Thursday, April 13, 2017

Darn Good Cabernet

2013 Katherine Goldschmidt Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley $20
The Alexander Valley in Sonoma is an undersung source for quality cabernet that's generally a good value.  This bottling reminds me of why: deep, black cabernet fruit framed by chewy tannins make for a wine that tastes far more expensive than it is.  Full of all the things that made you fall in love with wine, but long for in most of what's available today.  A joy to drink.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Merlot, Merlot: Markham And Why It Matters

Ah, merlot, you much-maligned grape.  Once on the tip of every suburban housewife's tongue, only to be taken down by the rantings of a fictional movie character.  The world can be a cruel place indeed.  But in the immortal words of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, "Rise and fall turn the wheel 'cause all life Is really just a circle."

When Sideways simultaneously catapulted pinot noir's popularity and sullied merlot's reputation, the long term impact seemed bleak.  It's taken much of the thirteen years since the movie's release, but things are coming full circle.  Today, most commonly available California point noirs are like the character who celebrated pinot's transcendentalism: overblown, raging, hot messes.  On the flip side, the intervening years have unceremoniously weeded most of the crappy merlot out of the market, increasing overall quality.

For some years now I've commented that merlot is a largely overlooked wine undeserving of such a long, bad rap.  But until that becomes common knowledge, it's a boon for the open-minded consumer.  Case in point is the sample of Markham merlot sent (along with a cake!) to commemorate Markham's 35th vintage of merlot.

2014 Markham Merlot Napa Valley $26
With enough tannic energy and proud fruit to satisfy even the most staunch of cabernet drinkers, this merlot proves a versatile, pleasing drink.  Characteristically Californian, but without being overbearing, the flavor profile in this wine is a pleasing combination of black, blue, and deep red fruits framed nicely by moderate toasted oak, and finishing long with superfine tannins. Would go well with anything from poultry to Moroccan cuisine.  A real value for a Napa bottling.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Smith-Madrone Current Releases

High above the valley floor west of St Helena sits the Spring Mountain District, one of Napa Valley's sixteen AVAs.  With steep hillside vineyards reaching altitudes upwards of 1500 feet, this is prime cab country.  And at the very end of Spring Mountain Road is Smith-Madrone.

Founded in 1971, Smith-Madrone winery was a pioneer in the practice of dry farming, still a very rare pursuit in California.  That they are able to crank out quality wines - not just cabernet, either - from this location and in this manner is impressive indeed.  Having been up there a couple of times before, a jaunt off the well-trodden route 29 is highly recommended.  Quiet and serene, Spring Mountain feels like the rest of Napa probably did in the seventies.

The three samples they sent are all made with precision and clarity.  Honesty of place shines through in them all.  Lovely wines.

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain District $30
Crystaline platinum blonde in the glass offering faint petrol and funk aromatics typical in some rieslings. This gives way to a light bodied and very clean palate.  Low viscosity, and quite dry, but not at all lacking in flavor or character.  The zippy finish has terrific acidic grip with citrus nuances and a nice mineral bump. All this while clocking in at under 13% ABV.  Very Alsatian in style.  Very enjoyable with or without food.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain District $32
The few examples I've tasted of Napa Valley Chardonnay grown outside of Carneros have just substantiated why growers like Carneros for chard. Smith-Madrone's proves the notable exception. Its pale straw color and clean nose suggest a lean fleet-footedness.  But one sip disabuses the idea that this is anything less than full tilt archetypal California Chardonnay. Big and full of mouth-filling texture, this flavor monster manages to walk a fine line. Well-made without being overblown, it is awfully hard to put down despite its heft. 

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District $50
Very floral upon initial decanting. Inviting.  Tight, concentrated, and without an ounce of flab as a first impression.  Structured and finely spun tannins are center stage. Its formality softens considerably and yields to comforting cedar and vanilla-laced fruit that starts deep and dark, then evolves toward a more bright, vibrant energy. The perfume aspect persists throughout, singing in the company of food. On day two oak emerges in earnest, overshadowing the fruit. Though this wine will go some distance, impatient drinkers won't be disappointed, either.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Stinker Of The Week

Is it coincidence that I opened this bottle the same day as having read Bianca Bosker's brilliant op ed in the New York Times?  Probably, but every wincing sip I took of this wine made me rethink my agreeing with her piece. 

When Block Nine first came on the market some years ago, this bottling was a welcome addition to the line up.  Reasonably priced and reasonably well made are two unusual things to find in pinot noir anymore, let alone in the same one.  But times they have changed as reflected by this succinct review.

2015 Block Nine Pinot Noir California $15
Strongly reminiscent of Cherry Coca Cola spiked with inexpensive vodka.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bordeaux Bargain Again

There only exist a handful of widely available wines that consistently stand up to some age in the bottle.  Bordeaux is one and it's always a treat to revisit these reds after they've had some time to mature.  It's even more fun when you can find one on the shelf that doesn't set you back a week's worth of groceries.

2012 Chateau d'Arveyres Bordeaux Superieur $11
Made of 100% merlot and five years old, this red might not be from a celebrated vintage, but it's got plenty of character and the fruit is holding up just fine. Dusty on the nose and with a slightly muted, graphite-lined palate, it is unmistakably Bordelaise.  Restrained and classy, not complex or flashy.  And at this price, it's a steal.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Wine of the Week

2015 Chateau Bassac Bordeaux $7
yes, you readFrom the lauded 2015 vintage comes this extraordinary surprise. Soft, supple, yet full-bodied, this easy drinking red will appeal to a broad range of palates.   Very food friendly and, thanks to moderate alcohol, friendly to the drinker as well. Tasted blind I guessed this to be between $20 and $25. Found it at a local retailer at this screaming bargain price. Stock up!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Walking The Grid: How Sommeliers Do It

It's eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning and the table has been set for 10; three Riedel glasses, water glass, coffee cup, pen and paper, and a shared dump bucket at each setting. We are in a private room at a very well-respected French restaurant to put our palates through the paces.

There's a peculiar set of juxtapositions in the atmosphere: the restaurant is empty and quiet aside from the assembled, and they're shyly shuffling around the lobby mumbling while the first flight is poured out of sight. The scene might give you the impression of a casual, after hours gathering - and the attire of most in attendance reflects that - but the demeanor is decidedly more subdued and formal. There is a ritualistic, respectful silence hanging in the air.  Church? Well, it is Sunday morning.

I'd been invited to observe/join a practice tasting for a group of candidate sommeliers.  They are here to practice blind tasting, something required for each of the certification-level tests administered by the Master Court of Sommeliers. Three whites, three reds, twenty-five intense minutes. The goal is to observe, analyze, describe, and identify the wines to determine the following:
  • what grape(s) they are comprised of
  • where (as specifically as possible) they were grown
  • what vintage the wine was made from
Depending upon the level, this portion of the test is either written (less difficult) or oral (exceedingly difficult).
Think you've got what it takes? Read on to the end for a transcript of an actual tasting from that morning.
In somm parlance, this analysis is referred to as "waking the grid". Deliberately dispassionate, blind tasting is a disciplined breakdown of what's in the glass. Not coincidentally similar to a detective's deductive appraisal, this duly-hyped parlor trick stands in stark contrast to every notion of romance we tend to associate with wine. Having stumbled through this contest over a decade ago, my personal preference is to evaluate wines for emotional impact rather than analyze their impersonal attributes.  No coincidence; I was no good at it then, and even less so now.

The practical value of such an ability will continue to be debated long after the cows come home. But it is what it is and, if nothing else, it serves as some yardstick to separate the boys from the men. And this morning it is all men. (Though changing, the ranks of sommeliers is decidedly male-dominated.) Tasting blind is unbelievably intimidating.  Or, as the taster transcribed below says, terrifying.  Not just because you've got an audience and a stopwatch, but because each sample taunting you could be any of a seemingly infinitesimal number of possibilities.

Each wine has its own personality and dizzying array of attributes. Color, luminosity, meniscus, luminosity, brilliance, gasification, sediment - and that's just what's visible...the tip of the iceberg. Aromatics and olfactory impressions come next, followed by taste and texture elements. Taken together, they represent an impossible puzzle.  This is where the grid comes in.

The grid is a series of questions to evaluate each of those attributes and is there as a tool to assemble a series of signposts. If you call each one correctly - and follow them without psyching yourself out - they will take you to a conclusion.  Will it be successful? Therein lies the difference between art and science - and the difference between being a tourist and having a shitload of experience.

Whether you are a budding oenophile or a seasoned wino, participating in an exercise like this is a strong reminder that, actually, you really don't know jack.  For each wine there is only one right answer from so many possibilities. No matter how knowledgeable a sommelier might be, the inexperienced can't fake their way through the insecurity this challenge imbues. My intimidation that morning came from being surrounded by the grit and proficiency of those sitting at that table.

Remember that James Bond movie when he picks up a wine and calls it a 59 Chateau Lafite? Well, it was just a movie.
Things get underway and the long light streaking across the mullions in the dining room cast a church-like solemnity on the occasion. As each of the candidates worked their way through the wines, the silent formality begins to make perfect sense. They were not here to fuck around. No, no. This is where the real work is done in preparation for the next level. And, lovely wines or not, it is work and discipline.  Makes you want to drop what you're doing and sign up for the next exam, right?

If that isn't impressive enough, consider that the entire (three hour!) affair was organized and led by a mentor who provided feedback and detailed coaching on each participant's performance while simultaneously benchmarking with his own evaluation of the wines. Jesus.  Talk about juggling a lot of balls.

Now, for a taste of what it's like, what follows is the transcript for one of the sommelier's walking of the grid.  Your wine vocabulary is about to expand...

White wine number four is a white wine.

It is of a pale yellow moving out to a thin, watery miniscus.  Little bits, flecks of gold and green.  
Viscocity is a medium plus.  There's no signs of gas or sediment.  I'll call that star bright.

The wine is clean, although I think that there's maybe a little bit of volatile acidity kind of lurking in there, but I think it's kind of pretty.

Primary impressions of citrus, key line, lemon oil, lemon pith, orange, but more like orange blossom.  Then tropical aromas of passion fruit, yellow delicious apples, apple skin.

There's a little bit of lees-iness, a little bit of real sense of oak influence, likely stainless steel.  There's definitely a pronounced minerality. There's floral component like jasmine flowers....maybe like sweet herbs.

This is terrifying.

On the palate the wine is dry.  Acidity medium, alcohol medium plus bordering on high.

So, I'm going to walk back what I was talking about about jasmine flowers.  No, this is more like yellow flowers.  The condition of the fruit is almost a little in the palate bruised, oxidative.  I don't know why it was fresh in the nose.  It was, but then it's got this oxidative thing going on.  This is yellow apples, pears, definitely some lemon, some lemon pith.  It's almost a bitterness in the palate.  Definitely lots of lees going on.  I wasn't getting any oak in the nose, but in the palate to me there's some. I think they're maybe using a little bit of large, neutral barrels.  There's a certain textural component to it.  

Sorry, I realize I also didn't call body or finish.  This is...I'm going to go with full body.  There's high alcohol.  I mean there's lots of extract. The acidity...I'm going to bump it to medium plus.  It's hanging around. 

I do think the fruit goes more tart in the palate, so I'm going to go with Old World, moderate climate with the higher alcohol but some acidity hanging around.  Possible grape varietals...all the yellow flowers and yellow fruits.  I think we're on some sort of roussane/marsanne blend.  

So, final conclusion: this is a 2013 St Joseph blanc.  

How'd he do?  It was a 2014 Bordeaux Blanc. Correct on old world, correct on France, and correct on white blend. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rombauer: More Than Just Chardonnay

Having recently celebrating its 35th year, Rombauer Vineyards is perhaps still best known for its gregarious chardonnay - a statuesque white of bombastic largesse. Experimentation with their other varieties, however, is also consistently rewarding.

My first visit to their tasting room off the Silverado Trail was in the late 1990s. Since then they have continued to deliver approachability and quality, a tradition that is becoming more scarce in the wine business with every passing year. Visitors to the area should make it a point to put Rombauer on their list. Not only are the wines worth tasting through, but the view overlooking the valley benchlands is fantastic.

2014 Rombauer Vineyards Cabernet Napa Valley $55 (sample)
Archetypal Napa Valley Cabernet: Concentrated with loads of tannic-driven grip, yet clean, well-made, and delivering extroverted, elegant fruit. Not a drop out of place here. Approachable now, but with the guts to go some distance.  Fits the benchmark for high-quality Napa cab. What's not to like?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Crocker & Starr Current Releases

Crocker & Starr is one of those wineries that sits on the edge of the radar for many.  Neither obscure or overtly famous, the times I've crossed paths with the name have all been, curiously, relative their sauvignon blanc.  So, when these four samples, three of which are red, arrived in advance of a virtual tasting, I was intrigued.

The Crocker of Crocker & Starr is Charlie Crocker, a San Francisco businessman who, in 1971, bought a defunct winery.  Napa was mostly farm land back then, so his friends must have thought he was a crack pot.  (Who's laughing now?) For many years he sold grapes from the land to wineries until, in 1997, he brought a young, aspiring winemaker into the fold.  Now in the twentieth year of their partnership, Pam Starr remains at the helm overseeing winemaking of the limited production, sustainably-grown, hand-crafted estate wines.

One of the luxuries of a comparative tasting like this is being able to look for commonalities across the wines.  Experienced, skilled winemakers often impart a unique, detectable thumbprint on all their wines.  Once you zero in on what the thumbprint is, it jumps out at you henceforth.  In the case of these wines, they do indeed come from the same gene pool.  At once iconically Napa Valley and in possession of their own personality, they all share a combination of distinctive perfume and potency.  They are also built to last.  Large and in charge now, the reds in particular will reward the patient collector as the wines' intensity evolves toward grace.  But don't discount the longevity of the sauvignon blanc. While not built for the ages, a few years on its side won't hurt it.

After this experience, perhaps Crocker & Starr belongs closer to your radar's sweep center.

2105 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $34
Minerality dominates in this fresh-cut-grass and citrus incarnation of Napa sauvignon blanc.  Vivid clarity and cleanliness of delivery frame the profile, but it's the strong graphite edges outlining the fruit that catapults this from porch quaffer into cerebral geek territory. One pleasant surprise: in contrast to most sauv blancs, Crocker & Starr's becomes more relaxed, creamy, and approachable as it nears room temperature. 

2014 Crocker & Starr 'Casali 7' St Helena Napa Valley $80
The first word that comes to mind whenever newly experiencing something is what is most prominent, obvious. In this case that word is perfumed. It's not just aromatic, it's strongly perfumed, making it an attention-commanding beverage right out of the gate. This carries through to the attack where the high-frequency notes arc along the palate. The next word picks up where perfumed leaves off: intense. Here's where malbec makes itself known, busting through the swinging saloon doors like a gunslinger. Though with all of those lofty floral aromatics going on, it's more Annie Oakley than Jesse James. For all its swashbuckling brawn, balance and superfine tannins round out what ultimately becomes an elegant, beguiling wine, most especially on day two when it shrugs off its aggressive intensity. 92% malbec, 4% cabernet sauvignon, 4% petit verdot.

2014 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc St Helena Napa Valley $80
Rich nose of lively aromatics lead to an expressive, layering of textured fruit focused on a concentrated core that speaks romance in the shadow of blue neon. Strong, chalky, mouth-coating tannins retain a grip on the honest cabernet franc flavors suggesting that some years of cellaring will benefit this in terrific ways.  As with the Casali, the cab franc mellows a bit after a day while remaining bright, young, and centered on brilliant cobalt fruit.

2014 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon Stone Place Vineyard $120

Massive, dense, and luxurious.  Think wearing a mink coat to bed at The Four Seasons.  Very refined and expensive tasting, yet impossibly approachable. Terrific balancing act effortlessly delivered.  Let silence say the rest.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

10 Years Just Perfect

With those couple of rants behind us, let's return to the subject at hand… and what an example to resume the conversation with! Easily deserving of the Wine of the Week designation, it just as easily earns Wine of the Quarter. While vintage port gets the lion's share of attention in this country, a trip to Portugal a couple of years ago taught me this important lesson: dollar for dollar, pound for pound, the smart money is spent on ten-year tawnies. I just need to remind myself of that more often. Here's proof of why:

NV Dow's 10 Year Tawny Port $36
Oozing with character and beckoning, warm elegance, this epitomizes what port drinking experiences should be. Slightly viscous and wrapped in flavors of hazelnut, plum, caramel, and subtle burnt orange peel, a little goes a long way. Though some may scoff at the price tag, consider that this bottle was enjoyed over the course of a month in a household with much higher than average consumption. An added bonus: over the course of that month the character only evolved rather than diminished. When amortized over the evenings that it provided a lovely cap to, this bottle is a sizzling bargain.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

And Another Thing...

Technological advances are felt across so many aspects of life that they have become expected in their ubiquitousness.  Posting updates/articles to this blog (which has run on the Blogger platform since it's inception) is no exception. The Blogger app, created to allow for a more seamless experience in posting from your phone, leveraged the photo, user experience, and voice dictation capabilities of smart phone devices to great effect.

But... adding to the reasons why frequency of postings have dropped of late is this head scratcher: At some point in 2016 google discontinued support for Blogger from the iOS platform. This means that the Blogger app is no longer available from the Apple App Store, And the only way to post from an iPhone or iPad is to do so via the Blogger web interface (which, frankly, sucks).  Net result is that what used to take just two or three minutes is now a 20 minute clumsy ordeal. That kind of barrier will certainly impact production volume.

What now?

The way I see it, the thousands (possibly more) of content producers using this platform have three options: First and most onerous is the prospect of replatforming to a more popular blog platform such as WordPress. (Big sigh.)  Next is to just suck it up and go back to doing things the old-fashioned way; opening up the old laptop and typing away, uploading images that have been transferred from phone to email to hard drive to blog. (Another big sigh.).  Finally, perhaps there is a way to continue posting to the Blogger platform from an iPhone. Alas, Google searches have turned up nothing. I guess I shouldn't be surprised since it's Google that both removed the app and controls search results.

For those of you who are technically inclined, I invite your input. Any recommendations would be much appreciated!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Corrective Action

Happy New Year! Those of you who have been checking back on occasion have probably noticed a significant drop in the frequency of posts. This rambling update hopes to explain why with a perspective on the state of wine, changing purchasing habits, what the deal is with samples, and how taste is evolving with age. 

To begin, why so much radio silence? The answer is unfortunately simple: I've had the blahs. In many regards, I've become somewhat disenchanted with what the mainstream wine industry is offering consumers these days. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the continued lamentable trend toward sweeter, more extracted wines (both red and white), a style I think of as Twinkielike.  These bottlings are also being subjected to rapidfire label changes, making it ever more difficult for consumers to understand what is actually under each screw cap or cork.  This complaint is generally directed at domestic suppliers, but, as style trends go, what starts in the west often spreads globally. (I'm talking to you, Spain!)

But to throw responsibility for this Season of Meh solely at the feet of the industry at large would be flat out scapegoating. A change in my own purchasing habits is as much to blame. Over the past few years I have found that the pang of regret is something I increasingly work to avoid in all aspects of life. Too many times I have enjoyed a bottle and not been able to procure any more of. So, over time, I began buying large quantities of wines that I found to be worthy of repeat enjoyment, often times finding them at substantial, tempting discount. The predictable result is depth at the expense of breadth. But there was another casualty I had not anticipated: discovery. Part of the disenchanted feeling of late is due to the absence of that thrill. There is no mystery in opening a wine you've had five times in the last year, no matter how good it is. Slow to learn, but certain to get there, this has helped shin a bright light on discovery as a critical element of enjoyment.  Yes, this is definitely a first world problem. An embarrassment of riches, really, but one that clearly demands corrective action.  My friend Paul offered his policy: two bottles of each, one to try, the other to affirm, then move on. I think I will adopt some form of that in the hopes that it will result in not only more drinking pleasure, but inspiration for writing. Thanks, Paul! 

Somewhat related is a topic I am asked about more often than any other: samples. I count myself darn lucky to be in the dwindling population of writers that public relations folks still deem influential enough to justify sending free wine too. But a dose of reality for those of you who believe it's nothing but cases of rarefied Barolo arriving on my doorstep… There is a reason why these wines are being promoted: they need it. When I am very fortunate, undiscovered gems that are having a tough time breaking into the market are among the samples. Most of the time, however, samples arrive because they just don't present a compelling product in the marketplace. This isn't just a function of quality, rather of value. There's plenty of evidence to support that if you price your product low enough, someone will buy it. $30 mediocre malbec, however, is a very tough sell, which is why it's shipped to writers in the hopes of positive press that will help move it.  At some point it becomes a struggle to find a shade of lipstick to apply to the pig that doesn't embarrass you.

Finally, a subject that deserves it's own research and rambling: how tastes evolve with age. In brief, the older I get, the more enchanted I've become with nuances of acidity, while simultaneously being less enthralled with the velvet hammer style that seems to remain in vogue. Wines that have the lacy, granular finesse that intrigues tend also to be lighter in body and lower in alcohol. That skews my preferences decidedly toward the Old World by virtue of American wines' generally bombastic demeanor. The Old World still has thousands of growers and producers who haven't been bought up by megacorp wine holding companies, making it a much better source for wines that are more appealing these days.  More on this another time.

So, there you are.  Answers to questions you probably didn't have.  Thanks for continuing to come back and stay tuned for the next chapter in wine.  Cheers.