Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chicago: Hot dogs, Pizza and... Wine?

Chicago is a lot like New York City - bright lights, tall buildings, great energy, and famous for its hot dogs and pizza. But in Chicago hot dogs get dressed up like burgers with pickles, tomatoes and onions, and pizza gets stuffed with whatever you can imagine and topped off with tomato sauce. I enjoyed my fair share of both, but the real impetus for the trip was to share some nice wines with family. J's Uncle Dave had been planning the wine list from the moment he heard we were coming. Burgundy, Bordeaux... we were in for a treat. Glasses and bread on the table, paper and pencils at the ready, we started with Champagne - Egly Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru. Classic, creamy, toasty with green apple and biscuit.

For the whites we did an Old World/New World Chardonnay comparison.

2000 Chassagne Montrachet's nose was closed, but on the palate it was creamy and toasty, with lemon meringue and marzipan. 2012 Hamilton Russell Vineyard Chardonnay from South Africa had the more Burgundian nose, with almond cookie, lemon zest and apricot.

Moving onto Pinot Noir, the 1990 Pommard 1er Cru had a classic barnyard nose with spice and meat, and on the palate it evolved beautifully, with subtle cherry and cranberry, cinnamon, and nice acidity. This wine was not going to get any better. 2007 Volnay 1er Cru was earthy and bright with baking spice and refined fruit, another Burgundy win. Next to this we tried a 2007 Anthill Farms Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley, CA, which unsurprisingly was jammier with more pronounced oak but still a good representation of California Pinot.

We went back in time with Bordeaux, from 2006 to 1985 to 1982. The 2006 Chateau Malmaison from Baronne Nadine de Rothschild had a brambly, beautiful nose, with lavender and eucalyptus, a big wine that needed time to open up. It could definitely go another ten years in the bottle. Cousin Anna was kind enough to share a bottle of her birthday wine, 1985 Lynch-Bages, with its spicy tobacco nose and smooth, silky fruit. The 1982 Cordier Chateau Gruaud Larose Grand Cru took some time to open up but once it did it showed warm spice and mature fruit with surprising tannic structure. A Bordeaux blend from Paso Robles, Justin Vineyards 1989 Isosceles surprised us all as one of the best wines, evolving over the evening with great complexity and balance.

We finished with Tokai - a Hungarian dessert wine. Its luscious peach cobbler and caramel apple flavors made the perfect end to an epic tasting.

I'd say the trip was a home run....

Thanks Uncle Dave, Aunt Madeleine and Anna!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happy Mumm Day

I celebrated my recent birthday with a trip to Mumm Napa for my favorite wine - the kind that sparkles. I received a tip to try their limited edition 2011 Sparkling Pinot Meunier, which was peachy, flowery and very pretty, having spent 18 months on its lees before disgorgement. This traditional Champagne blending grape is aptly named for the flour-like dusty white down on the underside of its leaves. Though unknown to many, Pinot Meunier is the most widely planted Champagne grape and is favored because it buds later and ripens more reliably than the finicky Pinot Noir. In the final wine it contributes fruity flavors and aromatics.

Another favorite from this tasting was the DVX 2006, a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which spent 5 years on its lees, so it was nice and toasty.

After this second visit to the beautiful Mumm terrace my favorite remains their Reserve Brut, a 60/40 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is consistently bright, creamy, fruity and toasty. We wanted to buy another Magnum but they were sold out. Next time!

Thanks again to Lauren and James for a wonderful tasting.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sharing Pinot at SFWC with The Corkdork

Lately I've been hanging out at the San Francisco Wine Center, and one day storage member John (aka The Corkdork) shared a bottle of Pinot Noir with us in The City Room. It was produced by winemaker Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, a sommelier who oversees the wine program of the Michael Mina restaurant group and is involved in various wine making projects. Raj is also a wine educator and writer of the book Secrets of the Sommeliers, co-authored with Jordan Mackay, a frequent SFWC educator.  As the label shows, the  fruit for this wine came from the warm Sta. Rita Hills Appellation of Santa Barbara county, which is not only the location of the movie Sideways but a region some believe to be the best place in the New World to grow Pinot Noir, due to its cool Pacific marine layer. While enjoying this easy-sipping Pinot on a pleasant afternoon, we noticed blackberry jam and delicate spice on the palate. Thanks, John and Rajat!

WOT is Wine on Tap?!

Ever hear of wine on tap (WOT)? It's a relatively new alternative to wine by the glass programs in restaurants and bars. The New York Times covered this trend in 2009 when it started taking off. WOT makes a lot of sense, benefiting both the restaurant and the producer:
  • Wine on tap stays fresh because it resides in an air-tight container. No more half-drunk, oxidized bottles. 
  • Bottles and corks are eliminated, which saves on costs for the producer and waste for the restaurant. 
  • The risk of cork taint from natural corks is eliminated. 
  • It is considered eco-friendly.
Logistically, the winery controls the storage of the wine and refilling the kegs, making sure to keg a finished, filtered wine. The retailer must have a special WOT system for storage and serving, separate from beer taps. This system by nature is airtight; WOT systems must be equipped with nitrogen to replace the air space left by the wine served.

When I worked at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard they had just started a keg program with some local restaurants, and I cleaned, filled, delivered and sampled my fair share. Wiemer's wine tasted the same or better coming out of the keg compared to the bottle; it really did taste "fresh."

I'm intrigued by the WOT concept and I try a keg wine whenever I see one.  Here in San Francisco, you can find WOT at The Slanted Door's sister restaurant, OTD in Pacific Heights, or at Barrique in Jackson Square, to name just a couple.

One issue with keg wine is the perception of quality. Is it cheaper wine if it doesn't come in a bottle with a cork? Is it not worthy of aging, and does this make it seem lower-quality? Is this what winemakers want when they keg a wine or is this what they are getting?

At the same time, wouldn't it be a good idea for wineries to use kegs for their tasting samples, instead of opening bottles all the time? Is anyone doing this? The tap dance continues...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wine and Watches

Last week the San Francisco Wine Center sponsored a tasting at Ben Shemano Jewelry, a beautiful second-floor showroom in Union Square that specializes in antique and custom jewelry.  For collectors of the finer things in life, the focus of the evening was on fine wristwatches from designers including Rolex, Patek Phillipe and Audemars Piguet.  For the group of about 30 people I helped pour an array of wines from around the world and shared stories about winemaking and travel. We even learned that the late owner of Pride Mountain Vineyards in Napa Valley was a former dentist. Wonder what toothpaste he’d recommend for wine stains? He actually wasn’t a practicing dentist but a consultant who advised other dentists on how to optimize their office layouts.

From the white wine drinkers we found many Sancerre lovers and even converted some to Riesling fans. It was a warm evening in San Francisco and many opted for the cold ones. We encountered those who thought Riesling was always sweet, so we educated them on the various styles of Riesling and the labeling term used to denote ‘dry’ in German, which is ‘trocken.’

Red wine fans enjoyed classic west coast examples of Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, plus a Chilean blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. A couple of magnums dared to impress bold palates and showed how the right amount of air can make a wine open up.

Inevitably, with an even number of wines it’s easy to find yourself comparing. 2 whites, 2 reds, 2 magnums. The Sancerre had a flowery nose and a rich palate. The Riesling had the distinct petrol nose that developed into stone fruit, followed by beautiful citrus and orange blossom on the palate. The Oregon Pinot Noir was earthy and leathery, while the Napa Petite Sirah had a flowery but smoky nose with spice, lead pencil and roses on the palate. The two magnums couldn't be more different; the Brown Zinfandel was immediately rich, fruity and lush, while the Chilean blend was super tight, smoky and herbal at first, eventually opening up to reveal warm spice, red fruit, and an herbal forest.  I found this one to be the most interesting, particularly as it evolved over the course of the evening.

Wine List
  1. Gitton Sancerre 2012 - France
  2. Peter Jakob Kuhn Riesling Trocken 2010 – Germany
  3. Provocateur Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2003 - Oregon
  4. Pride Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2003 – California
  5. Brown Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley 2006 – California (Magnum)
  6. Primus The Blend Colchagua Valley 2008 – Chile (Magnum)

Bites from The City Kitchen complimented the wines and provided a wonderful appetizer to later dinner plans. For some, the jewelry was dessert.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Burgundy: funky, pickle, barnyard

Coincidentally, after my little "is Grenache the new Pinot?" exploration began, I had a really nice bottle of Burgundy. It was a wedding gift that we decided to bring to a new restaurant we were trying on the fly. I hadn't had Burgundy in a while. As soon as I smelled this one I was in love all over again. Funky, pickle, barnyard are all words I would use to describe the smell of a great Burgundy. On the palate - silky, red fruit, leather, cinnamon. This 1996 Gevry-Chambertin had all of those qualities. It perfectly went with duck breast and the halibut special of the day. For dessert, I don't remember what we ate but I remember the wine tasting like sour cherry. Delicious. Thank you, Uncle Paul!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Grenache Groupie

I've become something of a Rhone Rangers Groupie, following this winemaker collective around Northern California, pouring or tasting their wines whenever I can.  Earlier this month I attended the Rhone Rangers annual Bay Area wine tasting in Richmond, CA. Before helping to pour wines for Two Shepherds, I geeked out with a couple of morning panel tastings moderated by Luke Sykora, senior editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine.

The first panel, "The Rise of the Rhone Garagiste," featured a passionate group of tiny production winemakers and the unique wines they make, including varietals like Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Carignan, Syrah and various colors of Grenache. William Allen, winemaker and owner of Two Shepherds, shared his 2013 Grenache Gris Rose, a funky mutation of Grenache found in the Languedoc region of France. William found a 100 year old vineyard in Hopland, CA, up in Mendocino county, with head trained Grenache Gris, for his first commercially made pink wine. 7 days of skin contact and a few months of fermentation on native yeast yielded a bright and citrusy (think grapefruit) pink wine with great texture, weight and balanced acidity; a perfect food wine or Sunday sipper (for $24, limited quantities).

Grenache Gris, like Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, is a pink grape!
Photo Credit
The second panel, "Grenache: The World's Most Widely Planted Rhone Grape Variety," showcased west coast Grenache, from Oregon to Paso Robles. Grenache, like Pinot Noir, is a thin-skinned grape prone to mutation. But, unlike Pinot Noir, it ripens easily and can yield high alcohol levels. When I first started drinking Grenache I thought I didn't like it, because I found the alcohol dominated the flavor and it tasted like cherry medicine. I don't recall what I was drinking at the time, but in the last couple years I've found many a Grenache to like, including Garnacha from Spain, Cannonau di Sardinia, and local Grenache from the Rhone Rangers (Two Shepherds, Campovida). And of course there are the Grenache-led blends in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France, and new world "GSM" blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. On the scale of red wines, Grenache is on the lighter side, but without lacking complexity or substance. I enjoy the spicy, herbal, berry notes of this wine. White pepper is a quality that often comes to mind with Grenache, joined by roses on the nose and berries on the palate. My favorite Grenache of the panel actually smelled like gardenias with black tea on the palate - this was McCay Cellars 2011 Grenache from Lodi, CA (retail $32). My other favorite from Mounts Family Winery in Healdsburg, CA, also had roses on the nose (2011 Estate Grenache, retail $30).

The Grenache panel left me wondering: could Grenache be the new Pinot? As a Pinot Noir lover, this is a difficult claim to make.  Pinot Noir is a finicky grape, thin-skinned and difficult to ripen, and it can be wonderfully complex and beautiful or it can taste like cherry jam. The best Pinot (from Burgundy, France) is expensive. Even in Oregon, where Pinot is their devotion, it's difficult to find a good one for under $40. Grenache is approachable, light with soft tannin but complex, and affordable in many cases. I'm not giving up on Pinot, but I am paying more attention to Grenache. Call me a Grenache Groupie, if you must.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nice Legs! But why is my wine crying?

When I first started drinking wine people would talk about the "legs," the streams of wine that fall down the side of the glass after you swirl it. People would say, "look at those legs," or "those are nice legs." Kind of dirty, no? In Spanish-speaking countries they call these lágrimas, or tears... so much more civilized and poetic. Anyway, as I learned more about wine I realized that legs can tell you a little bit about the wine's alcohol level or viscosity, but not all that definitively or importantly. Legs that move more slowly may indicate a wine with more alcohol or sugar, but they are not an indicator of quality or even taste, and legs are not a very relevant descriptor when talking about wine in general. People in the American wine trade find it passé to even mention the legs, but you can't help but be mesmerized by them when you swirl your glass if wine.

I recently came across an article and video explaining the science of the legs and what is really going on here. To preface, the reason the legs form is because when you swirl the glass and the wine sloshes on the sides, the alcohol in the wine evaporates more quickly than the water in the wine, affecting the equilibrium of the liquid and forcing it to pool together in a sort of dance along the sides of the glass. The video is intriguing.

If you want to be really geeky about it (or is that just me?) a couple pages in this free e-book explain the science even further.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bubbly Marsanne!

By now you must know that I love bubbly. I'm most partial to Champagne but I do appreciate a good "Méthode Champenoise" or "traditional method" sparkling wine, having enjoyed some beauties from Hermann J. Wiemer, Mumm, Domaine Carneros, Gloria FerrerIron Horse... even Tzakoli in Spain. The common thread in traditional method sparkling wines is the wine making techniques, including the second fermentation in the actual bottle that gets sold, but often Champagne grapes are used: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sometimes Pinot Meunier. But have you ever had a sparkling Marsanne? I sampled Cass California Brut 2011 Marsanne at the Rhone Rangers event in Paso Robles a couple weeks back. Delicate, floral, perfumey and pretty, it was unique fun in a bottle. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Turley: Old Vine Zin

Another notable stop on our Paso Robles tour was Turley Wine Cellars. My first experience with Turley was at The Girl and the Fig, an amazing "French country" restaurant in Sonoma where we dined a couple years ago. Larry Turley founded his namesake winery after he sold his share of Frog's Leap in Napa to focus on Zinfandel. Turley scours the entire state of California looking for the oldest Zinfandel vines, making 23 different bottlings of Zin plus 5 bottlings of Petite Sirah. His Zin blends include the best blocks from the vineyards, and within those blocks the best grapes are bottled as single vineyard designates. All of the vineyards they source from are organic or in the process of becoming certified organic, all yeasts used in fermentation are natural, and the wines are unfined and unfiltered.  

Turley Ueberroth Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 comes from their oldest vineyard of 18 acres planted in 1885 in Paso Robles. The vines are ungrafted and head-trained on very steep limestone soils. The high pH of the soil translate into a high-acid wine. I found it to be beautifully complex, with a nose of barnyard/hay, spring flowers in bloom and salty air with brambly fruit and earth on the palate.

I also enjoyed the Turley Hayne Vineyard Petite Syrah 2005 from Napa Valley (they spell it 'Syrah' rather than 'Sirah'), which had a great blueberry nose and boisenberry palate, with nice structure, firm tannin, and brambly complexity. Planted in 1953, the Hayne Vineyard is dry-farmed and head-trained.

Old head-trained vines on the Turley property in Paso Robles

In addition to the Paso Robles tasting room, Turley recently opened one in the hills of Amador County, where they source a lot of fruit. Perhaps this will be our next trip?