the church, hence religious names abound.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What's In A Name? (an ongoing series)---Bordeaux stuff

Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, St. Julien
One of the better classified growth Bordeaux, a “Super Second”, Ducru-Beaucaillou has a lovely, pebbly stream running through the property. “Beaucaillou” means “beautiful pebbles”.

Chateau Beychevelle
Another Haut-Medoc Bordeaux, Beychevelle purportedly received its name from the sailing ships coming down the Gironde Estuary. The Grand Admiral of France, Jean Louis Nogant de la Valette, resided at this estate. In deference, the ships customarily lowered their sails as they passed the estate. The French cry for “Lower Sails” is “Baisse Voile”. Eventually this became Beychevelle.

Water is essential to Bordeaux. For the grapes, of course, but also because it was a port situated on an estuary of two rivers, thereby controlling all the commerce of the region. The name itself is actually derived from the descriptive phrase au bord de l’eau (along the waters). In Bordeaux, the Gironde Estuary splits into two rivers. The land between the two rivers is called Entre-Deux-Mers, which technically means “between the seas”, but allowing for a little French aggrandisement can be taken as “between the waters”.

Many of the great chateaux of Bordeaux have “second label” wines at lesser though not necessarily inexpensive prices. For instance, Chateau Latour offers “Les Forts des Latours”. Hands down, my favorite second label name is the Alter Ego de Palmer from Chateau Palmer in Margaux.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Time In A Bottle...

One aspect of wine that makes it so compelling is its ability to carry both the past and the future within its present. It’s possible, though unlikely, to be Proustian with a Coke or a bottle of Snapple, I suppose, but it’s actually pretty normal to be so taken with a bottle of wine that you eagerly want to learn everything you can about its provenance and forecast just as eagerly what it eventually may become.

This was recently driven home to me with a bottle I freed from the wine cage, from that section down and in the back, the place where I keep the odds and ends and memorabilia of a life spent in the wine trade. This was a “library wine” in the truest sense of the term: a wine I had tucked away so that I could come back to it as I would come back to a particularly fascinating book, to reference it, to learn from it, to gauge the passing of time and its effect, both on me and the wine.

I was of late referred to in conversation as “a veritable walking omnibus of wine knowledge” (which I quite like, I’ll admit), and since I was to be in the company of two other people who fit that description as well, this bottle would be timely and appropriate.

Back in the 1990s, when I was National Brand Director of Jekel Vineyards, I worked closely with General Manager and Winemaker Rick Boyer on a program to develop an upper tier ‘brand within a brand’ for Jekel, based on an incredible vineyard in the Arroyo Seco called Sanctuary Estate. Monterey, because of its prevailing cold and windy climate, was never considered a preferred place for the Bordeaux red varieties, because those would invariably show the pyrazines and peppers emphasized by the climate, and so totally antithetical to the fruit-driven jamminess that Californiaphiles so adored.

But with the Sanctuary Estate, nestled down at the bottom of a palisaded river canyon 100 feet below the Monterey valley floor, sheltered from the persistent cold winds and several degrees warmer, with hundreds of feet of almost total riverine pebbles underneath for perfect drainage, the location was perfect for these varieties. Jekel grew all five Bordeaux varieties for the purpose of creating a Meritage Red Blend that was capable of being very impressive. And along the way, they separately bottled each of the five red varieties---in part to show how each variety developed individually, and to taste in ‘show and tells’ with trade and consumers against the finished blend.

Although it has become de rigeur now to do Bordeaux blends, and to farm all the varieties, and even Malbec has become a familiar entity in California, it was an oddity then to have such. Even more so with the exotic and rose-petal floral Petite Verdot.

I was quite taken with the Sanctuary Malbec in particular, so I tucked a few bottles away. What I pulled from my wine cage was the 1996 Jekel Sanctuary Estate Malbec, Arroyo Seco. Would it stand the test of time?

Yes, it would. The big tannins were tamed; the wine had softened and perfumed; and the scratchiness was gone from the front, while the middle had fattened up with fruit, without becoming the least bit pruny, raisiny, or jam-gobby. It was mature in the nicest sense of that word, elegant and refined, with no adolescent brashness but still vigorous and assertive, with every indication that it would be so for some years to come. Would that I had aged as well. I would happily put it up against the best of the Argentinian Malbecs.

And of course, with the taste of the wine, memories flooded in: walking the pebble-studded vineyards with Boyer, looking up at the arid hills beyond the canyon cliffs, feeling the coarse Russian thistle scrape and rasp against my jeans. Standing in the blissfully cool cellar room, tasting the barrel samples and tank samples of the Malbec as it began its journey, imagining what it would become individually and as a component of the Meritage blend.

And here that wine was, in my glass. I had, in a very real sense, watched the wine grow up. I had been there when it was born, I visited it numerous times in its youth, I aged and changed as it aged and changed, and now could appreciate what it had become, while still appreciating what it might yet become. I was objectively appreciative and subjectively proud in what I had been part of.

Jekel remains, albeit a pale shadow of what it was, and the Sanctuary Estate project of such great promise is now long disbanded, and the vines now supply a modest Merlot and Cabernet. This was a reminder of that past, a living record of liquid in a bottle, a time capsule. A thing to be remembered, a thing to enjoy, and a thing to look forward to. Not bad for 25.4 fluid ounces.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tequila: A Modest Proposal

I am an unabashed fan of tequila. I think it not only an equal to any other of the major spirits category, but would elevate it right up there with wine.

Problem is the mercantilists in charge of developing the category of tequila, when they had the chance, yielded to---as usual---the most common denominator, those market forces that yelled for the lowest bar to be set so the highest volume could be generated.

Tequila began, in the consciousness of the great US market, as that esoteric stuff you could get down in the Mexico border towns. Since it was cheap for all US tourists (at that time everything was cheap for the Norte Americanos by nature of the economy), that’s exactly how it was viewed. And truth told, the version around the borders usually was the cheapest the tequiladores could make---because not many people were interested in quality, after all; they simply wanted some rotgut as an alcohol delivery system they could brag about abusing when they were back home again. Or they wanted to tame the essential fieriness of the rough spirit by confusing it with sugar and fruit juices. Then, god forbid, totally eliminating taste by putting it in frozen concoctions.

When the great agave shortage happened at the end of the century---the officials made it worse. The tequila market was dominated by the mass producers, and they wanted to maintain the flow of tequila (and the flow of profits), so they forced the panicked authorities whose livelihoods depended upon a few families and a few companies, to lower the standards of what tequila was. Thereinafter, you had to distinguish between just “tequila” and “100% Agave Tequila”. Trouble was, “tequila” wasn’t tequila anymore: it was, by definition, only 51% Agave, with the rest being any neutral grain spirit but was almost always rum from sugar cane, a cheap commodity. Only the “100% Agave Tequila” remained real tequila…but the marketers were very careful never to explain why “tequila” wasn’t tequila anymore, because they didn’t want informed customers to know the difference.

So a fraud of sorts was foisted on the public. An extremely profitable fraud. And if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t know it had happened.

My modest proposal: dispense with the fraud, get rid of the “tequila” designation allowing 49% grain neutral spirits, and have only one tequila: 100% Agave Tequila. Let that other stuff have a different name; heck, put sugar in it and call it Tequila Liqueur. Since it’s good for syrupy frozen margaritas only, go the full route and mix some reconstituted lime juice and some artificial orange flavoring in the stuff, so the drinker only has to add ice and a blender. But don’t call it tequila anymore. Because it isn’t.

Meanwhile, all we afflicted customers can do is pay attention to the label and make sure we don’t buy any of the ersatz stuff. 100% Agave only, that’s the ticket. You’re still not assured you’re getting quality---but at least you’re getting the real thing.

The one tequila I would reccomend most highly right now is one I used to be affiliated with, but am not any longer. I still drink it, however, because it is one of the best: Herradura Reposado Tequila (100% Agave). Reposado requires only a couple of months of 'resting'; Herradura Reposado, however, is rested/aged for up to 11 months. It makes a difference; trust me. This is sipping tequila though. Not for shots, shooters or frozen margaritas (shudder). Preferably, a tall shot with a chaser of sangrita. Not sangria---sangrita.

Tell you what: when I get un-lazy, I'll post my recipe for sangrita and tell you the best way to drink these two beverages.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What's In A Name? (an ongoing series)

The world of wine is exciting, not only for the evident sensory pleasures it provides, but for the intriguing and amusing names and stories that abound. Herein are a few famous wine names and what they translate to, as well as the explanation of a few terms you might find interesting and some history you might find fascinating.

Here are three to get started:

Chateau Latour, Pauillac
Named after the small stone tower that serves as the estate symbol. Latour means… “the tower”. But be wary---there are lots of chateaux out there called “Latour Hyphens”. That is, they bear the name of Latour hyphen something else, but have no relation whatsoever to the great Grand Vin de Chateau Latour. Doesn’t mean they are good or bad, just that they are not Chateau Latour.

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, the justly famed Pauillac estate, could be translated as Rothschild’s Sheep House. Usually isn’t. Could be, though. Mouton is French for sheep.

Here’s another sheep for you: There is a Chablis, a very good Chablis, that is totally derived from the Grand Cru vineyards parcels in Chablis (of which there are seven). This Chablis, a monopole (single- owner property) is part Vaudesir, part Preuses. But it is not considered a Grand Cru---or it might be considered a Grand Cru, just not named such. It is Chablis Domaine de la Moutonne, the only non-Grand Cru made of two Grand Cru. Confused? Don’t be; it’s a Burgundian thing. Got that way through a famous court decree in the 1920s.

More, anon...

Reading between the wines...

There’s something infinitely pleasurable in the combination of a good wine and a good book.

True, most of us tend to think of wine as a convivial beverage, to be had as a celebration, at a cocktail party or bar, as a pre-prandial, or during dinner.

But the more solitary pleasure of slow and unhurried consumption of a glass of wine while reading a particularly good novel can be one of the great joys of a civilized life.

Imagine you’re comfortably settled in your favorite chair, the one that has come to fit all your contours (or perhaps vice versa). Let’s say it’s a raw day out and you’re warm and safe behind the rattling window panes, cocooned from the gusts and gales. Chores finished; guests gone; family quiet in their individual pursuits.

In your hands is the heft of novel that has been your Circe, calling you away all day to plunge back into her world. You separate the book along the tasseled bookmark, feel the soft mat of the page, inhale the paper and binding scent so familiar and so loved, and give a little sigh as you fall into this cunning other world the author has spun into place for you.

Imagine also there’s a glass of wine sitting beneath the lamp, glinting in the light. Let’s make it a hearty and purple young Cabernet if it’s a swaggering adventure book you’re reading, or a lighter, brighter, ruby-etched Pinot Noir for a cunningly devised and provocative story of international intrigue. A roller-coaster scenic thriller with a colorful panoply of outrageous characters might be better served with a spicy, tangy Zinfandel in the glass (oops, watch the alcohol level there, or it’ll be nap time instead.) But if it’s a great novel with profound ideas and grand expressions, I think a good vintage of Amarone della Valpolicella is called for, or at least a Brunello di Montalcino or stern and austere and brooding Barolo, poured from a bottle crusted in cellar dust.

No hurry here. No worries. All the time in the world. Long way to go in this book yet, and you’re ekeing out tiny controlled sips, with just the barest trickle of wine between your lips, with the wine sustaining the moment and the moment sustaining the wine. You can nestle down in the chair a bit, and breathe just the tiniest wine-scented sigh of contentment if you’d like. It’s okay.

What’ll we drink next?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

the girl, the fig, the guy, his wines...

the girl and the fig has always been a hangout for me, as far back as the Glen Ellen days. On the Sonoma Plaza it clicked: right location, right feel, right crowd and right cuisine focus.

Now it’s been there for a few years and it’s gotten to the point where it’s dancing the fine line between a dependable and comfortable hangout and a settled-in-the-rut, take-it-for-granted, do-what-we-do-every-day kind of sameness.

There are still some outstanding dishes that define this place, and thank god they are there: the pastis scented mussels in broth, almost always the best in town; the fig and arugula salad, one of their trademarks and justifiably so; the Croque Monsieur. And over the years they’ve upped the ante on the cheese selections with their in-store fromagerie that always features outstanding selections. But my favorite place, the bar, has become quietly predictable and unimaginative of late and could benefit from a little boost in the mixology department. And I get the feeling, at times, they are coasting just a bit.

Still and all, on a pretty Spring day with winemaker and friend Steve Edmunds in town, the girl and the fig can still put down a good meal. And with Steve providing the wines, we certainly had no shortage of the good stuff there.

Since I had previously raved about the ESJ Heart of Gold from our Cyrus dinner, Steve brought the 2008 release---this one with a tad more Vermentino in the Vermentino/Grenache Blanc blend. It was a bit fatter, a bit richer, perhaps not quite as eagerly aromatic as the previous vintage, but nonetheless enticing, with restrained fruit and alcohol (and if you don’t have your winespeak decoder ring, that means Steve picked the grapes when they were in balance and not raisiny-overripe, then he allowed the wine to reach its own expression without forcing it into being some steroidal monster), and no mask of oak to hide the freshness and zestiness. I love this wine. It’s almost like a two-stage rocket, with instant appeal as it enters with its pure expression of fruit, then an almost explosive expansiveness, a fullness in the back palate, with a refreshing tinge of puckery bitterness right at the finish.

And because there’s nothing masking the essential nature of the wine, it will be fascinating to observe the development curve; you can already see some pungent elements, like muskmelon, beginning to emerge, and I expect those will both intensify and develop some intriguing complexities with time.

With Steve’s duck confit omelette (which frankly needed a bit of salsa to perk up the flavors) and my standard grilled cheese sandwich (richly buttered sourdough filled with gooey cheese and fresh tomatoes, with some Dijon on the side, and garnished with some awesome bread and butter pickles), Steve popped open the 2007 ESJ Porphyry Gamay Noir Barsottti Ranch, El Dorado.

Once again, Steve shows his essential style: find the right location, work with the growers to develop the right fruit for it, don’t overdo either the grapes (no reason for raisins in this man’s wine; no brown seeds either) or the winemaking, avoid anything that might mask the flavor, and let the wine find its expression without goop or gabbiness or artifice. This Gamay Noir is a quiet little Loire-ish charmer, zen-like in its less-is-more way, with nothing but pure, clean fruit and bright, lean acidity and seamless line from beginning to end.

It’s an endlessly satisfying wine, pure pleasure for sipping but more than adequate with the food flavors (hello, acidity), and it encourages the slow diminution of the bottle (I ask Steve to let a little remain so I can take it home for Roxi; I want her to experience these two wines, as she is a fan of the ESJ as well).

The wine is so good, the conversation so delightful and stimulating and far ranging, the afternoon disappears before we know it, and we look to find the restaurant virtually empty around us.

This time the girl and the fig turned out to be in its comfortable, sustaining mode, providing the right food and the right feel, and the right place on a sunny Spring day to sample Steve’s unique wines. And, hey, isn't that what a local place is supposed to do?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chateau Latour and The Turning of the Wheel

Went to the mountain last night. The mountain where Spann Vineyards is located, up in the Mayacamas Range, perched between Sonoma and Napa, for dinner with the Spanns. Nothing major, just keeping old friendships intact and enjoying the Sonoma life.

Betsy was in her experimental grilling mode, so after the bubbly and chips (Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noir and potato, respectively; you should try it) we hunkered down over a mixed grill of succulent pork chops, chicken fillets, and Uruguayan grass-fed beef tenderloin, all dressed with an interesting new sauce that Betsy was playing with, a honey-lavender aioli. (!)

Meanwhile, Peter was meticulously decanting a Bordeaux off to the side. Couldn’t tell quite what it was…Pichon, maybe? No, that was just the cellar stain on the label that I mistook for artwork in the dim light. Then I got a full frontal shot…and it was Chateau Latour 1978! Well, alrighty then.

As the glass and my nose hurried to meet each other, there was the most concentrated and complex aroma welling up from the wine, I simply had to stop and appreciate it. For a moment, the pleasure was so intense that I was happy to just sit there and smell the wine, and not drink it; it smelled that good. But of course, common sense (or greed for more) prevailed and the mouth gratefully received what the nose had been savoring. Wonderful deep, dark blackberry and tobacco and a touch of anise, with a secondary hit of black raspberry (quite distinct, actually, both the raspberry and the ‘second wave’ assault). Silky soft on the tongue, without tannic scratch, and impressive in its flexibility with the food, especially the porkchop. This was a beautifully formed Pauillac…no, a Latour…and a reminder of what the great properties can produce and why they maintain their eminence, with nothing grise about it.

True, the vintage reveals itself at the finish, with a fall off of flavor and a distinct drying out of fruit. It’s altogether a lovely glass until that truncation, but with so much forward fruit one can even forgive the abruptness at the end.

The wine held sturdy through the cheese course, a triple cream and an aged dry jack, accompanied by grainy fresh baked home made bread.

And as we relaxed and reminisced in the late evening mountain breezes, and I dawdled with the now depleted bottle of Latour, and read the importer tag, it hit me: Warren Strauss. 1978. I sold this bottle to Peter back in Texas. My company direct imported quite a few Bordeaux through Warren Strauss back then, and we had taken a pretty good stance on the 1978 vintage. So this bottle had come full circle back to me many years later. Peter had maintained it in his cellar ever since. I had helped him load that same cellar for his move from Dallas to Sonoma. And there it was in my glass.

All the years. All the miles. All the experiences. All condensed into a bottle of Bordeaux on a mountain in Sonoma.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Chef 'Three-fer' Down In Monterey

There’s an event in Monterey each year that is about as close to a ‘must attend’ as possible for foodies, wine geeks, and anyone who is interested in sustaining our precious environment for the future…our future and our children’s future. Which, I believe, should pretty much cover everybody, no?

It’s called Cooking For Solutions, and it is an incredible gathering that takes place in lovely and salubrious Monterey every May. You can (and should) look it up. http://www.cookingforsolutions.org/ Hey, 2010 will be here before you know it.

This impressive week packed full of events is informative, engaging, and entertaining. One of the highlights is the Friday Evening Gala Tasting in the Monterey Bay Aquarium---talk about an appropriate venue for a fantastic tasting of food and wine!---and showcases an array of great chefs and food companies, along with a sprinkling of wineries interspersed---all of which embody and promote the virtues of sustainability and environmental consciousness.

I’ll confess it’s rather a treat to be standing in front of a room-sized wall of iridescent orange jellyfish while sipping wine and munching on sautéed abalone from the Chef at a local restaurant.

An event I was fortunate enough to participate in on the following Saturday was a remarkable ‘Chef Three-Fer’ Cooking Seminar. Attendees went to The Culinary Center of Monterey http://www.culinarycenterofmonterey.com/ right there on Cannery Row and got a round-robin, hands on, cook-your-own-lunch triple demo from three chefs. They circulate through Chef John Ash’s Mexican kitchen http://www.chefjohnash.com/ , then Jeff Jake’s Mediterranean kitchen http://www.plumpjack.com/ , then Mary Pagan’s Asian kitchen (Mary’s the Executive Chef at the aforementioned Culinary Center.)

CHEF ASH IN THE KITCHEN

After the three-kitchen demonstration, all the cooks got to settle down in the main room for a buffet lunch of what everyone had just cooked---Grilled Brined Shrimp, Sea Bass, Cockles, Turkish kofti, Korean Beef, Vietnamese Bun Cha, Wild Mushroom Quesadillas….and much, much more.

Along with the food buffet I had lined up a ‘wine buffet’….six selected wines (all from properly sustainable/organic/biodynamic/green producers, of course), all from different styles, and encouraged to the diners to find their own combinations and permutations of wine and food. I gave out some hints, some tips, some guidelines, but no rules. This was all about exploration and discovery.

Afterwards, everyone engaged in a rousing dialogue about their individual “Aha!” moments, and there was plenty of takeaway (ideas, not food---that was all gone; so were the wines). Some of the matches were fairly predictable (Riesling tends to go well with Asian dishes, and it can go well with the heat of some Mexican dishes); and others were not (Red wine isn’t necessary with red meat---some whites can do a fine job with lamb or beef). Once again, Sauvignon Blanc proved both its assertiveness as a wine, and its flexibility with foods.

The most surprising, and pleasant, takeaway for me was that these folks weren’t the least bit afraid of putting a wine with a little residual sweetness on the table with the food. They picked up on the other elements of the wine rather than sugar, understood that sugar could soften and moderate abundant flavors in some foods, and appreciated the lower alcohol coolness those wines brought to the table.

It was a great event, and everyone went away wined, dined, and with some newly found recipes, ideas, and friends. Not a one that wasn’t smiling either.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fiano and Bucatini di Scrigno

Lunch at Brindisi's, Belden Place, on a warm San Francisco day with friends. That's reason enough right there for a bottle of wine.

The list was sort of here and there, a disparate mix of Italian and Californian, but we were all having pasta so I decided on either Fiano or Vermentino. But the Vermentino was Bolgheri, and I prefer the island version, so I went with Fiano. Wasn't familiar with the label though: Tric a Ballac Fiano IGT Campania 2007 (Valley View Wines/Tomas & Giesen Shippers). Turns out Flavia, our waiter, wasn't familiar with it either.

Oh, oh. We're in an Italian restaurant and the wine is unknown, evidently from someone the owner knows, and that someone knows someone, who knows someone else. And the owner got a special deal. And it's only $28 a bottle. And none of us know this wine. And when the wine gets to the table, it's a 2005, not a 2007. *Gulp* What's the chances, hmmm?

But Flavia seems reasonable, so I tell her to pop it. Wonder of wonders, it's decent stuff! Not the best Fiano I've ever had, by any means, but certainly good stuff, with decent floral notes, some almond, tiny bit of herbs, and an intriguing and refreshing bite of bitterness right at the finish. So glasses are filled.

I know I shouldn't, but I can't resist the house signature dish, Bucatini di Scrigno. When I order, Flavia chortles, then quickly hides it. A few minutes later she brings a wire concoction with a bowl on the bottom level and a rim supporting a plate on the top level. "I didn't order pizza," I said. "No, no, no, this is for your Bucatini," she replied.

"What," I asked in a small voice, "Is the Bucatini?"

"Oh, no, I'll wait until I bring it out so it will be a surprise. You'll be impressed. It's the restaurant signature dish, you know."

Some time later Flavia comes out working hard to support and display a huge ceramic ramekin bowl covered with a thick layer of baked dough, and placed it carefully on the top dish.

"Oooo," cooed my friend Beth, "You've got twelve and twenty blackbirds! How fun!!"

Bucatini di Scrigno (which means a treasure chest or keepsake chest) is thick, ropy bucatini pasta (which I love) cooked with clams and mussels--in shells---shrimp, whitefish chunks, salmon chunks, and calamari with a rich tomato sauce. As she cuts open the pasta dough cover, I get a free facial from the moist, steamy fog of aromatic delight that comes from the fish and pasta stew. The pasta top is sliced off neatly and put on a plate; the rest I am expected to dig into with gusto.

More wonders: the seafood and shellfish are cooked to absolute tender and juicy perfection, but the bucatini is still firmly al dente, rich and chewy...and the tomato sauce is splendid.

The humble Fiano goes well with all of this, rising nicely to the occasion by cutting through the richness of the stew. I gorge until I can't lift the fork and spoon anymore, offer what I can to my companions, then push the bowl away with sizable portions remaining. This is a dish for two!

I barely left enough room for a macchiato...which was Illy, by the way, and done to absolute perfection. I'd go back here for the coffee alone.

So two nice finds---a previously unknown Fiano and a previously unknown Bucatini di Scrigno---on a sunny and warm San Francisco day with friends.

Life doesn't suck.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stumbling into the perfect wine...

All wine lovers seem to be seeking that Holy Grail, the perfect wine. I suppose it’s inevitable, a condition of the Human Condition, that we constantly seek perfection, elusive as it may be.

Me? While I’m not looking for perfection, I’ll happily accept it when it arrives on my doorstep. And arrive it did, just the other night.

My wife and I were out with friends, a combination of old and new, local and travelers, oft seen and rarely seen. It was a happy occasion on a pleasant evening with excellent people in a lovely restaurant with great staff and good food. The stage was set; conditions were…well, perfect.

Since all of us were wine geeks, of course we all brought bulging winebags with a dazzling array of selections. The table soon filled with the cream skimmings from those bags. Did I mention it was No-Corkage-Fee Night at the restaurant? I told you the conditions were perfect.

Wine abounded, from a 1999 Leeuwin Art Series Riesling, Margaret River (passable, but not extraordinary) to a 2002 Dr. Loosen Urziger Wurzgarten Kabinett (delicate and lacy, but perhaps not substantial enough to grip the imagination on this night), to a 2001 Hirtzberger Singerriedl Riesling (abundantly fragrant, nervy and quite flavorful of white pepper and spice and citrusy acidity).

Then with food in abundance (small plates, nicely done, with variety aplenty), we pulled the corks on the reds. First, a 1997 Williams-Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, still as firm and tight and exuberant as a much younger wine, but clearly in the older style of W-S, without the effusiveness of the more current and riper vintages. Sturdy, with black cherry in depth, and a nod towards the ancestral homeland of Burgundy (while still being true to its California roots) with the leathery and earthy components wrapped around the fruit-driven core. Lovely wine, dismissing the canard that wines from California don’t age well.

Another canard dismissal, and an even more forceful one, pops up with the next wine, a 1997 Dehlinger Russian River Valley Syrah, the type of wine that stops you dead in your tracks, suspends conversation, and requires intense focus on what’s in your glass. This is a gorgeous wine, lavish in its blueberry compote and black pepper fullness, bright with promise, but pleasant and rewarding now.

Our second and third Syrahs of the evening are opened. The third, a 1999 Jamet Cote-Rotie, lives up to its expectations, with powerful perfume of roasted meat and crushed violets dominating a complex blend of aromatics and flavors. Its only fault is that it drops off---just a bit---in the middle palate; a stutter-step, a hesitation, that mars the promise of the nose and the pleasure of the lingering finish.

But perhaps I am being too harsh (though I don’t think so), for the Jamet comes immediately after the perfect wine of the evening, the 2000 Edmunds St. John Syrah, Wylie-Fenaughty Vineyards.

Let me digress here and attempt to briefly define what I mean when I say “the perfect wine”. That would be a wine that is completely satisfying in the moment, on its own merits, how it pairs with the foods on the table, and how it fits the ambience of the evening. Perfection has to be more than aroma or taste or definable parameters; it has to involve thought, consideration, and deliberation, moving from a strict physical reaction to meditation. How’s that? Vague enough?

The Edmunds St. John achieves that perfection of the moment: it fits in seamlessly with the evening and the people; it generously responds to and accommodates the foods on the table, which tend to be full-flavored, aromatic and spicy; and it resonates far beyond the mere wine-in-the-glass situation. For that moment the Wylie-Fenaughty was the perfect wine, satisfying in all its forms and aspects, denying nothing.

And what were its aspects, you ask? Limitless depth, infinite nuance, and seamless structure. A nose of roasting meat, hot, dry brush (they call it garrigue in the Rhone), dried flowers and tightly bound black fruits, with the flavors following type and supported by an amazing acidic structure, opening slowly to reveal more depth and to unveil suffused spices. Then all aspects linger in perfect balance and slowly, slowly, slowly fade away to leave tantalizing hints of remembrance and the irresistible urge for the next sip. Superb. And with years to go before it approaches full maturity.

After the Syrahs, an impressive 1985 Giacosa Barbaresco San Stefano Reserva shows up. Unmistakably Nebbiolo, unmistakably Piemontese , its only failing that after its initial explosion of aroma and flavor it tended to dry up, fade away, and lose force and focus.

The unexpected late arrival of the last opened wine, a 2002 Bouchard Corton-Charlemagne Blanc Grand Cru (Who delivers a closer of Chardonnay after a liquid feast of Syrah and Nebbiolo? We do, that’s who!) surprised everyone with its style and quality. Looks like Bouchard has been turned around, folks. This is gorgeous stuff, and were it not so pricey, it would be perfect for the I Don’t Really Care For Chardonnay set, alternately known as the THIS is Chardonnay??? Set when they taste this.

But the wine that remained, the wine that was forever embedded in the memory, the wine that will linger for a long, long time and feature in oft-told tales, was clearly the 2000 Edmunds St. John Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah.

It was perfect.