Saturday, February 6, 2010

Trevor in Paris-Part II-An imagined morning with real tasting notes

I awoke to my morning headache in a soft, feathered bed of a non-distinct origin. I checked under the covers and I still had on my boxers and socks, so that was promising. The mystery of my location lacked the titillation of earlier volumes of the same story, but I couldn't restrain my curiosity as to how I got there. My clothes were scattered on the floor, which at least had an air of normalcy. As my eyes gained focus in the under-lit room, I saw my clothes neatly piled on a chair next to the bed. Not good, I thought.

I swung my feet over the side of the bed and the remnants of an incomplete bottle of Billiot spilled to the floor. I stood and the boards creaked as I stepped over various piles of some man's clothes on my expedition to find the bathroom. Fortunately, the place was smaller than it had seemed from the bed and my options were few. With a few tiptoed step, I was at the bathroom door. It was ajar, but slightly blocked and I had to lean my shoulder into it to open it. On the floor lay Henri in various states of undress, his arm draped over a bidet crusted with last night's repast. I am calling him Henri for convenience, not to protect an identity that I have no doubt exists in some other plane of existence. Not that I know his name. I did have a vague recollection of the two of us drinking with a group of ladies. The girls were nowhere to be found now and Henri looked a little the worse for it. I hoped that they had been here, although I would never know for sure.

I relieved myself and snuck back to my clothes, which I donned quickly. I went to the door and began to turn the handle. Something in the back of my mind made me pause and I went back to the bathroom and stood over Henri. I kicked his leg. "I'm going...thanks for the bed," I said in English. His arm slid from the bidet and he growled what was either some guttural French expression known only to the natives or an ancient Gypsy curse. Either way, I was convinced that he was in fact alive and quickly took my leave of the place.

When I got to the street, I had to orient myself. It was a skill I had mastered. I looked up and down the tight street and figured I was somewhere between the Rue des Ecoles and Saint-Germain. I did remember students from last night. It made sense. I hopped on the Metro at Maubert-Mutualité, planning on heading home. I thought better of it, instead getting off at Place de la Concorde and walking up the Champs-Elysées to clear my head. I dug deep in my pocket for a few sou to buy a crepe from a bored looking vendor. My head felt marginally better and I was proud of myself for the effort.

The sky was clear and the sun was higher in the sky than I had expected. I swung off the major thoroughfares and wound my way through the eighth arrondissement to our flat. The door was substantial, rustic mahogany and wrought iron, and I walked up the three steps and gave it a good pull. Across the cold foyer, I entered the lift in which Enrico was already sitting. "Ciao, Enrico." "Ciao, Signore Trevor, comment allez vous ce mattina," he answered in his broken French. "Va bene, grazie, Enrico." "Il n'y pas de quoi, Signore Trevor," he said as I exited the elevator.

I fumbled in my pocket for my keys, relieved to have found them and angry at myself for not having checked for them earlier. The key slid in easily and the door relented without a fight. I walked down the hall and into Frank's room. The knob was cold, but the room was warm. Frank and Sam were spooning under a giant, white duvet and neither moved. I crossed the floor quietly and lay down on the day bed near the window, my back to them. I heard Frank get up. "Gin straight?" he asked. "Water, I replied." I lay there for awhile listing to Sam snore lightly under the great duvet. She didn't move when I got up to follow Frank to the kitchen.

Frank was sitting with a highball glass in front of him. I sat in the opposite chair in front of a highball full of ice and clear liquid. The gin stung my tongue as I sipped it. Frank was a good man. "You said water, right?" he confirmed as he tapped the neck of an empty 1985 Dom Pérignon bottle. "You're a saint, Frank. Empty?" I asked pointing to the bottle of Dom. "Oh yes, absolutely," he said with a smile coming to his lips. "I love that wine. Subtle and sensual with complexity through the whole glass. I love the caramel and the nuttiness." "Yeah," I said, "it's going to be really good some day." The smile didn't leave his lips, but he shook his head softly and said, "It's great now." I didn't argue.

"How was that?" I asked pointing to a bottle of 1988 La Mission Haut-Brion that lay sideways on the kitchen table. "I hadn't had it in a few years and it was much different than I recalled. I remember it as somewhat fat and unfocused and this was anything but that. The nose was herbal, thyme maybe, with really pure Cabernet showing through and that kind of round edge of vanillin, you know?" "Oh, I know." "It wasn't that full in the mouth, although it had good presence and charm. The '88s seem to be shedding their hard shell and I'm finding them to be quite charming Clarets, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. The fruit stayed in the background with a low hum of intensity."

"Low hum of intensity, I like that," I said fingering the condensation on my glass. "My head has a low hum, as well. The gin helps though. Thanks for thinking of me." Frank smiled wryly, looking down at his own glass. We both took long sips and sat quietly for a time as the kitchen grew brighter with the passing of the day.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On the recommendation of my friend Jay Miller (not of the Wine Advocate), I picked up a bottle of 2007 Clos Roche Blanche Gamay on the way home from work and constructively arranged for roast chicken for dinner. I must say, well played Mr. Miller. I really enjoyed this bottle, which most likely would have remained overlooked given my dissatisfaction with the 2006. It showed great Gamay character, which is of course a mixed blessing. The fruit lacked a bit of clarity, but it made up for it with a sense of earnestness and purpose. The two things that defined it for me and guaranteed a future purchase were the refreshing acidity and the appealing spiciness to the back half of the wine. I wonder whether the fruit will come into focus more with a little bottle age, especially given the acidity.

This bottle made me think of a broader point with respect to Gamay, especially with respect to Beaujolais (Clos Roche Blanche is from the Loire) and specifically with the perceived character of the grape. As someone asked on the Wine Disorder board, "if Beaujolais has been blessed (or infected) with California weather what is vigneron to do?" My answer is, if the Sun is responsible for the uptick in quality of Gamay in 2005 and 2007 then shine, baby, shine. Vignerons have always struggled either with making sure that their grapes get ripe enough (e.g., Loire) or the converse that their grapes don't get too ripe (e.g., California). My hope is that the winemakers of Beaujolais do not fall into the trap of experimenting with pushing the levels of ripeness that failed miserably for their American Pinot-making counterparts. Hopefully, the vignerons will use the power of Sol for good and not evil. If they can harnesses the ripeness of the fruit while maintaining the acidity and uniqueness of the Gamay profile, then we may see a new era for the variety. Otherwise, we may end up with generic crap, not there has ever been a shortage of that coming out of Beaujolais.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dinner without Julien Barrot of Domaine de Barroche

A classic bait and switch was in the works. I was stuck in traffic, late to meet up with inveterate Rhone whore Brad Coelho and his pimp Posner. The lights were messed up on Fifth Avenue causing untoward traffic and sending my schemes aglay. Brad called to confirm my attendance and seek my opinion of a 2005 Peter Michael Belle Côte that he was considering, as I quietly cursed my decision to forego the subway. Traffic let up in the 40s as an unbroken string of green lights hastened my trip to MetroCafe. It was a beautiful night for November and I arrived with only a cable-knit sweater over a white shirt and jeans. I thought this outfit to be quite country French and I felt remiss for not picking up a pack of Gauloises on my way. I was only trying to strike the proper mood for dinner with Julien Barrot, one of the brightest young winemakers in the Chateauneuf du Pape.

When I arrived, I found a strikingly good looking crowd. They were most likely there pre-partying because it was pretty early, as Thursday is the new Saturday or so I am told. At the corner of the bar was Posner and Coelho. Posner was wearing a dark suit, which he said was on account of attending a funeral earlier in the day. I thought he might be joking, but he wasn't laughing and I figured it best not to press the matter. Dan is a rather imposing guy and can be irasible if poked with a sharp stick. Brad was dressed in full-on Halloween orange sweater and I was a little surprised he could pull that off. They had ordered the Belle Cote and the barman came over and poured me a glass. "It's next Thursday," Brad says. "Julien's coming next Thursday." Somewhere between Julien's broken English and Brad's broken English, they had miscommunicated (note "jeudi prochain" means next Thursday). We still had reservations and the affable Jim Gallagher was to stand in for Barrot and we had the lovely 2005 Belle Côte before us, so things were still promising. As with many young Peter Michaels it showed a decent amount of oak, although nothing that it wouldn't shed with some bottle age. The fruit was a little plump, but quite pure, and it was scaled appropriately and well-proportioned. A very nice wine.

After draining the Belle Côte and chewing the sediment, we hopped a cab to Tribeca Grill where our reservation awaited. We got in one of those new SUV yellow cabs and Posner imprisoned himself in a front seat that almost accomodated his frame. As we got out on Greenwich St., sarcastically Posner thanked the driver for a comfortable ride. I had brought a 2004 Big Basin Rattlesnake Syrah at Brad's request and we had it tossed into a decanter for future consumption. After much haggling, we decided to start with a 2006 Peay Chardonnay, which we had been discussing earlier in the evening. Vanessa Wong is doing some great things way up in the northern reaches of the Sonoma Coast, harnessing the cool climate fruit in an understated way. This wine showed its youth much differently from the Belle Cote. The nose was delicate and precise with hints of citrus. In the mouth it was somewhat reticent on the fruit side, but the acidity and the minerality on the back end really made for some promise. As it opened up, those elements came together better and made for a pretty complete wine. Although I don't buy them, I can't recommend these wines enough.

Now, Tribeca Grill has an amazing and amazingly priced wine list. We were also in the capable hands of Ryan Mills-Knapp, a wonderful sommelier and a very nice guy. The wine list, poured over by Coelho and Posner, becomes a perfect instrument for their passion for Chateauneuf du Pape. It also becomes the subject of much debate, as wines are suggested and rejected. My suggestion of the 1995 Janasse VV elicited an incredulous look from Brad and a chiding for suggesting that vintage of Janasse, which was junk apparently. Janasse seemed to have struck a chord though and we went ahead and ordered the 2000 Janasse Vieille Vignes. We hit this wine at a very good time and it was in a very good place. It had a classic Chateauneuf profile of dark fruit, garrigue and a hint of pepper. In the mouth it was lovely with great texture and weight, the fruit nicely layered and showing raspberry and fruitcake. As beautifully as it is drinking now it has an atypical amount of acidity for a CdP and ample tannin that suggest better things as this wine unpacks a little more. A real stunner that should be sought out.

We moved next to the 2004 Big Basin Rattlesnake, which was a real disappointment. I had been reluctant to open it given that it was built to age, but could not refuse Brad, who had looked forward to it after all the buzz from California Syrah afficianados. Not a bad wine, it just is not cohesive at this point. The past subtle floral notes had been replaced by ripe and jammy fruit. The former supple palate was just plain muddled. There was nothing Northern Rhonish about this wine at all and it came across as anonymous California wine, as opposed to a child of the promising Santa Cruz Mtns. I still think that this wine will come together and there was nothing absurd or offensive about it. We just caught it in an awkward time.

Our next wine was blind at the behest of Posner. It was not good. The first thing I do when tasting blind is to try to isolate the varietal and the region. I was, frankly, at a loss. I settled on Rhone, but why would Posner be blinding us on a cheap Vacqueyras or an entry level CdP. There had to be a catch, but I wasn't getting it. It was an OK wine. It had a pretty floral side to it, although the fruit didn't really hold my interest. It was medium bodied and well-made, although it lacked any density and struggled to impress me. The wine was revealed to be a 2004 Espectacle del Montsant, which I had never heard of before. I have no idea what would have made Posner pay $180 (his treat) off the list for this uninteresting wine, especially with all the beauties there, except to prove Dr. Jay Miller a charlatan. To paraphrase Brad, we bought it to see what a 99 point Spanish wine tastes like and found it tastes like an 86 point Vacqueyras.

We finished with a couple of wines shared by Ryan, including a 2002 Kunin that had not aged well and some Medeira that probably will. We left and went over to the Brandy Library where I exacted my revenge on those guys by agonizing over my Scotch selection. Cigars were had and the evening advanced on semi-serious conversation. A good night, even without Julien Barrot.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm getting notes of manganese...

Wine lovers often find notes of iron or gunmetal in certain types of wines, such as cool-climate Syrah or Bordeaux blends. I doubt any of those flavors are linked to this report in Scientific American on potentially hazardous levels of heavy metals in various wines tested. In the true tradition of Halloween reporting, the article is more alarming than useful as the authors don't name any wines; they only note that the problem exists in over 100 types of wines from a dozen countries. From a personal and more jingoistic point of view, the US wasn't mentioned, so I can rest easily given that my cellar is overwhelmingly populated with the wines of California and I have nary a bottle of wine from the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Macedonia, Portugal, Serbia or Slovakia (the wines of Austria, France, Germany and Spain present more of a problem). So, the next time you think that those slow and clumsy movements are the result of too much alcohol intake, be heartened that you may be sober and suffering from manganism.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The California Pinot Blues

Those who know me know that I drink a lot of domestic Pinot and some don't even hold it against me. Like everyone else, my tastes have evolved and, while most of my fairly extensive California PN collection is wine made in a more refined style (such as Littorai or Williams-Selyem), I still have some pre-Enlightenment bottles laying around. I would never serve these to my friends (at least not the ones I like) and thus they become unholy experiments on me (and sometimes my wife if I've feeling in a particularly malevolent mood). A solitary Dr. Jeckyll alone in his laboratory if you will. So, it was with great trepidation that I opened a 2003 ROAR Garys' Vineyard that somehow remained in my collection. I'm not sure when or why I bought this, but apparently I drank through a couple of bottles a few years ago. Out of a sense of optimism or horror I had left one bottle until now.

Whatever charm it may have had has been lost on this train wreck of a wine. The fruit has settled somewhat from its youth only proving that it once masked the prominent alcohol that it now sweats like a hobo at the bus station. If you told me that this "Pinot Noir" was fortified, I would have only asked how much. On the bright side, the fruit is muddled and there isn't a hint of acidity or, if there is any acidity, it is crushed under the unrelenting heal of the fruit and alcohol. The finish was shrill and charmless. Other than that, it wasn't that bad. I saved some for the next day, which was a useless experiment and goes to prove the old saying that when you find yourself in a hole stop digging. So, down the drain it went.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wine Violence-A Poem by Ben Sherwin

Should a wine jump from the glass
as I've seen in people's notes?
Should it punch you in the nose
or grab you by the throat?

Is it safe to drink a wine
that makes you shake and stammer?
Will it leap out from your Riedel
and hit you like a hammer?

Don't get me wrong dear reader,
I don't want a wine that's silent.
I just wonder why so many notes
are so unbelievably violent!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Truth in Labeling

In one of the most bizarre wine-related publicity stunts I have seen, the BBC reported that winemakers of the Languedoc have called their wine Vin de Merde (loosely translated, crap wine). Remarkably, whereas most wines from that region languish on shelves, apparently, VdM has sold out its initial run. One further irony is that a French magazine once had to defend itself from a libel suit for calling Beaujolais vin de merde.

The Languedoc itself is an interesting region. Created in 1985, one would think that it could have created its own image of itself rather than be forced into the tiered systems of other regions. The niche they seemed to carve out though was largely for crap wines. The quality has increased with some small serious producers, but the region goes underappreciated because of the difficulty of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Further, the best producers don't represent much in the way of value vis-a-vis other up-and-coming regions, such as the Loire. As concisely put by Jamie Goode, "The Languedoc seems to have come of age. No longer is it a sea of cheap wine with just a handful of quality producers. It’s now a slightly smaller sea of cheap wine but with dozens of serious, ambitious producers." Not bad wines, just not that compelling. Anything I'm missing?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

First Customer at UWS Shake Shack? Me!

I was dropping my girls off for a playdate at their friends' house, when I noticed an unusual amount of activity at the new Shake Shack on W77th St. It wasn't supposed to open until tomorrow, but I figured I'd check the door. A tall, young man in a black Shake Shack T-shirt and a green apron came to the door and told me they would, in fact, be opening today at 11:00. I checked my watch. I had 15 minutes to drop the kids off and get back to be the first on line. "Let's pick it up, girls!" I said, hustling them across the street against the light. Multi-tasking, I left a message at home for my wife to meet me at the corner of 77th and Columbus. After ditching the kids, I sped back to the shop, hoping that no one had taken my place at the head of the line. I turned the corner with some trepidation and was relieved to find a door without customers in front of it. I was to be the first. For those of you not from NY or following the NY food scene, the opening of Danny Meyer's new burger joint on the Upper West Side was as greatly anticipated as anything I've seen in my dozen or so years living up here. There are few things for which New Yorkers will wait on line. We NYers are always looking for efficiency, shaving valuable seconds off what could be sucks on our time in a finite life. If you want to see frustration to the point of murderous rage, drop a New Yorker in the Heartland and put him behind an old lady writing a check at the local grocery. So, when you see a hundred yard line of people snaking around Gramercy Park, you know it must be somewhere special.

The burger and fries were perfect. The shake was thick and sweet. Here was comfort food at its finest. David Swinghamer, the President of Danny Meyer's Union Sq. Hospitality Group, which included some of our favorite restaurants, came over and congratulated me as I savored a double cheeseburger. I gave him my chit, the first of its kind at the restaurant. I hope that it is one of many. As we left, I wished them luck. The Upper West Side, for so long a foodie pariah, is getting into the game.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A High Tide Raises All Boats

So, we were having roast chicken for dinner. I was crossing West St., cell phone pressed to my ear, and got the news. That sounded fine, but I didn't feel like opening anything too good with it. Fortunately, Chambers St. Wines is on my way to the subway and I ducked in for something new. I asked for something new (as aforementioned) and was walked to the back of the reopened store and presented with a Bourgogne rouge. I don't typically buy plain old Bourgogne, given the amount of good Premier Cru (and even Village) wines readily available. I figured though that 2005 Burgundy was deep enough to support the entry level, so, on recommendation, I grabbed a 2005 Prudhon Les Charmeaux. It was good, pretty simple really, but the fruit was nice and pure with an interesting fennel component. A touch stemmy, but ripe stems, with no astringency or green elements, and the food-craving, juicy acidity finished it off well. Still, I was a little put out that this wine was $19. A wine like this shouldn't be that expensive, but then I tried to think of a better bottle of Pinot Noir for under $20 and was fairly stumped. I guess this is what it costs nowadays and, it being an honest wine, I can't really complain...oh, and it went beautifully with the roast chicken.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Angry Cabbies

As I shuffled down the stairs, I could hear the train pulling away. I rounded the corner and could see through the bars the W train pulling away. Great, I thought, pacing in the heat of the underground. It had poured earlier in the day, so you would have thought the humidity would be out of the air, but not down there. With my iPod out of juice, there was nothing to do but people watch the old fashion way. Other than a man who appeared to be wearing capris pants and an obese gentleman whose belt was pulled up on his belly with only a tenuous connection to his pants, these people seemed pretty run of the mill. An announcement came from the ubiquitous subway voice that an uptown train was two stations away at Rector Street. Five minutes later, an R trained bent around the curved track at the City Hall station. The air conditioning was a welcome respite and I wondered how people survived less than a generation ago without working temperature control in the subway. I got off at Prince and hustled up the stairs. Even with the delay, I wasn't too late and, for the early hour of the dinner, felt that I was close enough time-wise.

Walking into Zoe, I notice to my right a table covered in Bordeaux stems, a harbinger of good things. I met Mike, Steve and Kevin at the bar and was introduced to Sherri as well. At the corner of the bar, there was an older couple who seemed bemused by our impending festivities. A number of bottles were already lined up on the bar and I added my '04 Schrader RBS to the litany. We decided to sit down and, as we did, Sherri's husband David showed up. So, we were all assembled. The group was supposed to be larger, but last minute cancellations had us at 6, which was fine by me. Mike had organized this tasting group regularly for about 2 1/2 years, but signs of strain had begun to show. People's tastes had diverged, as had their expectations. I got the sense that this might be it and that that would be OK. We were going out with a bang with the wines of one of our favorite winemakers, Thomas Brown.

The first wine of the night was a 2007 barrel sample of Steve's nascent project, tentatively called Congruence. He was toying with the idea of using his name instead. "You're going to call your wine Steve?" I asked trying to push his buttons. "That's a cool name for a wine. Give me some Steve." He was slightly amused. Kevin more so. The wine itself was excellent. I was somewhat relieved as I like Steve, but would have been brutal if called upon to be. The thing that struck me most initially was the absence of obtrusive oak. The nose was pretty and floral and really needed coaxing. Mike insisted there must be some Petit Verdot in there and I agreed given the elevated aromatics, but Steve assured us it was all Cabernet, primarily from Coombsville fruit. The wine was elegantly styled with sweet fruit and a hint of herbs. Structurally, it was sound with great acidity, although I would have preferred a little more tannic backbone to it. Clearly, Steve has fashioned a wine that reflects his palate and his passion for Cabernet. I've always been reluctant to turn a hobby into a profession, as it leaves you without leisure, but I hope he succeeds. He is certainly off to a great start.

The next bottle was wrapped in aluminum foil. A wine served blind with the only the caveat that it was made by Thomas. I turned to Kevin, who brought the wine, and said, "Is this a trick because Thomas didn't make the Double Diamond." He was mum and I was confused. It was expressive on the nose with a dusty cassis that should have led me to Sonoma, but it didn't. Clearly, Cabernet from the notes of cassis and the hint of eucalyptus, it had some good fruit but was hopelessly muddled in the middle. Plenty of tannin, but they don't seem to be framing the fruit and gave the finish a bit of astringency. It was an OK wine, but at $50 a pop I wouldn't be recommending the 2004 Double Diamond Mayacamas Range.

Having gone through the preliminaries, we moved on to the first two vintages of Maybach. I have had the 2004 Maybach several times, from barrel to bottle. In the past, it has shown a lot of promise, but has been marred by some obvious oak that obscures the fruit. I am happy to report that the oak has receded to the background (although not completely), leaving the sweet black cherry fruit to speak for itself. While it was showing better than it ever has, it still is remarkably young and remains a bit obvious lacking a bit of breadth. Much more concentrated with additional depth was the 2005 Maybach. It shared the black cherry profile, but added some licorice and tended more to the blacker side of the spectrum. It was creamier in the mouth and, like its older brother at this stage, wore its oak on its sleeve. I think I was alone thinking that this would be the better wine, although I admit the 2004 was the better wine today. Others at the table liked these better than I did and they were certainly well-made and flashed some serious muscle. I'm glad to own these, but I was a little surprised that everyone was so gaga over them.

On the other hand, I have no trouble building up enthusiasm for Schrader. We were fortunate to be doing a fairly complete horizontal of the 2004 vintage (all but the mag). All of the Schraders are made from To Kalon fruit and, although I've had each of these wines, I was anxious to seem them side-by-side to see the distinctions. The 2004 Schrader Beckstoffer To Kalon was the tightest of the three, as it had seen the least time in the decanter. It showed deep and dark cassis with smoke and cedar on the nose. It had great density and substance in the mouth, but showed a slight sharpness on the finish. I didn't notice this last point at first. The 2004 Schrader CCS initially seemed to be the same wine as the regular BTK, so I had one of my tablemates take them and give them back to me blind. There was striking similarity on the nose, but I felt that the CCS (once revealed) seemed creamier on the palate and showed its alcohol a little more. The 2004 Schrader RBS was wholly different. The other two were great Cabs, they really were, but they were intellectual in their presentation and, therefore, opened themselves to the academic dissection I engaged in above. The RBS had the wow factor that elicited a more emotional reaction and so insulated itself from such small bore analysis. The fruit smelled of raspberry coulis with an interesting herbal component. It was full in the mouth and long on the finish, blah, blah, blah. What it did though, on the nose and on the palate, was pop. The flavors were broad and vivid.

On the other hand, I question why there needed to be three different bottlings of these wines. All were excellent and in the top flight of California Cabernet, generally and for the 2004 vintage. At the same time, they were more a variation on a theme and I wonder if there are reasons, other than marketing, as to why there is intended to be a distinction, especially with respect to the CCS and the regular BTK. That said, I think these wines were underrated by the table, especially as compared to the Maybachs.

We finished with two wines that are of lesser quality. The 2005 Outpost True is a very nice wine. It has brambly black fruit speaking to its Howell Mountain roots. While its no Dunn, it expresses the expected tannic bite of the site. This wine is still pretty young and there is no shortage of vanilla charged oak. I liked the 2003 Rivers-Marie Cabernet better. Not a great wine, but an excellent expression of California Cabernet at the price point. It showed dark back fruit, sweet tannin and more than enough vanillin.

We stumbled out into the Soho night. I love New York after the rain. The City shimmers with light and feels swept clean and full of opportunity. I hailed one last cab and headed home.