Friday, March 23, 2012

What Is Black Sears Vineyard, And Why Should You Care?

One of my biggest complaints about California wines, and Napa cabs in particular, is that they have no sense of place. With that in mind, I ventured to the Howell Mountain AVA Spring Tasting earlier this week. It was a revelation. These were wines that not only had tremendous flavor profiles, but they all had a definite sense of place, they could only come from Howell Mountain.

What are the characteristics of this AVA? First is vibrant dark fruit with some very interesting earth notes. This is a result of being on a mountain and the fruit taking much longer to ripen. As a result, these wines are very big with some big and chewy tannins. But what I found to be the most defining marker in all these wines were their juicy acidity, they made you want to come back for more.

Did I say acidity in cabernets. You betcha! And when mixed with these huge tannins you had a delightful combo that led to long finishes. I found this combination in all the wines I sampled, cabs, zins and the petit sirah.

So what is Black Sears Vineyard? It is perhaps the most incredible zinfandel vineyard in California. That's a really outlandish claim, but I have been tasting wines from this state for over 20 years and I have never come across zins like the three I tasted from this vineyard. The first, Black Sears Estate Zinfandel was luscious with lots of plum fruit, but not jammy. And then the acidity, rare for a zin took over. Wow!

Next was a vertical of zins from this vineyard made by V. Sattui. I work at this winery, and it was their 2009 that alerted me to the uniqueness of this vineyard location. Their 2008 was special, with jammy fruit and the mouth watering acidity. The 1997 was still youthful, very unusual for a 15 year old zin.

The final zin was from the Robert Craig Winery. This was an elegant wine, nuanced and very restrained. It had well developed tannins, and again, that stunning acidity. All of these wines sell for between $40 and $50 per bottle.

All these wines from Howell Mountain were truly special, yet the zins made from the Black Sears Vineyard are truly worth seeking out. They are unique wines that scream a sense of place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Italian Wine Masters

This event has left me speechless. Great wines, well presented.

A little background. While studying wine at the Culinary Institute of America, I fell in love with Italian red wines, particularly Brunellos and Vino Nobiles. The fruit, acidity and herbal characteristics make for a great food and wine pairing experience. So when an invitation arrived announcing The Masters of Italian Wines, concentrating on the wines of Tuscany, I was sold.

This event had three parts, an introduction to Procseco, A Master Tasting of of Chianti, Vino Nobiles and Brunellos, and a walk around tasting of over 114 Italian wineries. In the words of an old Cstore commercial, there was too much good stuff, actually great stuff.

I am only going to extensively comment on the master tasting as there was just too much to keep track in the walk around tasting. The first flight were Chianti Classico Riservas. The 2008 from Fontodi was extremely fruit forward with hints of balsamic and oak, with some very nice aromatics and oak. The finish was smooth and long with some kick ass tannins. The second wine,  also a 2008, from Rocca had a radically different nose. This one was very herbal, almost mushroom like, with fruit and balsamic as supporting characteristics and a smooth and long finish with chewy tannins. Both wines were outstanding, and I would happily serve them.

The last wine of the flight, a 1993 from Felsina, was the most interesting, but ultimately, not my favorite wine. I do not have the opportunity to taste aged Sangioveses, and found it to remarkably youthful. Very large tannins, but the fruit kind of gave out in the mid pallet. A facinating study, and I would have loved to had some food to match this wine. In general, these were not your father's Chianti, they were all very well made and downright tasty.

We then moved on to the Vino Nobiles. This flight was a revelation. Full of fruit, herbal scents, dark red fruit, great acidity, very integrated tanins and a finish that went on forever. My favorite of the flight was the Poliziano 2007 which was a from a single vineyard calle d Asinone. I could just smell this wine and be happy. On the pallete it was lush, with loads for fruit, a tremendous acidity on the mid pallet and it screamed to have a great braised dish served with it. Some Osso Bucco would have been perfect.

Then came the Brunellos. Again, we had two recent releases, which were very young, and an aged selection from 1994. The Vill Poggio Salvi 1994 was spectacular with hints of tar, carmel and leather and surprisingly young tannins. The herbal/Balsamic edge on the nose was still there, even with the fruit having recessed into the the wood and herbal tones. It was a great wine that demanded food, particularly a braised game dish.

My personal favorite of the Brunellos was the Fanti 2008. Great fruit, great body, smooth and well integrated tanins, just wonderful, yet young. I'd like to revisit this wine in 5 years.

The walk around tasting was just overwhelming. There was just too much wine to take notes. Just suffice it to say, the quality of these wines were just over the top. For those who are not really up on Italian wines, may I suggest the web site Wines Till Sold Out, which features at least one Italian selection per day at a great price. It's a way to introduce yourself to these wines at really great price points.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Forgive Me Father For I Have Zinned

Last weekend saw the circus know as the ZAP Festival celebrating all things Zinfandel, come to town. One of the nice things about living in Northern California is that ZAP is one of five wine festivals that allow people to try almost every important wine produced in this state. March will see Rhone Rangers featuring all things Syrah, GSM, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane. May is California Cabernet Society, June is Pinot Days, and August is Family Winemakers of California.

There are other really interesting geographical festivals as well. Paso Robles and Sonoma are the big ones that come to mind. Next week both the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Lucia region will have tastings. Later next month Howell Mountain will host and event. So you can see, if you live in this area, you have many opportunities to sample the bounty of CA.

As last week was the Zinfandel Festival, lets concentrate on this enchanting grape. Originally from the Croatia area, this grape originally came to this country as a hot house variety grown back east for table grapes. It took Italian immigrants to realize that this grape can make great wine. It was extensively planted in California, usually in field blends with Allicante Bouchet, Petit Sirah, Carrignae and anything else they could put their hands on. These vineyards are now very rare. Several wineries make some exquisite blends from these very old vineyards. If you can find them, I recommend Edgewood Vineyard from Rudd, and Icon from Ravenswood. Great stuff.

For a very funny take on the history of this grape see the Paso Man Video.

There used to be a saying about the three Rs in Zinfandel: Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. Two of the three are now owned by large companies, but are Ravenswood and Rosenblum still making great wine. As stated above, Icon is a great wine from Ravenswood. And at the Grand Tasting I had the opportunity to sample Rosenblum's Monte Rosso Vineyard zin. It was very nice indeed. So these two icons appear to still be in very good hands.

Kent Rosenblum, one of the founders of ZAP is now consulting with Rock Wall Winery, which is owned by his daughter Shauna. I tasted two of their wines and they were quite good. Their version of Monte Rosso zin was particularly good.

Zinfandel usually does not age well. 5-7 years is about all you can expect to get out of a bottle. This is a function of how the cluster ripen in a very uneven fashion. You'll have green grapes and raisins all in the same cluster. Dr. Bernard Seps, owner and winemaker at Storybook Mountain, believes that a strict sorting regimen will give you a Zin that can age up to 20 years. Last year, while I was in the CIA's Wine Immersion Program, we had the privilege to taste some older vintages of his Eastern Exposures zinfandel. They were magnificent. I ended up purchasing several bottles of the 2000 and 1997 vintages for my cellar. This year, Dr. Seps was pouring his 2009 Eastern Exposures and it was clearly best in show. Great jammy fruit and brambles, and a hint of acid made this a great wine to drink now, and one that may age as well.

All in all, ZAP is a great show, and worth going to. I already have next years show on my calendar.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

You're The Tops

I can't believe that is has been well over a month, and a strange one at that, since my last post. I have attended some very interesting events, including the Sonoma Harvest Fair award winner tasting and a survey of Argentinian wines. Both were interesting, but paled to last nights Wine & Spirits Magazine's Top 100 Tasting.

Having gone to the event for the past 6 years, I was counting down the days till its arrival. Since there were 100 wineries pouring their wares, I decided to concentrate on Rieslings and wines that I haven't had a recent opportunity to sample.

After starting with the spectacular Roederer Crystal, it was on to German and Austrian Rieslings. The highlights were Joh. Hos. Purm, who were pouring Trockens, Spatlese, Auslese and Beerenauslese. They just got better as you went up the ladder. The trocken was crisp like a granny smith apple, and then added honey and spice the richer the wines got. The Beerenauslese was spectacular and worth seeking out. And these wines were not terribly expensive on a value per dollar ratio.

From Austria we tasted Schloss Gobelsburg and they were also quite nice. Gruner Veitliner was crisp and rich and the Riesling showed great acid and richness with a touch of sweetness. The Riesling was an excellent example of what Germans would call Kabinett.

Most interesting were the two Finger Lake producers who were pouring rieslings as well. They packed more value than anything else at the event. Hermann Wiemar's 09 Finger Lakes Late Harvest Riesling was a dead ringer for a Rheingau Spatlese. It was an intense, rich and unctuous wine that had hints of honey, tart apple and baking spice with a finish that lingered forever. At $24 per bottle, if I had access to a case, I would have bought in on the spot.

Red Newt, and other Finger Lakes producer poured 2 wines, a dry 2010 Riesling that was refreshing and a 09 that was vinted in the German Kabinett style. Both were very interesting, and at $16 per bottle,worth purchasing.

We then went to the Penfold's table. To our great surprise, they were not only pouring the listed 07 St. Henri and the 08 RWT Shiraz, they had a bottle of 06 Grange open. These three wines could have been the events best of show. We sampled the wines in order of oak. First the St. Henri which is fermented and aged in large oak fermenters, it is all fruit with a very nice tannic structure balancing it. A great wine to drink now, and a great value at around $50 per bottle. The RWT is fermented and aged in 100% new French oak and is all suppleness. The fruit is tempered by some exquisite tannins, spice and smoke. Give it five years.

Then there was the 06 Grange. This is perhaps one of Australia's and perhaps the world's, iconic wines. 100% Barossa Shiraz and aged in 100% new American oak, the tannins are still front and center. After sitting in my glass for a few minutes, the fruit began to emerge, along with the flavors of roasted meats and a sleek toastiness and sandalwood. This wine will be a great one. Of course a pricey one as well weighting in at $500 for the bottle.

We then ambled over to Andrew Will, one of the iconic Washington producers. Pouring two wonderful cab blends, they were sleek and fruit forward, yet will be even better in about 5 years. After that, it was over to Leonetti, another iconic Washington winery. Their Walla Walla Merlot was outstanding.

We then said hello to the Seps family, as they were pouring their Storybook Mountain Mayacamas Zin and  Seps Estate Cab. The cab was interesting, but stick with the zins, they are among the most interesting and consistent ones made in California. We mostly chatted about the harvest and difficult it was. In case you are not aware, two days of forecasted sprinkles have turned into several days of real rain. This on top of a long and very difficult growing season. Dr. Seps felt that there will be a harvest and had his fingers crossed.

Next to Storybook was another favorite, Ravenswood. The 08 Old Hill zin was a blend of 75% zin and 25% mixed black woods. Those who know me, know how much I love mixed black woods, and this blend was no exception, it was great.

After that, we sampled some very nice Barolos, some more Aussie shriaz, and some excellent Sonoma Coast Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from Flowers. All this excellence ended with two outstanding sweet wines, 2007 Quinta do Noval vintage port and Chambers Grand Muscat from Rutherglen in Victoria Australia. Drinking this young port was almost like infanticide. This is a great port, and will only get better in 10 years. The Chambers Muscat was a revelation. It is a blend of aged fortified wines with an average age of 50 years. It was very special.

All in all, an interesting evening. Next week is a walk around tasting of Italian wines, I won't miss that!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

International Cabernet Day Celebration

As many, including myself, did not know, September 1 is International Cabernet Day so I decided to celebrate at the Cabernet Day Napa HQ Seminar held at the Napa Marriott. As it happens, it turned out to be one helluva event, with some very serious flights of cabernet poured for our evaluation. The whole event was covered live on Twitter and Toutesuit which is a new video blogging site.

First, hats off the the Napa Marriott for volunteering to host this event, and to JJ Buckley in Oakland for sourcing these incredible reds. And a serious hats off to Deborah Parker Wong and Andrea Immerman Robinson for providing the commentary at this event.

The event itself was divided into 5 flights, each one dedicated to a single Cabernet topic. So we had Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, Washington State Cabernets, Library Cabernets over 10 years old, Australia Cabernets and the final flight was an overview of Bordeaux. Between each segment we had some surprises, such as Cabernet Franc from Colorado and a two Cabernet Sauvignons from Baja Mexico. Unfortunately I had to leave after the Library segment and missed Bordeaux and Australia. Judging from the quality of wines that I did taste as well as my familiarity with several of the wines from Australia, I'm sure that the last two flights were outstanding as well.

So lets get to the wines. The first flight were Cabernet Francs from the Loire. I found these interesting, but not to the point that I would rush right out and purchase them. The three selections all had herbaceous noises, some tight fruit and a very good acidic structure. The 2009 Chinon, poured last, was my favorite. Again, I would not run out and buy any of these, probably due to my new world pallet.
In between flights, we sampled a 2008 Cabernet Franc from Colorado. I wish I wrote the name down. This wine was definitely new world in style with big fruit, pronounced tannins, leather and spice. It surprised me a great deal, until I thought about a recent Daily Grape from Gary Vaynerchuk. He tasted a Cab Franc from Colorado and raved about it. I wonder if it was this wine. Whatever, at $25 per bottle it packed a lot of power, great fruit, texture and tannic structure.

Next up were cabs from Washington State. These were a revelation. Washington State has 15 plus hours of sun during its growing season, yet it has a shorter and cooler growing season than Napa or Sonoma. The result are ripe wines that do not have the explosion of fruit upfront on the nose. Yet this fruit showed itself with certainty on the pallat. The two standouts were L'Ecole 41 Columbia Valley cab, their single vineyard cab and Gilbert Cellars Wahluke Slope. All had tremendous finesse and subtle fruit. I would have loved to taste these side by side with the Bordeaux that were poured later in the evening.

We then tasted the Library Release cabs. I always enjoy old wines because you cannot predict how one will evolve, you have to leave it to chance. First up was the Vilafonte Series M from South Africa. This Cab Sauv-Cab Franc blend was downright delicious. Still showing some very nice fruit, it had some serious weight on the mid pallet and a great finish.

Next was L'Ecole 41 2001 Walla Walla Washington. This wine was at its peak. Leather, cinnamon, cedar, vanilla with at nice touch of fruit peaking through on the pallet, it was spectacular. The Jordan 2000 Alexander Valley cab proved to be the most surprising wine of the flight' at 11 years old, it was still very youthful. I have always found Jordan wines to be very lush on release and rarely have I tasted one that was over 7-8 years old that had any life left on it. This one was still young, my guess is that it would still need another 3-5 years to resolve itself and smooth out the tannins as it still was a fruit driven wine. Yet all the elements of a great aged wine were there, the leather, spice, tobacco and cedar were just waiting for an excuse to peak out through the fruit. This wine should be great.

The biggest disappointment, yet not really disappointing was the Chateau Montelena 1998 Napa Valley cab. 1998 was an awful year in Northern California. For those who need a reminder, it started raining late in January and did not stop until mid June. They were still picking grapes in November. Back then I was catering and one of my largest clients, Rosenblum Cellars was loosing banquet business because they could not hold eventsin the winery because were still fermenting their wines in December. The year was a mess of vegetalness and under ripeness. Chateau Montelena is a great winery with great vineyards, however this wine was over the hill. No disrespect to them, as I've had their most recent releases and they all are outstanding, this was just a bad vintage.

With this I had to leave for other commitments. Great event, and great show.

Later this month I will be tasting wines from Argentina, going to a Calistoga tasting, and a grand tasting of the SF Wine Competition winners. I hope you will read my comments on them.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Food Fight!

There is a real knock down, drag out, heavy wieght fight brewing in the food world, Anthony Boudain vs. the food intellegensia.

First some background; for the past decade, Tony Bourdain has been the bad boy of the food world. He has smashed some icons, bowed down to others and has wrecked havoc through the gastronmic world with wit and charm. He started with what is now a considered a culinary classic "Kitchen Confidential." In his own words, Bourdain wrote that book for those who work in kitchens and never expected it to become the bestseller that it did.

He now hosts the highly successful, and very entertaining, TV show No Reservations where he travels the world in search of culinary edification. Sometimes he finds it, and sometimes not. His show from war ravaged Beruit during th 2006 world is about the most unusal culinary TV show that you will ever watch. Also his show where he worked the line with Eric Ripert at Les Halles was the only time I have ever seen the energy and fear that fuels the cooking lines at restaurants in a way that civilians can appreciate what it is all about.

I, and all of my colleagues, read Kitchen Confidential cover to cover with footnotes at least once. It was one of the only books that illustrated exactly what life is like in the kitchen. It was funny, profane and all of it absultely true and unvarnished. In fact, several of the chefs that I worked with in New York were among the skewered. Three of his points rang very true with me, first those anything ordered well done gets absolutely the worst cuts of meat. Boy that hit home as we did exactly that in every kitchen I worked in. The second point was that you should never order fish on Sundays as the last fish delivery was on Friday morning. It used to drive my owners crazy when we ran out of fish at the end of Saturday nights, until they looked at waste and food cost.

The last point is the most telling and relevant to the food fight brewing over his latest comments, he basically said that there were two types of kitchens, the churn and burn kitchens and the high art kitchens. I have worked in both. I learned more in the high end kitchens, but had much more fun in the churn and burn ones where we turned 500 covers (customers) per night.

And that brings us to Bourdain's lastet tome "Medium Raw." It is a very readable, very profane and very enjoyable book, but it can't escape the conflict of Tony the rebel vs. Tony now one of the culinary guys. In Kitchen Confidential, he was a rebel, skewering the Haute Cuisine world and all of it pretensions. He had some very choice words for Alain Ducasse and many others. He told us how it was to work the line, to turn out hundreds of dishes each night and how to run a kitchen.

In this book he starts up with a confession. He admits that none of his friends would ever hire him as a cook to work in any of their kitchens. What he does not say, but most culinarians know, is that these new friends were not his friends from his KC time, these are his new friends, friends of Tony the Culinary celebrity. And that conflict comes out in both guises throughout his book. His chapter on Alice Waters had to be written. He savages her elitism, and elitism that drips off everything she does. His comments on what Alice Waters says that Middle Amercia should eat during the winter are almost worth the price of this book alone.

However, when he speaks about some of the other so called celebrity chefs, Paula Dean, Rachel Ray et all, he is just as savage, and he should not be. After telling us how lucky he was, a recovered addict who was a journeyman cook/shef that lucked out into a successful new life, he really has a lot of gaul to put these other cooks down.

And that conflict arises time and time again. He writes about how fine dining needs to be redone, then goes to great lengths about how sad the closing of El Buili in Spain will be. How David Chang is rewriting culinary rules, and how he can't cook.

Adding fuel to the fire is an interview that Bourdain recently sat down for in TV Guide. While he did not say anything new, he attracted missles from Frank Bruni, the food critic at the NY Times. I don't know if Mr. Bruni read the book, but he proceedes to call Bourdain an elitist who has no conception about how the masses eat.

I guess Mr. Bruni did not read Broudain's chapters on how his travels around the world, experiencing scarcity among the many places he visited, made him more cognizant of how blessed we as a country are. Who is going to man the small farms growing local produce. It is an interesting conflict.

And Tony comes down on the sides of an elistist as well. He himself will not feed his kid anything but organic foods. Of course, that's his choice and he admits being a world traveling food personality pays very well.

Interesting stuff making Medium Raw a very interesting read for anyone who is interested in the current culinary world.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Some Random Thoughts

The Crystal Symphony was a seriously intensive food and wine exploration. It was so serious that I have been on detox since I came home so I have not had much to share with you. However, there are some thoughts that crossed my mind.

1. Several weeks ago I attended an interesting trade event at Sterling Vineyards where attendees had the opportunity to sample almost all of Diageo's California wines. They had Acacia covering Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Sterling with its moderately priced and widely available portfolio; Bealieu with its Napa Valley product line and Provenance with its Single Vineyard wines. To cap it off, Rosenblum provided zins and syrahs.

It is apparent that Diageo is attempting to cover all bases from simple varietal wines to sophisticated single vineyard reserves. The wines themselves ran from OK to something potentially special. I really liked the BV 07 Georges de LaTour Cab, as well as the Provenance 07 cab reserve. Another interesting point was that Acacia's two wines were made from Winery Lake Vineyard, formerly Sterling's pride and joy cool climate estate in the Carneros. Interesting.

2. Yesterday my Williams Selyem fall offering arrived in the mail. Having many wines in our house, including a lot from WS, I will only be ordering 6 bottles. The  return of the Olivet Lane vineyard to the WS lineup is the highlight of this offering. Up until 1995, this was one of their top vineyards, and then they lost the contract. At WS pick up weekend last fall, I tasted a barrel sample last year and I can't wait to taste it in the bottle.

3. In the WS newsletter, there is a discussion about how long to age the wine. Interesting as the Wine Spectator had an opinion piece from Matt Kramer on exactly that topic. I agree with Matt Kramer that most California wines peak at around 10 years. As for WS, I recently had the 99 Russian River Pinot Noir and it was spectacular with great cherry fruit, baking spices and some smokey funkiness that I just loved.

4. Speaking of Pinot Noirs, tomorrow I am attending the Pinot Noir shootout being held at Allen Farms and Vineyards. I have no idea what this is about, but hey I'm game.

5. My lull in events to attend ends tomorrow with the aforementioned Pinot Noir Shootout. This weekend Russian River Valley Winegrowers Hog In the Fog BBQ makes its annual appearence and Monday is Family Winemakers in San Francisco. Tough slog ahead, but someone has got to do it. And if that's not enough on August 29 I will be attending a Tempernillo Day Cookout.

Thanks for checking in, and if you can think of anything to add, please feel free to get in touch with me.