New wine review up on New York Wine Salon.
The first time I met Jancis Robinson, years ago I was so star-struck she must have thought a cat had ripped out my tongue. This time, a few weeks back, I had a serious heart-to heart-with self and thus overcame the shyness, had a terrific time. What a great woman and talent, but you knew that. Really. We met at The Modern. My Lustau oloroso secco (was drecco, pretty lousy sherry selections) $12, or was it $11? Jancis' Vilmart coup was $28,delicious but too high for me. I was pretty discouraged by the wines by the glass choices. In fact stumped. I mean, there's always something good to drink @ Danny's restaurants, right?
A little prank played by a Sonoma winemaker, (Read Eric Asimov's account of it and follow that up with Samantha @ Sans Dosage). That publicity stunt told more about Adam than about Raj, but it did flag the fact that people think Cali pinot noir is a very big deal. Continuing on the theme, there was a super-charged panel discussion on pinot pursuit of balance in San Fran. The twitterverse and blogosphere and print media is on it, everyone seems to be talking pinot. The question I have is not only why but why now? Because the grape is staring puberty in California in the face? Or is it fighting for its life or at least identity?
Holding the minority position, I've had some nice examples of the varietal from Oregon, one or two from the Finger Lakes, but California pinot's bright fruit and one or two flavors, for me, grows dull and difficult. This shouldn't be surprising as I tend to gravitate to wines that are anti-fruit, not austere but where the fruit is subtle. Consider the source; carignan is my favorite grape from the west, held up by syrah, mourvedre and at least in one person's hands, cabernet franc.
In the far west, the heart-break grape, often breaks mine with its candied and fruited personality. On top of that, winemakers there often have an abject fear of tannin. Acidification is most often needed, even in those who try to work naturally. I love the delicacy of Burgundy, I love that whiff of Chanel, edge, and florality, I love perceptible tannins, structure and freshness.
With out a doubt, the Cali-pinot style is changing; more producers are leaving behind the heavy duty candy and the alcohol. The fat and toasty oak is falling off the bone. Some people aren't even trying to extract for color anymore and allowing the wine to be its more delicately, tinged self. It is morphing into something more interesting for me, but still, I do wonder about its potential in the land where carignan + mourvedre + syrah do so much better.
I do believe there are spots that it can be expressive. I have long wondered about the grape's expression up on the Santa Cruz mountains. It was there, at Four Gates that I had a too -pink -for -me, but a very interesting one, not only a sense of place but one that had an arrow pointing to it.
Calera in that same area, less pink but still.... Last week, my colleague Michael Steinberger raved about the Santa Cruz winery, Rhys. And because he does, I'm curious to taste them (in the past they haven't returned my calls). I'd like to see if the grape in the Rhys expression shows sophisticated instead of the obvious. Maybe there's hope? Maybe there is a California pinot with charms I could extol?
I keep on coming back to the question of why does the passion for pinot and the search for it exist in California? I'm not convinced it isn't about the desire for it instead of the belief.
When I asked winemaker Gideon Bienstock of Clos Saron why he grows pinot up up there in the hot Oregon House Valley, he said, "Because life without pinot isn't worth living."
Gideon's vineyard's rocks
If I had a garden I'd probably be compelled to grow tomatoes wherever for the same reason, but if I could not buy pinot from Burgundy, the Loire, Alsace or the Jura, or the odd Piemontese bottle, would I learn to live without it or would I learn to embrace the strong black cherry and mallow and 'colas' of the state's grape expression. Or is there an expression in pinot that I have yet to discover that I would really enjoy?
Jasper Morris recently published Inside Burgundy. Morris discovers the region by vineyard and soil. He speculated that his book will never be outdated as the vineyards and the soil, famously built on a clay/limestone mix, remain the same. I find this a poignant counter-position for most New World winemakers who rarely put the soil first, but rather the climate, coastal or inland. Pinot, I believe is a grape that is site specific first. Place for pinot does matter.
Today on twitter, one person noted that in the the Balance in Pinot conference few even brought up soil. It was not part of the discussion. I wonder how long before soil becomes a significant player, or does the American democracy (which translates to grapes; plant what you want, it matters not) will interfere with finding a true sense of place.
Here's my thought. I'd like to see the wine from grape grown on a site that is specific, not just cool climate, seek out a limestone/clay base. Go for naturally or organically grown, unirrigated, own-rooted, vines that were massale selections and not skinny, sterile clones. I think a good dose of stems would be useful, because California can use the edge that mitigates the intensity of sunny fruit. No cold soaking for extra color and extraction and brightness of fruit. I would really be very curious to see what this would show, (and so if you've got some old Paul Masson and Martin Ray pinots, send me an email please). I have an even more radical idea; treat pinot noir in California as one would treat a pinot noir from lesser terroirs in France, simply.
I think only then can I see what the grape can do in California. Who knows, if I've gone back to loving California carignan, perhaps I can claim pinot noir as well.
But, nevertheless, I have been going out of my way to try them. And I will in the future. So far the most intriguing pinot I've tasted from California was at the March La Paulée de New York.
Finally! I got to put my nose in one of those pot wines from a certain Santa Barbabara wine maker.
The weed added a certain complexity, and certainly added an edge to what I usually feel is just too much fruit.
Other than that, recent tastings have uncovered....
Anthill Farms, Tina Marie Vineyard 2009
The fruit was reversed on this, on the finish instead of the attack.Found the etheral weight interesting. But still fruit forward, I mean backward.
Was this wine really $14? At 13.5 % it still has all of that bright fruit that I swear I don't know what to do with but the little bit of bug shell and aspirin bitter makes it palatable.
Kutch Anderson Valley 2009
Found this round and powerful but helped out with some nice rosewater that might have come from the 50% whole cluster. Bring on the stems.
Lately the debate about natural has become contentious. Bashing vin nature has become something of a sport. You'd think that natural was the Morris (dance) of the wine world.
Take a recent article penned for an Australian magazine, written by a UK writer, named Stuart George. His framework was born in my kitchen. His wit turns on a dime, filled with piss and vinegar. After all, a palate assault can be incredible fodder for a good spin around the keyboard.
But like any good lampoon, (wait, is it?) this article would have been more powerful if it had reliable reportage instead of being eligible for the James Frey award. All joking aside, there were a few holes in the reality and authority. Okay, some facts were more important than others.
Such as, I never saw Goodfellas, I have no idea what he was talking about. (not important)
This was not a tasting but a dinner I cooked. (not important). On impulse I invited Stuart, who had been a complete stranger to me. But he was in town, was alone and free and three friends were coming over.
I greeted my guests with Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs "La Parcelle" 
After that Stuart reports I served up about a dozen wines. He hated four of them so much it might have been a dozen, but in reality there were five (5). (Actually, quasi-important.) And they were........
+Mendall YES (Macabeu. Our guest hated this, poison, we loved it. Hard core natural. Skin contact. Freshness with nut and peach. Flor)
Last year I was the official runner-up in this award. I appreciate the pat on the back, but damn, the money would have made such a big difference. In fact, it would have added an Italian chapter in my forthcoming book.
However, YOU could possibly win. And if you did, wouldn't it be fabulous?
Let me tell you whyI love this award: There are few monetary offerings for those of us who feel food and wine matter. And I never met Mr. Roberts, but I find this patronage heartwarming.
So.......get off your duff and apply.
Trying to show your impact on either the food and wine world and need travel for it? £3,000/$4,500 for food and/or drink-related travel goes to the winner. The deadline is March 31st.
Deadline for applications March 31. http://geoffreyrobertsaward.com/
In case you didn't know, I'm giving weekly wine recommendations over at New York Wine Salon, a new site which celebrates the New York City wine scene. But with any luck, you can get the wines I'm talking about if you are very, very good and try hard enough.
The other week on the Twitterverse 'we' had a discussion about Velcorin (dimethyl dicarbonate) the nasty little chemical that many folk employ to keep their wines safe from brettanomyces, affectionately known as brett. Brett is a yeast, responsible for lending tastes and smells of lanolin to a wine in small amounts or turn a bottle into a herd of sheep just before mating when the population is strong. In those small bits, many--guilty as charged--have tolerance. Yet those do exist who have a zero tolerance and a take no prisoner approach in the winery. Those often opt for the usage.
Out of the Twittersphere, an old editor of mine from the West Coast joined in. The last time I saw him was in Bordeaux, when I said, "If you give me your address, I'd love to send you my book."
He said, "Do yourself a favor, and don't."
I remember feeling stung. But still, I had thought he and I had friendly relationship, I liked him as an editor. After a few rounds of back and forth, he tweeted out in response to my admission that I had some tolerance for brett, 'If your idea of natural wine is brett.."
Non-sequiter. We were not on the topic. He plucked the word 'natural' from a frog's mouth and then continued to push the natural wine debate, throwing out the straw man argument of --you militant you--why don't you only drink wine made from wild grapes!
I twat back, "Please don't go right wing on me."
I meant to be light-hearted, but what ensued was a full-fledged, funny mirror circus trick.
This editor professes to prefer the kinds of wines that I drink. From his writings I doubt it. But I would actually love to see if the way we drink wine is reflected in this unfortunate communication we had.
Do you remember ever fighting with a lover, ( who shouldn't be a lover) and feeling caught in the no-communication zone? Basically, trapped in someone else's pattern is not a feel good moment. Once I realized the level of reality I was dealing with, I slid out the backdoor, with a friendly wave, regards to the wife, and ran for my life.
This is a long rambling entry into the topic of attraction through palate.
Have you, adorers of pineau d'aunis and cabernet franc and Savigny and Cornas vinified with stems, ever been in love with a cult-cabernet drinker? Or had a really close friend who glugged back Scarecrow? Is it possible? I'm not just talking Bordeaux vs. Burgundy, but full out assault of spoof vs. non-spoof? Or someone who just couldn't understand a wine as simply beautiful as Foillard?
I believe that there's something to this, and perhaps predicated on just how intimate and close a relationship is tolerated, like in brett. For example, a friend of mine used to drink lots of Santa Barbara wines and now stocks Puzelat and Cornelissen. Has his taste in love changed as well or is wine his safe zone, his man cave? Or are the chosen women just agreeable, they can drink but need not share this specific passion. I wonder. In fact, I'll have to ask him.
Someone I'm fond of in France said of a fellow winemaker,"He's my best friend, as long as we don't talk politics." What they can talk is wine. And drink wine. That is the even playing field, it is their glue. Myself, I've a very right wing dear, dear, friend, and her palate is in synchrony with my own, which means our senses are in tuned, and that is animal. An old boyfriend of mine, HS, only drank white wine. We may have had a coarse animal electricity, but it was skin deep. After we broke up I rebelled and didn't drink white for years. RB and I had a profound connection for over a decade and we shared the worlds of taste and smell and all of the senses to an exquisite degree. We differed and argued about wine and perceived things differently in the glass but there was still a shared animal understanding in and out of wine. However, that didn't insure our happy ever after.
It's so complicated, but there is something here to think about. I could very well spend the rest of my life delving into the nature of relationships based on how couples or the law of attractions as read through a glass of wine.
So, if you've ever hooked up with a lover of fruit forward while you crave grapes that speak slate, was the sex good, emotional good or kinky good?
What kind of a relationship was it? Was it one of those mating relationships, where children were the objective as opposed to connection? Was the conversation stimulating? Did you have a miserable break up? Are you still together?
Aristotle wrote about the senses (including the maligned taste) Metaphysics:..... the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.
So, the question I have for you, am I so truly strange that I am alone? Do you ever put your nose and smile deeply when the person you're sharing it with finds the iron thread and bits of blood and bone that you do?
For the past few months I've been emailing Douglas Wregg in London. Doug is part of the infamous, pot-stirring team at the force to deal with, Les Caves de Pyrène, importers of mostly ASF Happy wines. They are also the folk who brought London the wine bar that changed the town's wine life forever, Terroirs. Brawn, their second venue, opened to bring hard core a new dimension.
In addition to bouncing ideas off of Doug, I've become addicited to his newsletters. His writing for the Cave is always an immediate mood adjuster. The missives are literary, passionate, fun. In fact funny. Oh, did I say thought provoking?
So a few weeks back, on the day I was going to La Paulée de New York, Doug, fearless man that he is, presented some natural wines to a group of establishment wine writers. He emailed me the lineup, which included a good assortment of hard core delicious and hard core specific, or as the French would say, "speciale.' Here is his line up as well as a snippet on what is natural wine and what are wine flaws and how they are perceived by establishment press.
2008 Chardonnay Chalasses Marnes Vieilles Vignes, Domaine J-F Ganevat
2009 Irouléguy Blanc Hegoxuri, Domaine Arretxea
2007 Fiano “Don Chisciotte” Il Tufiello
2008 Vin de Table « Gilbourg » Benoit Courault,
2008 Matassa Blanc, Cuvée Alexandria, VdP des Côtes Catalanes
2008 Sancerre Skeveldra, Sébastien Riffault
2009 Gamay d'Auvergne « Pierres Noires » Domaine Maupertuis
2008 Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille « La Luna », Bruno Duchene
2009 Brouilly Croix des Rameaux, Jean-Claude Lapalu
2009 Pinot Noir, Cuvée Julien Ganevat, Domaine Ganevat
2008 VigneVecchie, AA Panevino
2009 Vin de Table « Le Rouge et Mis », Thierry Puzelat
2008 Minervois La Nine, Jean-Baptiste Sénat
2009 Bourgogne Rouge Auguste, Clos des Vignes du Maynes
2009 St Joseph Rouge, Domaine Dard et Ribo
When I read this I thought, okay. Many on this list are flat out delicious, such as the Puzelat. And the Matassa wines are easy. But, I couldn't wait to hear what they think of the Riffault. Controversial, fascinating and mind-bending. A ballsy choice, Douglas!
The interesting twist on Riffault's wines is that as they age, a more distinct and recognizable sauvignoness comes through, but the terroir always seems to speak first. What is not recognized as a wine from Sancerre at the outset, comes at you full blast as it emerges from its adolescence.
Doug reported back hours after the fact. Check; some attendees were outraged. In fact, he has given me permission to record some of his favorite reactions. (MW, refers to someone who was a master of wine. Me, is Doug.)
On tasting the Sancerre Akmenine from Seb Riffault :
MW: This isn't Sancerre.
Me: Why not?
MW: Because it doesn't taste the way Sauvignon should.
Me: How should Sauvignon taste?
Later MW: Winemakers should make wine that is recognisable to the consumer.
Me (with asperity): With respect, that is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard!
MW: Wines like this are not fit for purpose.The consumer wouldn't understand them
Me: You may not understand or even like them. You can't speak for the everyman/woman consumer.
I wish I had been there. I realize when I get snippy on my site, it has a dramatic impact on the way the public views me. For example, the effects from the 'out of the game' post of last year continues to bite me in the ass. It is fabulous to see someone else, like minded, get down in the mud as well.
For a few more responses to the tasting check out..
and now....a little from Doug and the latest part of the March Newsletter (of which he also gives me a plug, which is lovely of him.)
(From the erudite Mr. Wregg)
Après the tasting masterclass, if not le deluge, certainly a reasonable trickle of feedback. I came to the discussion prepared to scotch certain myths , upset the occasional apple-cart and generally provoke people to question their assumptions. Agreeing on definitions, however, is tricky; any debate is riven with terminological inexactitudes and it is the parole of natural wine to be precisely vague. Though we seek a banner to rally to, natural wine means different things to different people – hence the diversity of the wines, but for every grower who is attracted to its feel-good warmth, another is resistant to any effort to codify his activities. So we never insist.
The overall sentiment amongst those at the seminar alluded to by Tim was that though it may be all very well to run a vineyard in a hands-off manner, when it comes to winemaking there is no such thing as benign neglect, and the absence of intervention inevitably culminates in aromatic infelicities and downright chemical spoilage.
A specified fault is a specified fault is a specified fault – these are not the exclusive domaine of natural wines. Corked wine is faulty, vinegar is vinegar – these are absolute faults by any standards. I think, however, we will always disagree about the degree, nature and nuance of certain faults and flaws and whether they render the wine undrinkable or no.
For one man’s added sulphur is another’s hangover, or, conversely, one man’s VA is another vigneron’s winemaking tool. Is the additive that spoils the wine for one drinker any less of a flaw/fault than a naturally occurring by product of fermentation that another drinker might find rebarbative? The ascription of faults is too simplistic since it begins and ends with the presupposition that cleanliness is the ideal state for a wine - and that any other “alien” aromas are undesirable. Just because this is repeated as a mantra doesn’t make it any more true. I happen to believe that our flaws (for want of a better word) make us individual; if we didn’t have them we would be clones. If the winemaking process is not absolutely controlled, then, of course, there is the leeway for the unexpected to occur and for faults to inform the final product. But is this necessarily wrong or undesirable? The most thrilling rides in our lives can be when we have lost control, and by doing so, we learn more about ourselves and our abilities than ever we would if we were totally reined in.
The man who discovers a new scientific truth has previously had to smash to atomsalmost everything he had learnt, and arrives at the new truth with hands blood-stained from the slaughter of a thousand platitudes.
-Ortega y Gasset
The Revolt of the Masses
Up to a point, Lord Copper (Sulphate).
I’m aware I tend to use the expression “conventional wine” as a pejorative bash-all hammer. Conventional in this context means slavishly adhering to perceived traditions rather than reasoning the actual need to do something (to misquote Shakespeare). It is important to pose the question whether conventional methods in the vineyard or winery are always necessary or helpful.
To be fair winemaking doesn’t dovetail neatly into the two opposing categories of “natural” and “conventional”; it embraces the entire spectrum of interventions from virtually zero to countless (or anti-hero!). Blandly commercial wine which is less the sum total of its additives sits at one end of this scale next to spoofy wine, which can start with the best of intentions in the vineyard but often falls away in an explosion of pretentious and overbearing oenological tropes in the winery (200% new oak anyone?). Then are those winemakers who don’t fall into the natural category but certainly aim to express the terroir of their vineyards in their wines by restricting interventions and having a light touch in the winery. It is certainly a question of degree.
Interestingly, the majority of natural winemakers have been to winemaking colleges where they were inculcated to believe in the interventionist approach. They rejected many of the axioms of oenology because they want to be able to freely express themselves and their terroir through their wines. The courses evidently teach the line of least resistance; it is a bit like doing a literature degree and being told that there can only be one interpretation of a novel. Where oenology is all about stripping clean and processing wine for the end user it fails to respect the ingredients; where oenology allows the winemaker to understand the processes and adapt according to the vintage and be sensitive to the quality of the grapes then it can be a useful discipline.
Carbo-dehydrated – too much of a nice thing?
When does the method subsume the terroir? I enjoy drinking the classic cherry cola carbo reds for thirst, but after a while I feel a lack of something. Where’s da beef, the pith and skin, the grip and grain? As Victore Mature didn’t say: “I don’t want to be wine-gummed to death.” I want some backbone and underwiring in my wines, to roll the stones in the mouth and these little fruit bombs are detonating sweet juice and not much else.
Am I being entirely fair? There are plenty of very nice semi-carbo wines which resemble meat with a fruit-flavoured gravy and certain grapes on certain terroirs seem to be able to preserve their crunch. Old vines Gamay from the volcanic Auvergne or from the granitic vineyards of Beaujolais seems less affected by the vinification; Syrah, meanwhile, can retain its character. Carignan, however, can be over-tamed by carbonic maceration and cool ferments. I suppose what I am asking for is a bit variety because I need spice in my life.
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The night was headed to crazy.
In the middle of dinner Olivier Cousin toasted Claire his bride of 20-something years of marriage. There it was, their anniversary. Some pet-nat and the hours started to tick away. I went to bed. Fagged out, while the others rocked out gearing up to another 4:30am call.
How Claire got up to go to work, I'll never figure out.
Magical croissants appeared, forever the weight watcher, I allowed myself a morsel of pain au chocolat, fabulously flakey, buttery, there goes the diet. We walked past the horses and piled into the car, four in the back (ask me about that sometime, because never, never will I tell you in print what happened). We traveled to Sologne in the Touraine to see Claude Courtois at "Les Cailloux du Paradis."