Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why Syrah doesn't sell: A theory and a suggestion

Randall Grahm told me this: "What's the difference between a case of the crabs and a case of Syrah? The crabs go away."

Syrah isn't selling, and hasn't for several years. Throughout the wine industry people know this, except on the production end -- wineries haven't stopped making Syrah. There's a lot of great Syrah available. And yet, the general public goes, "Which way to the Cabernet?"

A popular theory is to blame Yellow Tail, which taught consumers that competent Shiraz could be had for $7, so why pay $30? I don't buy it: Charles Shaw sells $2 Cabernet and Chardonnay, and that doesn't seem to have hurt those wines' popularity or prices.

I have a different theory, one that occurred to me in Washington after spending a few days at Riesling Rendezvous.

I had this epiphany at L'Ecole No. 41. They have two Syrahs that look nearly the same on the shelf. One is a Columbia Valley Syrah from 2007; the other is a Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Estate Syrah from 2008. Sure, the wine lover notices that the latter is a single-vineyard wine. But bear with me.

With the same label and the same alcohol percentage (14.8%), you'd expect the two wines to be similar; perhaps the single-vineyard wine would be more complex.

Instead, it was like the two wines were from different continents. The Columbia Valley wine was rich and ripe, all dark cherry with some pepper. The Walla Walla Valley wine was gamy, earthy, and animalistic -- like a northern Rhone wine.

"We're working on creating an identity for the Walla Walla wines that is different from the Columbia Valley," said owner/winemaker Martin Clubb.

A bell went off over my head (we were in an old schoolhouse). That's what's wrong with Syrah!

I don't mean that there's anything wrong with the grape. I love the fact that the same grape that makes ripe but balanced fruit bombs in Barossa Valley can make rugged, savory wines in Cornas.

But when I pick up a bottle from Walla Walla Valley, or Sonoma County, or Santa Barbara County, I have no idea which I'm getting.

Whenever I order a Syrah from a wine list, I must ask the sommelier about it first. I don't have to do that with most major grapes/appellations. If I see Russian River Valley Chardonnay, or Paso Robles Zinfandel, or Central Otago Pinot Noir, I don't know if I'm getting a good version or not, but I have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be like. Not the case with Syrah.

Riesling marketers faced a similar problem with sweetness, which led to the development of the Riesling Rules: a subjective scale of perceived sweetness. It's a great idea that will help consumers know how sweet a Riesling is.

I submit that Syrah/Shiraz has the same problem as Riesling. Increasing sales for Riesling, and unending buzz, should give hope to Syrah producers that it's solvable.

What's needed is to tell consumers what kind of Syrah they're getting. Is it one of the savory, lean Syrahs, that taste like preserved meat? Or is it a full-fruited wine, maybe with a hint of black pepper?

I also submit that the solution is right in front of us.

Syrah/Shiraz is not the only grape with two widely accepted names in English. With another -- Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio -- sales continue to be hot. I think that's largely due to widespread perception, among both consumers and the wine trade, that the name chosen for the wine gives some indication of how it will taste. Pinot Grigio tends to be innocuous, a chilled refreshing mouth-rinse for times when that's called for. Producers who want to make a spicier, more expressive version usually call it Pinot Gris; the public has picked up on that.

Why not do the same for Syrah/Shiraz?

If the two main styles of the grape, in broad strokes, are defined by the northern Rhone and Barossa Valley, why not just call the wine whatever it's closest to? If you're making a ripe fruity one, call it Shiraz. If you're making a savory one, call it Syrah. Simple.

What if it's one in the middle? I submit that in today's wine environment, any red wine that has savory notes is unusual; hence it's Syrah.

I believe there's a stigma about the name Shiraz right now for producers outside of Australia who don't want to be associated with the meltdown in the Australian wine market, and who fear that Yellow Tail has told people that Shiraz is only worth $7.

It's a fear that has to be conquered, because the situation now isn't working for anyone. California and Washington both make plenty of great Shiraz -- and Syrah -- and really should grow more of it than Cabernet because it's better suited to more areas. But the market isn't there for it. Using a more clear system of naming would help build that market.

Moreover, if there is a backlash against the word "Shiraz," seeing the name used on top-quality bottlings that people enjoy would help address that.

Here's my proposal in full:
1) A top Syrah/Shiraz producer needs to take the lead in pulling together the industry. Chateau Ste. Michelle has done this for Riesling, and it has made a huge difference for everyone selling it. Volunteers?
2) Host an international symposium. Put this naming issue on the agenda front and center.
3) Try to get most producers to agree. Some won't; let them be outliers, and let them complain their case. This will bring publicity to both the grape and the issue, which can use more press right now.
4) For people who do agree, come up with a very simple marketing campaign. "We call it Shiraz," for example (wow, I just shorted myself out of 6 figures in consulting fees.)

That's it. Like many wine lovers, I'd like to see the public buy and enjoy more of the great Syrah/Shiraz that's available. Making the name mean something would be a step in the right direction.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pairing food with big red wines

What goes well with big red wine? It turns out that it's not enough to serve wagyu beef tenderloin: you also have to watch the onions.

Last week I had the belly-busting pleasure of judging wine and food pairing at the Taste of Terroir in Livermore Valley (that's a live Judge Cam screen shot). Of the 16 wines entered, 12 were big red wines: 4 Cabernet Sauvignons, 4 Syrahs, 2 Zinfandels, a Petite Sirah and a Sangiovese.

When I say big, I mean it. I don't have the alcohol percentages because we were tasting blind, but I took home two bottles I liked to finish off, and they were 15.5% and 14.9%. One reason I liked those two (Occasio Winery Del Arroyo Vineyard Livermore Valley Petite Sirah 2008 and Deer Ridge Vineyards Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004) was because they weren't quite as ripe-tasting as the others.

But we weren't judging the wines: we were judging how well a winery-restaurant team paired a specific dish with each wine. The Occasio Petite Sirah ended up as part of the overall Judges Best pairing, but the Deer Ridge Cabernet didn't win anything because the dish it was served with overpowered it.

Therein lies a lesson. With that Cab, a restaurant (Pasta's Trattoria) served up a tasty dish of thinly sliced raw wagyu beef tenderloin on a rye crostini dressed with red onions, capers and olive oil. It sounds like a great pairing, and we liked both dish and wine individually. But there were too many onions, and we couldn't taste the wine over them.

Other dishes we liked also failed. Hot spice was the culprit in several; red chili adobo sauce or spicy braised lamb made high-alcohol wines taste hotter.

The Peasant & The Pear restaurant from Danville made a pulled pork slider so delicious that I went out and ate another after judging the competition (who am I to call Pinot Noir fat?). And they even used the Cabernet we were tasting with it in the BBQ sauce. But it still didn't work; the tangy, slightly sweet sauce made the wine taste less fruity and more tannic.

This reconfirmed something I've thought about BBQ for a long time: we think big ripe red wines will be good with it, but they're usually not, unless you're using dry rub. And even then you're better off with black pepper than chiles.

So what did work?

* Meat on meat, without too much spice. The winning dish, from Izzy's Steaks & Chops, was marinated skirt steak served over shredded flank steak with bourbon-infused yams. You need meat to absorb the 15.5% alcohol, and the very slight sweetness of the yams was just right.

* Smoky flavors without too much heat. The most surprising pairing that worked well was a goat cheese panna cotta with black pepper and smoked tomato jam with a Wente Nth Degree Livermore Valley Syrah 2007. The Syrah also had some smokiness, and the panna cotta was a beautiful textural contrast that didn't get in the way of the wine.

* Simplicity. Braised short ribs nearly won a medal with Charles R Vineyards Livermore Valley Zinfandel 2007; it didn't because the potatoes and green beans on the side didn't play as well with the wine. We also nearly awarded a very classic pairing, a crab cake with Concannon Vineyard Reserve Livermore Valley Chardonnay 2008; the crab cake absorbed the oak of the Chard and made it taste more fresh. Unfortunately, there was no category for Best Classic Pairing, and we couldn't very well give that one either of our other choices, Most Innovative or Best Expression of Local Ingredients. The restaurant claimed the crab was local, but any crabs I find in Livermore Valley, I ain't eating.

My fellow judge Leslie Sbrocco kept saying that certain dishes would be better with fewer ingredients; chefs shouldn't fear being simple.

* A little sweetness, especially with wines that have residual sugar. It's dangerous, because too much sugar in food can make wine taste sour. But I can't deny that cherry jam was the key to the award I presented, for Most Innovative Pairing and also the Peoples' Choice

With a big, ripe, sweet, in-your-face Ruby Hill Peacock Patch Estate Reserve Livermore Valley Zinfandel 2008, the winery chefs made a rabbit terrine studded with dried cherries and pistachios, then covered it with cherry demi-glace jam and served it on toasted challah with Zinfandel-infused mustard. The cherry jam and Zin were great together, and it made me wonder if that will work with other high-octane Zins as well.

I hadn't been on a walk-around tasting of Livermore wines in a while, and I was surprised by how uniformly big these were. I suppose that's just following the market, as most wineries there sell wines from their tasting room and are getting immediate feedback on what people like. But Livermore Valley has cooling winds and favorable soils that make it just as capable of producing elegant reds as Napa Valley. (Yes, Virginia, there are some of those in Napa.)

I had an interesting discussion with a grower before we were sequestered. He said this is the coolest summer Livermore has had in years, and that grapes are struggling to get ripe. He was worried about it, but my silent thought was to check back in a few years to see if 2010 is the cooler-climate vintage that brings elegance back to Livermore. I'll see if I can drop by Danville for another pork slider on my way.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Charles Smith is a wine cartoon. Really.

Winemaker Charles Smith of K Vintners is going to be a character on Pokemon!

No, really. I'm not making this up.

Turns out that Smith has been going to Japan to sell his wine since 2003, and a creative director for Pokemon is a big fan of his wines. As a cartoonist, he also loves Smith's labels; no wonder.

Smith made a special wine for the launch of a black-and-white Pokemon version. Returning the favor, the Pokemon team asked if he would like to be a character in an upcoming video game.

"I thought I would be standing around in the background," Smith said.

But just look at this guy -- he's already a cartoon star; it just took the Pokemon team to recognize it. Turns out he's going to be the new Ash!

"They made me the Pokemon trainer for the new game," Smith said, relaxing on his porch on the outskirts of the noted entertainment industry capital of Walla Walla, Washington. "I introduce the game and say, 'My name is Charles. My power is passion. I'm passionate about all things, all the time.' "

They got that right. I had the honor and test of spending several hours in Smith's company last week, and it was exciting, exhausting, frustrating and occasionally exhilarating -- as when we drank that last wine.

I'll admit that when I first met him, I did not like him. He roared up on his customized Harley Davidson late for an appointment with two British journalists and me and immediately announced that he had a hangover from passing out in a beer bar in Oregon the night before, a 3 1/2 hour ride away. He verbally abused his employees and bragged about how he's the only winemaker in his region who knows how to pick the right barrels. My tasting notes say this about his Viognier barrel sample: "Nice intensity -- I mean the wine. OMG is he arrogant."

Smith, a self-trained winemaker, has been the beneficiary of some 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate, and his K Vintners small-lot Syrahs are highly sought after. He also makes wines with very cool labels for Charles Smith Wines and owns 1/3 of the budget House Wines label, although he says Precept Brands -- which he originally sold an interest to in order to get some marketing help -- pushed him away from the winemaking over the last couple of vintages.

He invited us for dinner made by his Italian wife, Ginevra Casa, at his Walla Walla farmhouse.
(The story of how they married last year: Both were former sommeliers now in the wine industry -- she imports Prosecco -- and they had known each other for some time, but were involved with other people until they connected in the late fall. Within two months he asked her to marry him. She wanted to invite her friends and relatives, but he said we have to do this right now or never. So they're married; her diamond is huge.)

I knew wine geeks around the world would pay hundreds to switch places with me, but I went reluctantly. Many of his tales of going out for dinner in Denmark, where he lived for several years, and Spain and Napa Valley ended with him passed out underneath a pool table or under a shady tree, etc. But the English women really wanted to go, so we went.

I had forgotten that he had been a sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton. I imagined an evening of struggling not to irritate him because I'm not Jay Miller, who gave Smith 100 points for the worst wine of his we tried all night, Royal City Stoneridge Vineyard Columbia Valley Syrah 2007. It was 16 percent alcohol, syrupy and hot and monolithic, and was exactly the kind of wine Parker haters complain about. And Smith had a bug up his butt because Stephen Tanzer hadn't liked it; he kept complaining that Tanzer had said, "I can't believe the same guy who made these wines made this."

Smith really is a great winemaker; you just have to avoid Jay Miller's favorites. The K Phil Lane Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2007 ($70) was delightfully complex, with great black plum fruit and notes of cola, smoked meat and black pepper. It's soft in the mouth but still has good acidity, and changes with every sip. Casa's favorite, the K Wells Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2006, was spectacular as well.

Casa is a great cook. We had, from memory, bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and capers; fried lamb tsukune with 6-hour tomato sauce; an salad of lettuce from their neighbor's organic farm; an excellent morel risotto; chicken scallopine with morel sauce. For dessert we had their neighbor's very ripe, end-of-season strawberries with good vanilla ice cream. I think I'm forgetting a pasta course; it was all as good as it sounds.

Smith was very generous with his cellar. "I'd rather drink these wines than leave them to my young wife," he said.

Here are the wines that six of us drank in one evening:

Gaston Chiquet Tradition 1er Cru Champagne Brut NV
Gaston Chiquet 1er Cru Champagne Brut 2000
Kung Fu Girl Washington State Riesling 2009
Charles & Charles Columbia Valley Rose Volume II 2009
Clos du Papes Chateauneuf du Pape blanc 2007
Domaine Rossignol-Trapet Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru 2000
Canalicchio Brunello di Montalcino 1990
K Cougar Hills Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2002
Mas Foulaquier le Rollier Pic Saint-Loup Coteaux du Languedoc 2001
K Wells Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Syrah 2006
Charles Smith Wines Royal City Stoneridge Vineyard Columbia Valley Syrah 2007
G. Huet Le Clos du Bourg Vouvray Moelleux 1961

That's two full bottles per person; I believe only the 100-point wine had any left in the bottle when the Brits and I left, though I'm sure Charles and his wife polished it off.

I have winemaking notes from our less-pleasant interview earlier, about his beliefs in warmer fermentation ("A lot of people are really nervous of their fermentation temperatures. They're always at 74 degrees. You're going to be stumbling over the fruit when it's that cool. We're trying to get the fruit out of the way, so you can appreciate everything else.") and crushing by foot ("It sucks, but it's the best way to do it. You can't get athlete's foot because the carbon dioxide kills everything.") and why he went to Walla Walla instead of California ("You don't go to Italy to open a pizza place. I didn't want to be at the end of something; I wanted to be at the beginning.")

From the dinner, though, I have very few notes written down. But for some reason, after I painstakingly wrote down every wine I noted above, I took the trouble to record the quote below. I don't remember exactly why he said it, though I do remember something about him going up to fetch his boxing gloves if I agreed with Tanzer. But I think it's appropriate dialogue for the new Pokemon trainer, Master Charles.

"I will hit you so hard that I will knock out your diaphragm." -- Charles Smith

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Dear Pinot Noir letter

Dear Pinot Noir:

I'm writing to tell you that I'm breaking up with you.

I still love you, and I'll probably always love you. But you've changed since we met, and I can't ignore it anymore.

It's not only because you've gained weight, although I won't deny that's a big factor. It's not just you who you hurt by hanging out in the vineyard way longer than you should, getting bloated with sugar and alcohol. You're also hurting me. If you respected me, you would work harder to keep your lean, sexy shape. But you don't respect me. You think I'll be there for you no matter how ripe you get. Well, I won't.

But that's not the only reason.

You're sleeping with Syrah. Don't try to deny it. I smell it on your breath and taste it in your kiss. You're lying down with Syrah, sharing your fluids, and then you come to my table and expect me to adore you anyway. Like I said, you don't respect me anymore.

Even if I could forgive you for sleeping around, you're not the same grape I fell in love with. I'll never forget the nights we shared, the laughter, the sensuous wet kisses. Sometimes you frustrated me with your mercurial nature, but I think that just made me love you more.

If I'm honest, I think travel ruined you. I know I'm a hypocrite because I love to travel and I was happy to have you with me. But I don't like what travel has done to you. I know it's selfish of me to expect you to always be the perky little grape with a French accent who loved food as much as I do. Oh, how I thrilled to discover how you brightened up with steak tartare, and the way you dug into lightly grilled salmon.

I admit I encouraged you to come to California and spend more time with me. And New Zealand. And Tasmania. And Hungary. And Italy.

Somewhere along the way, though, I think you lost touch with who you are. I think what went wrong is that you met Cabernet -- maybe in Yarra Valley, maybe in Carneros, and you wanted to be just like him. But that's not you, my dear. At least, it shouldn't be.

I'm not going to go all Mel Gibson here. As I said, I'll always love you. If you feel the same way, maybe we can work out a friends-with-benefits arrangement. But I'm afraid I have to ask you to move most of your things out of my cellar.

In case you're wondering, I'm not leaving you for somebody else. Sure, I'm seeing a lot of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc these days. But it's not the kind of relationship you and I shared. It's summer, and we're in the same restaurants together. It's just a coincidence.

It's not about them; it's about you.

Take care of yourself. And please, try to get back into shape.

Sadly but with love always,

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tidbits from Riesling Rendezvous

I just spent three days at the chummiest international wine gathering I've ever attended: Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle.

Cabernet makers snipe at each other. Pinot makers have a friendlier rivalry, but are quick to assert the supremacy of their region. Chardonnay makers cash their paychecks; is there such a thing as a Chardonnay confab?

Riesling is a bit of an underdog. It's beloved by sommeliers and wine geeks, but distrusted by the majority of wine drinkers no matter what folks like me write. Maybe that's why its producers stick together.

Credit Germany's Ernst Loosen (right) and his partner at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Bob Berthau (left), for creating the feeling of an international collaboration of folks who love the greatest grape that's not really mainstream. Everybody who makes Riesling is invited to the Rendezvous. We had Alsatian Rieslings with lunch on Monday, and Michigan Rieslings with lunch on Tuesday, and both were treated with equal respect.

The most fun part were two large blind tastings, one for dry Rieslings and one for off-dry. With 14 wines from 7 countries, it was tricky. The German Rieslings were the easiest to call, particularly in the off-dry category, where they were the sweetest, most complex and best. But other countries were a mystery, and no wonder: Do Canadian Rieslings really taste New World? Does New Zealand Riesling have a signature flavor?

Here are a few bullet points from the 3-day confab:

* Riesling from Germany's Mosel region, 100 years ago, was perhaps the most expensive wine in the world. Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof made an interesting point about why. At the time, few people in Europe had ever tasted mango or tropical fruit; moreover, they would only enjoy fresh stone fruit like peaches and apricots for a few weeks each year. Imagine how exciting a Mosel Riesling -- tasting of all these exotic fruits -- must have been, particularly in winter.

* In addition to the Finger Lakes in New York, North and South Dakota are currently ideal terroir for Riesling, according to climatologist Dr. Greg Jones. But if global warming continues at its current pace, the best Riesling terroir might all be north of the Canadian border.

* Riesling producers have gotten very sensitive to the use of "diesel" as a descriptor for its aromas. I heard more than one diatribe about stupid wine writers who insist on using this. Well, call me stupid -- that's what it smells like. Sometimes.

* Austrian producer Willi Brundlmayer believes Riesling peaks at 7 years of age, but nobody drinks it at that point because Riesling buyers fall into two camps: those who like it young (me) for its exotic fruit flavors, and those who like it old for its complexity and secondary characteristics like walnuts, chalk and caraway seeds. Because Riesling will last as long as any other white wine, thanks to its acidity, people who cellar it hold onto it forever.
I hope to test Brundlmayer's theory in another year, because currently 7-year-old European Rieslings are from the anomaly heatwave vintage of 2003.

* Which brings up another point: Rieslings in Europe vary tremendously by vintage. Producers talk about letting the grape be what it is. In the US, producers are more likely to try to keep a similar style from year to year, although there are certainly exceptions, particularly in the Finger Lakes region of New York. But if you're Chateau Ste. Michelle (did you know it's the world's largest Riesling producer? I didn't) you have to try to keep consistent for your customers.

* My wife has a hard time distinguishing the words "Austria" and "Australia." Fortunately, in Riesling she needn't worry, as they're similar styles and different from the rest of the world. Both are invariably dry and often impressively complex. But check the alcohol percentage before buying: Some are edging up above 14%, which is a shock to the system if you're expecting something like a 9% wine from Germany.

* Wow. German Riesling. Lots of countries make great Riesling, but the plurality of delightful, elegant ones are still from Deutschland (which reminds me: During the World Cup, why did TV networks use "Esp" as shorthand for Spain (Espana) but "Ger" for Germany? Why not "Deu"?)

* People don't think of Riesling as a French wine, because it's grown only in Alsace and the bottles look vaguely German. In fact, it turns out that Champagne would be great Riesling terroir climate-wise. But French wine laws are too strict to allow it, which is a pity -- imagine how great this terroir-driven grape would be on Champagne's limestone soils.
(While you're imagining that, go patronize my advertiser -- buy 6 or more bottles of French wine and get 1/2 off shipping with coupon code "blake39".
Doesn't have to be Riesling, but the store has three Rieslings I loved at this event: Hugel et Fils 2008 Riesling [$19.29], a fine food wine; Kuentz-Bas Riesling Tradition 2008 [$15.29], a superb value from Kermit Lynch with great fruit and acidity; and Trimach Cuvee Frederich Emile Riesling 2002 [$48.19], which seemed to be at peak drinking period, balancing lime fruit with secondary flavors.)

* Wine Opinions research shows that a majority of US consumers think Riesling is only a sweet white wine -- and moreover, that people who don't know Riesling don't want to try it. But consumers who do love Riesling actually don't care much about food and wine pairing; weird, because that's the variety's biggest strength. Riesling "partisans" often drink it as an aperitif. Get those partisans some green papaya salad!

* Wine Opinions also showed that members of the wine trade believe the highest quality Rieslings come from Alsace, Germany and Austria, while the best value Rieslings come from Germany and Washington.

* There isn't much money for Riesling technical research, so most producers have no idea what clones are in their vineyards or even what kind of impact different clones make. This is a lot different from Pinot or Cabernet, where some geeky winemakers even put the clone in the wine's name.

* California lags behind the rest of the US in Riesling consumption, a shocker to me because I live in a bubble of wine lovers. Maybe that's because California makes lousy Riesling (with apologies to Navarro and Esterlina, who don't.) California was the largest Riesling region not represented at any of the major blind tastings.

* I had never heard of Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario, but their 2000 Dry Riesling -- not even a reserve or single vineyard wine -- was outstanding.

* Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Riesling 2009 stumped just about everyone because it was so beautiful and complex, like an Old World wine, but with the intensity of a New World wine. One of my favorites from the event.

* Riesling varies so much from Oregon to Alsace that it's easy to drink it for three days without getting bored. I'm finishing up this blog posting at 11 p.m. on the last night of the Rendezvous, and my one regret is that I don't have a glass of Riesling with me. But tomorrow's another day.

Jews and German Riesling: the untold story

I'm in Seattle enjoying Riesling Rendezvous, an international meeting of Riesling producers, and one said something very interesting at a panel I attended.

Roman Niewodniczanski is the owner and winemaker of Van Volxem. He's a very serious, sincere guy who returned to Germany after a peripatetic existence visiting the world's wine regions. In the 1990s, Californians Jim Clendenen and Randall Grahm urged him to return home to the Mosel because it was one of the world's greatest terroirs.

At the time, German Riesling was in a low ebb on the world market.

"I went to the library and discovered wines from the Mosel in 1900 were some of the most expensive in the world," Roman said. "I have seen the records. They cost more than Chateau d'Yquem, and more than all the best Bordeaux."

"I asked myself, what happened in the meantime? One thing we did was kill all the Jewish customers. It's true. The wine trade was Jewish."

It's a provocative point and one I hadn't heard before, and I leave it to German historians to put it in perspective. I give Roman credit for addressing a topic most Germans would rather not. But he's that kind of guy -- he thinks about history, and he's honest.

"I asked myself, 'what kind of wine did people in the Mosel make in 1910 when it was so expensive?' Ten years ago, German winemakers would apologize for our wines not being bone dry. I'm very proud our wines are not bone dry. This is the best style our wines can be -- the fruit, the minerality, the balance, low alcohol. It's best when it's not bone dry and I'm proud to make it that way."

We tasted Van Volxem Wiltenger Gottesfuss Riesling from 2008 and 2001 as part of a panel to see how Riesling changes with age. I really liked both. The younger wine is quite floral, with notes of jasmine, apricot and white pepper, and even some tannin for mouthfeel. Roman says this is another historic point -- Germans from a century ago would have tannin in the wine from skin contact, whereas most modern Riesling winemakers, especially in the U.S., eschew it.

The older Van Volxem had developed mandarin orange character along with apricot, jasmine, petrol and caraway. Both were delicious; I'd drink Roman's wine old and young, no matter what the annoying panel moderator said (he was a self-adoring Brit who claimed "young people" could be conditioned to hate rock and roll if they were locked in a room and played Bach for a week; he thought the same treatment could wean them from enjoying young, fresh-tasting wine. This guy is like a nightmare sommelier who makes average folks fear wine. I want to lock him in a closet and subject him to the Ramones' first four albums. But I digress.)

There were other German winemakers on the panel, and they looked uncomfortable when Roman mentioned the Jewish-Riesling connection. Unfortunately we didn't explore it. But I'd like to. It makes intuitive sense: Jews are required by their religion to drink wine on religious occasions. Germany was chock full of Jews, and was the closest good wine-producing nation to other large Jewish communities in Poland and Russia.

We concluded the panel tasting with an amazing wine from 1946 Germany: a Staatsweingut Kloster Eberbach "Cabinet" Rudesheimer Berg Schlossberg Riesling from the Rheingau that was so aromatically complex and interesting that I found myself reaching for new descriptors, like 'new car smell' and 'plum marmalade.' The point was to show us that Riesling ages almost indefinitely, and this wine succeeded.

I wished I had more than the tiny tasting pour as the annoying Brit prattled on about the world in 1946, telling us that the US had shown off its military might by blowing up Bikini Island and England was short of heating oil for its government offices. Hello! Germany, 1946! Poverty, drastically reduced population, occupation, national sense of deserved humiliation! And no Jewish wine trade. And yet, somebody somehow made this great wine that we could enjoy 64 years later while I, for one, pondered whether or not Germany had murdered a generation of winemakers along with some of its best customers. I guess like most great wines, some conversations are good if they leave you wanting a bit more.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wine that smells like sex

In addition to being one of my favorite winemakers, Greg LaFollette is one of my favorite quotes.

A globetrotting scientist with a Masters in Food Science and Technology, LaFollette talks with enthusiasm about things like carbohydrate repositioning strategy. He's a farmer who is proud to be raising six kids without television. But he also wears Hawaiian shirts and leather pants and likes telling jokes about his big Pinot, and other such topics.

So after a morning of tasting wines from his new label, LaFollette, I wasn't at all surprised at lunch when he came up with this description for his 2006 Tandem Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay:

Greg: "My wife swears that this wine smells like me in a certain aroused state."
Me: "So this wine smells like you when you're aroused?" (Journalistic technique, as in, "Huh? You really mean that?")
Greg: "I wouldn't say that. My wife would."

Mrs. LaFollette wasn't around to verify, but she played a huge role in his decision to restrict his schedule. No more zipping down to make wines in South Africa (Flagstone) or Chile (Vina Casa Marin). And no more Gewurztraminer, Syrah or other Rhone varietals.

From now on, LaFollette's plan is to make only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a few vineyards.

He and Atlanta-based patron Pete Kight are retiring the Tandem brand, and opening a new brand called LaFollette. There really aren't any differences between LaFollette and Tandem except the new name and the restricted focus.

Since his postgraduate work in Burgundy -- funded by Napa Valley Vintners -- he has been an expert on Pinot and Chard, as he showed at Tandem, Casa Marin and as GM/winemaker at Flowers Vineyard & Winery in the '90s.

Still, for a guy who's used to playing with dozens of different wines, won't making less than 10 get dull?

Every time I asked that, he had the same answer, along these lines: "My kids last year started calling me Uncle Dad. I got the message. I need to spend more time at home, with my flesh and blood kids and my vinous kids."

Honestly, while I loved the Tandem Pinots, it's too early to tell about how the LaFollette Pinots will be as a group. The '08 Sangiacomo Pinot Noir and the '08 Sonoma Coast blend showed well; two others, bottled very recently, did not.

The three Chardonnays he poured, however, were spectacular, even if I now feel like I know Greg's, er, aromatic qualities more intimately than I'm comfortable with.

Indeed, Gay Pride Week must have affected me more than I knew, because the '08 LaFollette Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay was my favorite wine of the tasting. It's savage -- Greg's term, but a fair one -- with strong flavors of pear, floral notes, loamy earth, ginger and an animalistic undertone, while still having a very round, smooth mouthfeel. It starts so roughly and ends so gently, and that's another image I wish I didn't have in my head.

I also loved the '08 LaFollette Lorenzo Vineyard Chardonnay, which is intense and seamless but not at all fat: lemon curd, toast, earthiness and even some marshmallow.

LaFollette has also pioneered a vineyard on the edge of wild marijuana country in Mendocino County, Manchester Ridge, which is a three hour drive from northern Sonoma County on hazardous old logging roads. The '08 LaFollette Manchester Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay is extremely floral, in part because nearly a third of the vines are the relatively rare Chardonnay Musque clone. I might have guessed there was Muscat in it had Greg not corrected me.

All three are so different from each other, and so interesting on their own, that it's just possible they might keep LaFollette interested. But hopefully, not too interested. I already know what that smells like.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Great wines from Burgundy female winemakers

My story in the LA Times about female Burgundy winemakers doesn't really recommend specific wines. So I'd like to supplement it here with notes on a few great wines I tasted.

Winemaker Lorraine Senard-Pereira
Domaine Comte Senard
importer: Pas Mal, Michael Feuerstein (NY)

I had a really hard time finding availability of these wines even though Lorraine's brother Mathieu runs a San Francisco-based fair-trade food company. Pity, because they're fabulous.

Comte Senard Corton Grand Cru blanc 2008: An earthy wine with strong lime flavors, great minerality and a long, loamy finish. 94

Comte Senard "Clos du Roi" Corton Grand Cru 2008: Vibrant cherry with spicy notes on nose, good acidity and a medium-long finish. Excellent now; should have good staying power. 93

Winemaker/owner: Clotilde Davenne

Les Temps Perdus Vielles Vignes Saint-Bris 2008: A rarity in Burgundy, Saint-Bris is the only region that makes white wine from Sauvignon Blanc, not Chardonnay. Made from 100-year-old vines, this minerally wine has vibrant green mango and apricot notes and a chalky finish. Excellent. 93

Clotilde Davenne "Les Clos" Grand Cru Chablis 2008: Restrained wine with nice lime fruit and chalky minerality. Built for the long haul. 92

Clotilde Davenne "Les Preuses" Grand Cru Chablis 2008: This one got an audible "wow" from me. It smells like chalky soil. The lime as taut and vibrant, and it's so minerally I could practically feel it scratching my tongue. 94

Winemaker Nadine Gublin
Domaine Jacques Prieur

Domaine Jacques Prieur Volnay-Santenots Premier Cru 2008: Juicy black cherry that persists throughout a long finish. You can taste some vanilla from new oak barrels, but the wine can handle it, though I would give it at least 4-5 years to incorporate it. 93

Domaine Jacques Prieur Beaune-Greves Premier Cru 2008: Beautiful black cherry fruit with notes of cola and black plum. Gentle finish. 91

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Les Combettes" Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru 2008: Bright green apple, so juicy that it almost has an apple-juice character. Just a hint of toast on the finish. Let this one settle for a couple of years at least. 91

Owner/winemaker Anne Parent (sorry, no photo)
Domaine Parent

Domaine Parent Corton Grand Cru blanc 2008: Aged for 16 months on 100% new oak, and there's no question about that on the palate, but this wine from limestone soils wears the wood well. Toasty wine with plenty of green apple and toasted coconut and a long warm finish. 94

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kenzo Estate: Money well squandered

I went to Kenzo Estate expecting to mock it.

Kenzo Tsujimoto (left), who made a fortune as CEO of the Capcom video game company in Japan (which created Street Fighter and Resident Evil), spared no expense in making wines with his name on it.

He hired a dream team: Heidi Peterson Barrett as winemaker, David Abreu as viticulturist, Thomas Keller to create little nibbles for the tasting room. Lots of people hire the first two -- that's what every industrial magnate with an ego to match his cashwad does -- but getting the French Laundry/Per Se chef to make party finger food is what pushed Kenzo into the realm of egregrious consumption.

The winery invited the wine press to a couple of events that almost nobody covered because most of us are sick of refrigeration magnates or investment bankers hiring Barrett and Abreu (center and right, above) to make Napa Cabernet that they have to charge $250 for because their neighbor is charging $240.

So Kenzo went out of his way on July 1 by hiring limo buses to drive folks up from San Francisco to eat Keller's nibbles, try the wines and hang out in his pool house. I couldn't resist; I signed up.

The bottom line: The wines aren't that good, and the world has too many $150 Napa Cabs that aren't brilliant. But I can't write quite as snarkily as I might have. Here's why.

Kenzo seems like a nice, sincere guy. He isn't as much of an Ichiro-come-lately as he seems; he bought 4,000 acres in Napa in 1990, planning even then to create the kind of wine he likes: big, rich Napa Cabernet. The wines he served at his opening were from 2005 and 2006; he's had the dream team on board even longer than that, but kept it pretty quiet until earlier this spring, when the tasting room was ready to open. Barrett said, "I've already been here 8 years and we're just having the opening party."

The moment Kenzo won me over was at his speech, when he first recognized David Bader, owner/winemaker of nearby Phoenix Vineyards. David's a good guy, a small do-it-yourselfer of the type who have mostly been bought out of Napa as big money has moved in.

When Kenzo first came to Napa, he asked David for advice. Later he hired Abreu, Robert Parker's favorite leaf-puller, and Barrett. And they eventually shared the stage with Kenzo. But Kenzo didn't forget his first friend in the Valley, giving him a bouquet of flowers and the first crack at the microphone. You gotta respect loyalty.

I also noticed that Kenzo's employees seem to genuinely like working for him; that matters.

And while his wines are expensive -- from $60 for an oaky Sauvignon Blanc to $150 for a decent but not mind-blowing Cabernet Sauvignon -- they are, outrageous as this may seem, not overpriced considering what they are: single-vineyard wines from unique terroir made by Napa's leading wine consultants. In fact, considering the amount of money Kenzo spent setting up his dream, and the fact that he's been working on this for two decades without any return, it's fair to say they're actually priced below the cost of production.

Here's the thing. Let's say you earned $100 billion making teenage boys happy with video games they love. You like wine; big California Cabs are your favorite. You like eating at The French Laundry or, if you're feeling down-scale, Keller's second Yountville restaurant, Bouchon (when I asked him where he likes to eat during the half-year he spends here, those are the only two places he named.)

What's wrong with spending a huge amount of money on a beautiful, remote mountaintop, and enriching the creators of the food and wine you most enjoy? What's wrong with conspicuous consumption?

"I believe for the Bordeaux-style wine, Napa is the best in the world," Kenzo said, and his guests applauded. Why not? He meant it.

Just before he said the applause line, he said this: "David Abreu told me that if you want to create great wine, you have to taste great wine. I have a home in Kobe and I keep a 10,000 bottle cellar. Before making my own wines, I have tasted many wines with my friends every night."

Isn't that how you would spend $100 million, if you had made it from selling Street Fighter? And wouldn't you dream of saying this too: "I drink our Kenzo wines every night, and I feel grateful that I am able to enjoy such delicious wines every night."

It turns out that Kenzo is importing many of the bottles he doesn't drink himself to Japan, where their Japanese names are a marketing advantage. The $150 Cab is called Ai (a homonym; the letter on the label reads "indigo dye" but the sound means "love"), the softer $75 Bordeaux blend is called Rindo, the undrinkably hot $150 Bordeaux blend is called Murasaki ("purple") and the $60 Sauvignon Blanc is called Asatsuyu ("morning dew").

I asked Barrett if she made the wines differently, knowing most would got to Japan.

"Not really. I make what we can make best from his estate," said Barrett, who separates the harvest into 30 to 50 different lots. "It's a dream from a blending standpoint."

She did say that the Sauvignon Blanc, 10% of which sees new oak barrels, was specifically made for the Japanese market because it goes well with sushi. I was skeptical until I tried it that way, and I admit she was right. I love more tropically expressive Sauv Blanc, but I never have it with sushi. Of course, in Japan I could spend less than $50 in most restaurants for a sake that would be the brewery's best and would blow away any comparably priced wine, but that's another story.

In the end, I can't mock Kenzo Estate. I wouldn't spend $30 for the tasting-room experience, but it is a beautiful place. And if you like Barrett's wine, it's a lot cheaper and easier to get a $75 Rindo than, say, Amuse Bouche ($225 a bottle, but I liked the 2002 so much I still have the empty.)

I tried to sidle up to Kenzo and compare experiences. Amazingly, we had lived in the same small neighborhood of Tokyo (Minami-Azabu 4-chome). He mentioned a US military hotel near his home there; I mentioned the gourmet grocery store near my old apartment. There the conversation ended. Only later did I realize the guy owns 4000 acres in Napa Valley, considers Bouchon a cheap snack, and probably hasn't shopped for his own groceries since before the World Wide Web was invented. I can't relate to him. But if I were him, I don't believe I would have made my choices any differently. You go, Kenzo.


Needing something to mock, I'd like to post this sign that was on my door at Silverado Resort. My room cost $205; the room they suggest I am depriving my family of is $425.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Something unique: A single-variety whisky

Here's a whisky for wine lovers: A Scotch made from a single variety of barley.

Such a whisky has existed before; apparently Glengoyne and Macallan made single-variety Scotches in the 1970s. Credit Pernod Ricard, which owns The Glenlivet, with figuring out that today's wine geeks would respond positively to something that whisky drinkers might not find all that special.

Barley for Scotch is farmed completely differently than grapes for wine. Some wine grape varieties, such as Gamay, Muscat, Riesling and Shiraz, are centuries old. Moreover, some clones of specific strains of say, Pinot Noir, may also be hundreds of years old.

In contrast, a variety of barley rarely lasts more than a decade before pests begin to elude its natural defenses, making it cost-ineffective to farm. Because the flavor characteristics of Scotch come from so much more than the barley -- there's the water, the malting process, the type of barrels, the length of aging -- it's not worth figuring out how to defend any particular variety from the natural process of evolution. Barley farmers want volume and potential alcohol; flavor subtleties can come later.

There are families in Germany and Portugal that haven't changed grape varieties on their farms since before the United States was founded, while in contrast there might not be a farm in Scotland growing the same barley variety it was just 20 years ago.

Thus there won't be any new bottlings of The Glenlivet Nadurra Triumph 1991 ($70; buy it online here.) The variety of barley, Triumph, hasn't been farmed for more than 15 years.

"Triumph was a big bold barley," says The Glenlivet's master distiller Alan Winchester. "It was a plump barley with a lot of starch. It was a lovely grain. Farmers liked growing it."

So why did they stop?

"It went out of use because it had a dormancy problem" that complicated the malting process, Winchester said. "We had to keep big stocks of it."

"Yield is always very important to a distiller," added Alan Greig, director of brand education for The Glenlivet. "We used to get 380 liters (of whisky) to a ton (of barley). Now we have newer varieties that get 420 liters to a ton."

Winchester and his team noticed, when the distillery prepared last year to bottle some barrels aged 18 years, that all were made from Triumph. So rather than simply issue another batch of 18-year-old whisky, the distillery came out with a vintage, single-variety Scotch.

I tasted this whisky in the context of a group of other releases from The Glenlivet, including two that were considerably more expensive: Founders Reserve and the 1973 Cellar Collection. Maybe it's the wine geek in me, but I loved the Triumph best by a large margin.

Rich aromas of apple, peach and caramel enticed me to take a taste before adding a wee drop of water. That's not the best way to enjoy it, and not only because it's 48% alcohol (probably cask strength, though I can't confirm that). However, I'm glad I did because the apple and caramel flavors changed dramatically when I did add some H2O.

With water, the Scotch became much lighter and livelier, with aromas and flavors of orange biscuits, lemon and fresh orange blossoms. I tasted ginger biscuits on the very smooth finish. For me, this Scotch is a Triumph. (Ba-dam-ding!)

Folks at The Glenlivet love to point out that Scotch whisky as an industry became legit two years after King George IV, on an 1822 reconciliation visit to Edinburgh, asked for a glass of Glenlivet whisky. But Glenlivet is a region, not just a brand, so that's akin to President Obama asking for a glass of Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Nonetheless, The Glenlivet was the 1st legal distillery in Speyside; that's why it's legally called "The Glenlivet."

I wonder if King George were around today what would happen if he were to ask for a glass of Triumph. Many whiskies -- not just The Glenlivet -- made in the late '80s and early '90s were made from this barley. But this is the only one to confirm that it's 100% Triumph.

Greig says there weren't many bottles of this made, and he expects them to disappear from shelves in the next year or two. After that, we may never knowingly taste Triumph again. Imagine if that were the case for Pinot Noir or Shiraz. I'd be crying into my Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

4th of July in Napa Valley

For the second year in a row, I'll be spending the 4th of July at one of Napa Valley's more local events: The BBQ and fireworks at Louis M. Martini Winery.

It's not exactly a well-kept secret anymore, as the event sold out even at $110 a ticket. (Click here for the waiting list.) But it isn't that well-known outside of Wine Country, and I would say it's an event worth traveling for next year. There's good hearty food, plenty of wine, and you're right underneath a great fireworks show. People dance, people chat, folks pour for their neighbors. It's a great way to spend a holiday.

If you want to mingle with folks in the wine industry, it's a great opportunity. Last year I ended up spending a pleasant hour in the company of a member of the Gallo family, only because neither of us knew who the other was. (The Gallos are notoriously press-shy.)

Speaking of which, as it's America's celebration weekend, before I get on with the business of deciding whether I prefer Germany or Spain in the World Cup (both make great wine, play a clean game and have regrettable histories), I want to pass along an observation from Nick Goldschmidt, who has been a lead winemaker for several corporations, including Beam Wine Estates, Constellation, Allied Domecq and LVMH.

"Corporate companies will not work in the wine industry," says Goldschmidt, a native New Zealander now making excellent Torrontes and passable Malbec for Argento in Argentina (Nyah nyah, no goals for you). "The return on investment is so hard for large corporations. It's not like you can make a car or a vending machine and you can see the product and know your return. You're talking about a product that's not going to be sold for three to five years. Family-owned companies like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson, they understand that the return isn't going to come tomorrow."

I don't often think about Gallo and K-J as family companies because they're so big. But there is a difference between them and Constellation or LVMH or The Wine Group. You have to hand it to Ernest & Julio Gallo, and Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, for establishing wine empires from scratch through hard work and aggressive marketing; it is the American way.

Moreover, from all accounts, when Gallo buys a winery like Martini, they keep Mike Martini happy enough that he's still at the winery and representing the brand. Gallo respects wine. Ask Kent Rosenblum or Richard Arrowood how they feel today about the wines named after them.

I always drink American on July 4. When I lived in Japan, I usually drank Ridge Zinfandel -- a very American wine, but actually Japanese-owned. At home, recently I've celebrated the independent spirit with wines from good smaller-production wineries like Iron Horse, Donkey & Goat and Sobon Estate.

But this year, I'm going to raise my glass to (and possibly with) Mike Martini and the Gallo family, Italian-Americans who realized the American dream. I still believe in it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The best place to drink Texas wine

Recently I visited Texas wine country, about which I wrote this column for Wine Review Online.

Texas may be the 5th largest wine-producing state in the US, but it's not easy to find Texas wines on a wine list. Many fine-dining establishments in Dallas carry only a token Becker Vineyards wine or two.

Thus I was delighted to discover Fredericksburg's Cabernet Grill, which has an all-Texas wine list.

Chef Ross Burtwell is originally from Detroit, but he's a believer in the locavore movement. He had about 50% Texas wines until a couple years ago, when he decided to go all Texas, all the time.

And why not? I've never understood chefs at restaurants like Chez Panisse -- yes, I'm talking about Saint Alice -- who brag everywhere about their commitment to local rutabagas and arugula, and then push wine that was shipped across the ocean. You're either local or you're not -- and Cabernet Grill is defiantly local.

That doesn't make it easy. Texas has more than 150 wineries, most of them tiny, few of them with distribution. "Many of these wines have traveled here in the back of my car or the back of the winemaker's car," Burtwell says.

I did not meet anybody in Texas with a wider perspective on Texas wine or a greater knowledge of its current best bottlings. He turned me on to my favorite Viognier, from McPherson Cellars, and my favorite Tempranillo, from Inwood Estates.

And his wine list is priced so fairly that it's almost unreal. Nothing cost more than $55 on the day of my visit. The higher-priced wines are the best value; some are barely $10 over retail, because Burtwell wants you to try them.

The food is local too, in the quirky Texas Hill Country way. During my visit, he was getting outstanding seafood from the Gulf of Mexico that went into an excellent Jumbo Lump Crab Gratin with red chile garlic butter, served in an escargot dish for easy picking, that I suppose won't on the menu for a while. Fortunately, he's also got local pecans, wild game and -- it's Texas -- beef.

But that's not all: the region was originally settled by German immigrants. "They used a lot of smoking, brining and canning techniques," Burtwell says. And then there's the Mexican influence; next to the crab gratin, my favorite dish was a Black Diamond Buffalo Enchilada. I also loved the Bacon-wrapped Quail stuffed with fresh jalapeno with a sundried strawberry and Port wine sauce over cheddar-scallion potatoes (shown).

As I said about Texas in the column, I'm not sure I'd fly all the way from California just to try the wines (unless you're me; I did).

But I loved Fredericksburg, a friendly town with a no-chain-store main street that's the intersection of cowboys and artists. And it's less than two hours drive from Austin.

So if you are in the area, and you're at all curious about Texas wine, Cabernet Grill is the place to be.