January 2005

January 31

Well, the Boston Wine Expo is still very much the circus. On my way in the door this afternoon a woman bellowed, “She’s drunker than me and she’s driving me home!” Then she hit the floor face first. Avoid the road.

Ah, the elegance of the wine crowd. No one actually pukes on the floor of the expo but it’s not for lack of trying. Still who can blame them for over- serving themselves? There are literally thousands of wines here and a high percentage of it is good and/or new.

January 30

I’m on my way to speak at the Boston Wine Expo, one of the biggest and most chaotic of wine shows. But that’s a good thing. I tend to avoid the floor of the Seaport convention center, unless it’s to hide behind the tables and watch the wine chugging twenty-somethings try to recall if that righteous red wine was from the Italian wine tables or if I just picked up the wrong glass in the restroom, dude…

January 29

Beringer Clear Lake Zinfandel 2001 is cheap. I taste it repeatedly against the Provenance 2001 Cab – of course, it’s a specious comparison, but hang with me here – and muse about the difference. If you make your mind up about a wine after the first ten seconds, stick with the Beringer. If you think wine should speak with more than a brief shout, consider the Provenance. At nearly three times the price, it has nearly three times the length of finish.

But the Beringer Clear Lake Zin has some of the pretty cranberry/currant/cherry notes of fresh Zin that’s typical of the 2001 vintage. And you can find it fairly cheaply.

January 28

Well, it’s all from the old Beckstoffer Vineyard, so cheap ain’t it. The website says Provenance rhymes with Renaissance. Yeh, like “tripping” rhymes with “man”.

But it’s a Tom Rinaldi wine and he’s always been able to coax flavor and intensity without sacrificing elegance and longevity. I like this wine, and have seen it at $30 or so on the web. That’s cheap for important provenance, well-made, famous winemaker, Napa Cab. But is that really cheap?

January 27

My friend Ken Fredericksen, who has the palate to know is raving about a wine blended from every AVA in Napa Valley. I haven’t tasted it, so no comment. But I’m thinking about that wine as I taste the Chalone Wine Group’s new Napa project,Provenance. It’s from Rutherford, but it tastes to me like somebody blended down Rutherford to taste like all of Napa. That’s not a bad thing. Some American oak, some gritty tannins, some slightly cooked black currants make it a wonderful wine, if it’s cheap but…

January 26

Dominio de Valdepusa is only recently able to be labeled with its owner’s name. The wild and crazy Marques de Grinon, who has challenged so much of Spanish wine law, has won one this time. Since August 1, 2003, the new rules allow the Marques to append his name to the Dominio de Valdepusa.

In addition, the Dominio itself is one of the first two Vinos de Pagos, or single great estates. This new designation was also part of the August 1st law.

Grinon deserves this victory. He makes lots of wonderful wines, but the Valdepusa Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 is deserving as well. It’s not great, but it’s pretty, balanced, and a great example of how the Toledo region is so under-appreciated still.

January 25

Elvio Cogno has some sweet and delicious Barolo, but there is tons of earth and place in the wines. His 1999 Raverabottling is a relative value at $60; well, that’s what small estate Barolo prices are like these days. On the opposite tip, Cogno provides a crisp little white called Rascetta. It’s like an obscure version of Favorita. Heh heh. We’re talking tasty and waaaay obscure.

January 24

Boglietti Barbera d’Alba 2002 is just frickin’ great Barbera.
I’ve read about Enzo Boglietti in Manny Berk’s Rare Wine Company newsletter, but this is the first one I’ve had a chance to taste. Like most, it has some toast in the nose, and like some, it’s fairly dramatic toast. But the rich red fruits are so ripe they seem black and there’s a delightfully juicy black currant finish. This is stunning.

January 23

Lest I forget the best part of the Norman meal (at least it was for me, cuz that’s my priority) was the 2000 Domaine Soumade Cuvee la Confiance Rasteau. Have you tasted this wine? It’s amazing, if also amazingly expensive for a Rasteau. Grenache in all its French glory; raspberry swirls with black pepper, hints of blueberry in the nose, plum and an iron, earthy tang at the end.

January 22

So Norman’s food, which is fascinating and can be delicious and all that, has always been a fine example of what I call “LSD food”. It’s like the chef drops acid and comes up with a dish.

On the other hand, let’s deconstruct it. Wasabi – zing, acid, a hint of umami. Crab – lots of sweet and umami. Crab dressing – ditto with some acid. Caviar – salt and umami. Green apple – acid. Green apple chip – salt, a hint of sweet and bitter.

So the food itself is not wrong or out of balance, though I’d almost wish for a bit more of a note of bitter to put the sweet/umami/acid balance in sharper focus. The temperature differentiation between the warm crab salad and the cold ice cream is unusual, but I’ve always been a fan of that sort of thing.

You could argue that the dish needed texture, certainly. But not all dishes strike on every chord. So, in reality, it was a perfectly tasty dish, valid, and not really LSD inspired, I suppose. But there are times that Norman’s food…

January 21

Dined at Norman Van Aken’s new restaurant in Orlando and had a great, albeit strange (in a Norman way) meal. Let me illustrate. Imagine crab salad formed into a large cube, covered with a little veggie layer and then bland (though not salty) American caviar, a topped with a perfectly round scoop of wasabi and green apple ice cream, punctuated with a green apple chip. Uh huh. You get the idea. It was quite tasty but bizarre.

Is it a good thing that it actually made a wretched glass of wine taste good? I was served a glass of an unnamed Alsace Pinot Blanc (unnamed because someone had clearly damaged that bottle) that tasted like asparagus juice. But with the dish, well, I almost managed to drink the whole glass.

January 20

Speaking of cocktail ingredients, Tanqueray Ten remains the most remarkable entry in the field of gins in the last twenty years. A powerfully aromatic nose offers dense layers of spice that finish like a gentle tea. The mouth is its opposite; smooth, generous, kind. Gin in the winter? Sure, when it’s this good.

January 19

If you love cocktails, then you need certain hard to find ingredients. Orange bitters, for instance. Or fresh limes; not the ones that can double as rocks, but the ones that have juice. But this is my strongest recommendation if you want to make a good drink. Buy a bottle of VELVET FALERNUM and use it in the place of simple syrup. Its balance and character are addictive, and I love not having to make my own simple syrup – call me lazy.

January 18

So what is it with Santa Margherita? The world’s most likely candidate for naked emperor, this wine is distinctly better than it used to be. But is that good enough? I remain befuddled by its baffling success, but that success conceals some great news. Americans want to buy a more expensive Pinot Grigio. Why won’t restauranteurs comply?

January 17

Snoqualmie’s Reserve Shiraz 2001 ($22) is pricey for Snoqualmie, but who cares? It’s as jammy as an Aussie cliche but with Washington wine’s more austere temperament and with a dose of spicy oak. Value? Of course, but I preferred Snoqualmie when it cost less, unless you’re paying.

January 15

Victoria has an amazingly diverse climate, from the cold fogs of Mornington to the astonishing sun of Rutherglen. Lots of little enclaves such as Beechcraft or Sunbury are cooler than you would think, while northern Heathcote (being madly planted by everyone from Beringer Blass to Southcorp to Chapoutier) is warmer than advertised. This has been Australia’s vinous past. It will be Australia’s vinous future.

January 14

A day spent driving about the vineyards of central Victoria. Heathcote was pretty hot today, not as hot as the Barossa or McLaren Vale but nearly sweaty. The evening was cooling but as we drove down from the great Dividing Range south to Kilmare and then on to Melbourne, the temperature dropped precipitously. Visiting vineyards here, and spending time with the Rathjens at Hennings Vineyards, convinces me that this area is in the process of becoming one of Australia’s most important wine places.

January 13

The central part of Victoria is even more likely to create great Shiraz. Heathcote’s minty intesity is underscored by ideal acidity. Dominique Portet used to be at Taltarni, and created lovely wines there for nearly two decades. Now he’s on his own and his 2001 Shiraz from Heathcote is gorgeous.

Even better it’s affordable and imported into the US.

January 12

Coldstream Hills gets lots of press for its Pinot Noir. I’m not sure why. Still, the Reserve 2001 Pinot Noir is pretty delicious. The Merlots and Cabs are all herbal and light, in the manner of coolish climate Bordeaux varieties. Don’t dismiss them though, some of them are very tasty.

January 11

Warramate Vineyards have some lovely Shiraz to show. Again, this is cool climate viticulture and vintages such as 1997, 1999, and 2000 may not perform in ways that impress Syrah lovers. Certainly these wines aren’t going to impress those who love only Hunter Valley or Barossa Valley powerhouse Shiraz. Sadly, no one’s importing this wine into most US marketplaces.

January 10

Hugh and I spent the day driving about the Yarra and the Yea Valleys. It’s tru that crisp and balanced Chardonnay is typical here. It may be true that high quality Pinot Noir is possible here. But it is by no means the standard – it’s just a possibility.

January 9

Hugh Cuthbertson is from a grape growing family in a little known spot north of Australia’s Yarra Valley. The cool little enclave in which his family has long owned property is the Murrindindi Valley, but the geographic name has been changed to the Yea Valley, named after the most important town in the valley.

This is cool climate wine growing, unlike the public view of Aussie winegrowing. Chardonnay here is tart and nearly New Zealand like in its crispness.

January 8

More Carlei wine is still in my mind and on my palate. The great 1998 Sergio Carlei Jenmare Estate (Shiraz) was pitted against the 1998 Grange. If the words “no contest” apply it’s for two reasons. One, they’re very different wines. Two, the 1998 Jenmare is just about one hundred percent more wine than the Grange, at least in terms of its layers and complexity.
Why is no one writing about this wine in the US?

January 7

One of my heroes of the wine world, Sergio Carlei, played host today for me and my family. He has seven children aged seventeen to two years old, so my two teeneaged daughters were amused at a minimum by all the activity.

Visiting Carlei proves to me that we are only at the beginning of our understanding of what is possible in the cool climate sites of Australia. Sergio’s central Victorian Shiraz are revelatory. His Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2002 (still in barrel of course) is pretty frighteningly seductive.

January 6

But this Verdelho I like. James Estate 2002 has the richness and fat that comes from some lees contact but is as clean and crisp and apple slices.

January 5

The search for the great Aussie Verdelho continues, without success. I’m not complaining, it’s just that the current versions I’m tasting are either too oaky or too thin or too sweet.

January 1

I’m thinking the best recommendation for today is not a wine, not a shot of whiskey/whisky, and not even a beer. How about a water recommendation? I prefer Fiji water, since it’s so short on minerals (and especially salt) and it’s pretty gentle on the body. Happy New Year anyway!