Category Archives: Wine

UC Davis Sweet Wine Symposium Report

It's almost impossible to imagine today, but a half-century ago sweet and dessert wines in the United States accounted for the majority of wines consumed. Fully two-thirds of all wines were dessert styled wines, including sweet wines made without fortification (the addition of alcohol), as well as Ports and Sherries (albeit of the domestic persuasion), and other fortified wines.

It's easy to sneer at those times because clearly America's passion for wine was fuelled by its sweet tooth, and it's not a pretty world where MD 2020 and Thunderbird far outsell Cabernet. Yes, we are a far more sophisticated bunch today. But while America has learned to love dry wines, it has somehow forgotten that sweet wines can be pretty wonderful too. 

Moreover, one of the unfortunate tendencies of the wine industry is to pretend that, because many wine professionals prefer dry wines over sweet ones, everyone else does too. But that's not true at all. One of the reasons that wine sales historically linger behind cocktail and beer sales is that wine sellers haven't bothered to listen to the people who don't drink wine. For most non-wine drinkers, wine is too bitter, too dry, too tart and, well, just not sweet enough.

But of course plenty of wines are sweet enough; we just don't talk about them enough. The UC Davis Sweet Symposium, which took place on January 12, 2011, was created to offer historical background as well as technical tips to winemakers interested in making sweet wines, but it also took on the issue of sweet wine sales, or lack thereof. Legendary wine expert Darrell Corti began the day with a discourse on sweet wine's once prominent place throughout wine culture, focusing upon its stability in comparison to other styles of wine in a pre-refrigerated world.

Corti explained, "Historically, sweet wines have been considered to be among the finest wines in the world because they were stable, had good longevity, they often required more processing and aging, and they were produced in locations with a history of tradition and practices in place."

In my presentation, I offered a similar perspective. Vinsanto from Santorini is an ancient wine, and is extraordinarily long-lived. Its virtues of deliciousness and stability made its fame throughout the world, though it was in northern Italy that the wine earned the ultimate flattery of imitation. Italian Vin Santo utilized the same grape drying methodology that the producers on Santorini had proven effective, and eventually stole the name as well. But because Santorini is such a dry and windy place, the process can proceed without the massive amounts of sulfur that the Italians utilize.

Master of Wine Tim Hanni's presentation echoed our comments about the past importance of sweet wines. And Tim believes too that the vast majority of people would happily consume sweet wines if only the industry would support those wines, instead of treating sweet wine consumers as somehow uneducated.

"Sweet wine drinkers are not dead, they are alive and well and sipping sweet cocktails," Hanni said. He added, "There are people out there who would love to drink wine, but we won't let them." He suggested "a massive re-education."

The world's greatest wines for centuries: Tokaji, Madeira, Malaga, Port, Sherry, Constantia, Yquem and other Sauternes, and of course, Vinsanto, are just as compelling today and would be just as universally loved, if only people were given a chance to try them. Their rarity and difficulty of production mean that most are too expensive for average folk, though Vinsanto and others can be perfectly affordable as a restaurant available, wine by the glass feature.

Strangely, restaurants don't bother offering the kinds of dessert wine lists that draw sufficient attention, either from customers or servers. Most restaurants list most of their dessert wines by the bottle only, but few customers want more than a small glass of dessert wine, especially at the end of a long meal. Those restaurateurs evince interest in selling dessert wines, but insist that sales are insufficient to justify opening a bottle of wine. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: nobody orders it because it's not available by the glass, so the restaurateur has "proof" that customers aren't interested.

Worse still, restaurant staff are wholly ignorant of the stability of dessert wines. Sure, your average Chardonnay goes south within a few days of opening, but Vinsanto can last for weeks after being opened, as long as it is refrigerated. And there is nothing quite as magical as the dulcet, honeyed character of Vinsanto, with notes of raisin, fig, cocoa, coffee bean (and dozens more flavors) all with the remarkable racy cleanliness of citrus in the finish. There's really nothing like it, though dessert wines throughout history have emulated and even imitated its character. Now if we can just get restaurants to let people try it.

A brief taste

Beaulieu Vineyards George de la Tour 2007 is the best version of this wine I’ve had in years. Some of the greatest California wines I’ve ever had were BV George de la Tour’s, albeit the 1968, the 1970, the 1975 and such. The 1990’s were not so kind; there were some issues with cellar taint and the wines just never seemed right. But all that has been fixed, and last night’s bottle of 2007 had all the richness I expect from that vintage as well as an almost shockingly soft finish. I’m not sure I believe this wine has a long life to it (not like the ’68 or ’70 did) but as with so many wines of this style, I’m not sure I much care. It’s delish.

But because caveats are the bread and butter of the wine writer’s meal, I’ll note as well that the alcohol was a bit too much for one of my sensitive breeding. Okay, yep, there’s self mockery there, but I’m not much of a fan of 15% alcohol dry wines, though some handle the octane better than others. The 2007 George de la Tour is not too hot, but a bit warm from all that alcohol nonetheless. I’m not quibbling; I’m just forewarning any drinkers out there.

When Darrell Corti brings the wines

Darrell CortiI'm giving a talk at UC Davis and the remarkable Darrell Corti is speaking as well. And as great as it is to hear his lucid views, the bigger feature for me was one of the lovely bottles that he brought along for the conference. It was a bottle that he bought back in 1959 and just happened to have around the cellar: Isaias Helman Angelica 1875 with the label identifying it as coming from the Cucamonga Vineyard in San Bernardino County, bottled in 1921. Angelica was once incredibly popular American fare: basically a Vin de Mutage created by combining Mission grape juice with brandy. And still carrying fresh fruit flavors. Did you read that, cuz I just wrote that. Still fresh fruit flavors. Freak show.

Caramel, nuts, raisins, cooked yellow apples, hints of toast, spice and balsamic vinegar, smells of walnuts and old furniture. The mouth had much the same as well as figs, cinnamon sticks, honey, tobacco, black pepper, caramel, molasses and most importantly, lots and lots of citrus. The finish was all of those things but a mix of orange and lemon candies too, and something like peppered, cooked pears.

If you find yourself in Sacramento, go to Corti Brothers Italian Grocery Store and see the handiwork of the Indiana Jones of the food and drink business, Darrell Corti. I regret to tell you that you are unlikely to find an 1875 Angelica but you can ask when you get there.

Why the Weird Words?

What if I told you that I really liked a red wine that tasted like wet and cooked mint leaves, along with some sandy mud, dusty rock, white mushroom caps and dried tobacco leaves? Well, obviously, that particular, very likable, red wine had a lot of other, more likeable flavors to it. It’s one of the challenging characteristics of wine (and wine writers) that some of the most important and defining elements of wine are weird, counter-intuitive and often unappetizing.

And our media loves to mock the wine industry for it. But what differentiates one wine from another is not merely the easy stuff (red fruits vs black fruits, tartness vs ripeness, and such) but the small, often strange elements. And amongst those odd and unusual flavors and aromas, earth is paramount. Earth is easy to ridicule; it’s not a flavor or aroma that any of us are accustomed to pursuing when we taste. Nonetheless, if you look for it, earth is there in wine. Sometimes it’s a big note; sometimes it’s only a whisper. But we as creatures who are capable of noticing tens of thousands of flavors and aromas can find those notes, if only we look.

And, yes, in some wines, it’s easier than in others. Say, for instance, the wine that began this post: Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro 2005. Ruffino might possibly bore some label snots; it is often bright and fresh, full of fruit and very drinkable. Weird to think that makes it boring for some folks, but every palate is different. Ruffino Ducale never bores me and in very good vintages this wine can be lovely. And very lovely this is; there’s plenty of fruit, but beneath it, that fascinating earth, mint leaf, mushroom note and other odd elements that create complexity where mere deliciousness existed.

MW’s vs MS’s?

Some nice person has made me aware of Wikipedia’s entry for “Master of Wine.” In it, the author of the entry has noted that “the Master of Wine qualification is recognized as being vastly more difficult.” Of course, the entry is merely re-stating something that Ronn Weigand (also a dual MS/MW and the first person to achieve that status) was quoted as saying in a Janet Fletcher-penned San Francisco Chronicle article. Ronn is welcome to his opinion. But so am I.

I think it’s rather subjective (if not reductive) to state that one title is more difficult than the other; it really depends upon the test taker. If someone is skilled in restaurant floor service and are willing to commit themselves to the memorization required of a Master Sommelier, well, then they will likely find it fairly easy. But if you’ve never worked on a restaurant floor, there is no way (imho) that you are ever going to pass the Master Sommelier exam. You might be able to dash off three Master of Wine essays in your sleep, but for you, the MS exam would be overwhelmingly difficult. You see, it depends upon the test taker, because each of these two tests is different.

The Master Sommelier exam tests people’s ability, experience, understanding and skills in a variety of service settings. The successful candidate is likely to know a great deal about a great many things, but as is typical of a hospitality setting, that sommelier isn’t going to need to write an essay about any of those issues. Conversely, the Master of Wine exam is extremely detailed about matters of grape-growing, winemaking and maturation and, perhaps most importantly, the business of wine. The successful MW candidate probably has no idea which grapes are important in Moldova or any other obscure wine region, but I guarantee you that the MS will. It doesn’t make one exam better or harder than the other, but it does make the exams very different.

To Maurice and to Allen Ginsberg

Tasting through six bottles of aMaurice (Walla Walla, don’t ya know, oh, you don’t know? Well, you should know) and having an evening of DJ Spooky for some reason. No, no, I like DJ Spooky, it’s just that I haven’t put on one of his CD’s in like, five years, and so here’s a stack of DJ Spooky records on the player, courtesy of one of my kids. You see, I took the girls to see Spooky do this interesting thing about Antarctica, lots of very cool video unsurprisingly, and hence my youngest had all my DJ Spooky records. They’ve been sequestered but I guess that they’re now mine again. Amongst other treasures, Rhythm Science remains such a wonder: how is it likely to work when your vocalists include E.E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Duchamp, Burroughs, James Joyce, Brion Gysin, Tristan Tzara, and Kurt Schwitters at his high fallutin’ best with further silly scats from Apollinaire and did I mention Tristan Tzara?

Anyway, aMaurice. Charming people; charming notion: “to” Maurice, the grandfather who pioneered the family’s piece of Washington. First up: 2008 Viognier Walla Walla Valley. It’s understated, nice, even intriguing, but it’s laidback in every way except alcohol. The single vineyard Sparrow Viognier bottling is better; the lees note is stronger and the alcohol has greater purpose. The Chardonnay 2008 Columbia Valley is similarly understated; again, the alcohol disrupts the intended delicacy. On the other hand, I’ve been drinking hybrids and cool-climate whites for the last two months in heavy rotation. West Coast alcohols frighten me a wee bit. These are not hot; don’t misunderestimate me. I wouldn’t bother to write about them if they were hot. It’s just that they seem to be trying to cut new territory and it would be easier if they had a bit less alcohol. Instead of fourteen to fifteen.

Meanwhile, my eldest daughter calls and before long is musing how she might smuggle her hermit crab onto a plane to get it to her Nuevo Yorko apartment. It starts out sounding preposterous and ends with a well-considered plan. Don’t share this with the TSA. They told her no. I told her yes. I’m still drinking the Chardonnay and it’s better now. Or is it that we are just so damned malleable when it comes to alcohol?

aMaurice Malbec 2007 Columbia Valley has Mendoza color and richness but alas the nose is warmer than those lovely Malbecs along the Andes. But as with the other reds (read, and drink, on), there is lovely lift to the fruit (way under the usual VA’s of so many small and foolish WA wineries). The Red Wine Blend 2006 is more charm: cherry, plum, and more heat, and very subtle barrel and spice, or it might be better to say that it is more fruit with spice notes, than the reverse. The Syrah smells too warm as well; pretty red cherry but some raisin as well. But in the mouth, the raisin is overwhelmed by bright, pure red fruit (red raspberry, strawberry) and even some blueberry notes. I could get used to this stuff. It remains silky, with very light barrel touches, and, oh, what’s that, a bit of warmth. But the Syrah is juicy; it’s a term that we use to mean good.

I’ll stop. It’s just that these wines are so pretty, and so clearly intended to be pretty, and I mean that in the most respectful way. Pretty is good. This is good. Just a bit warm.

Later my daughter has me booking her flights and I’m back for more of the Sparrow. I need more of this stuff. And then DJ Spooky is gone and Patti Smith is chanting her Ginsberg Spell “Holy! Holy!” and I’m done taking notes.

Points are Pointless

The 2009 Bordeaux futures campaign has just ended: the longest and most drawn-out in history. Prices, to put it mildly, have never been higher. Last Monday, the last estate released its prices for its 2009 wines: Ausone is available for more than a thousand dollars a bottle. But act now! This is only the first tranche (or release); subsequent tranches may be higher still.

Oh, and one other note, that Ausone price applies only to importers. You’ll have to pay the markup from the importer, as well as another tariff for the wholesaler. The retailer needs a cut too. In all, you’ll be lucky to pay less than seventeen hundred dollars for that twenty-five-ounce bottle.

The 2008 Ausone cost considerably less upon release: $850 or so. The 2007 was even more reasonable: $650. Why all this irrational exuberance? I’m not suggesting that this market will collapse like certain other irrationally exuberant markets in the recent past. But some wine reviewers, American writer Robert Parker amongst them, have decreed that 2009 is the vintage of a lifetime, or in Parker’s words, “2009 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.”

Others have been less sanguine, calling it the “vintage of the century”. A couple of weeks ago, Emil Casteja, long-time owner of Chateau Batailley, was asked which vintage was the vintage of the last century. He smiled and said, “Oh, but there are soooo many.” It seems rather early for the rest of this new century to be so quickly dismissed, but who knows?

Robert Parker does. His prognostications have helped set prices for decades. At least within the Bordeaux community I visited last week, there was little doubt that this is indeed a great vintage but that Parker’s enthusiasm has generated unheard of prices, and that these prices are based upon the perceived interest of millionaires (and billionaires) everywhere, not least in Hong Kong.

His reviews of the 2009 wines have included far more wines exceeding 90 points than those under that high water mark, as well as nineteen potential 100-point wines. Sure his reviews gave a range of these wines from, say, 97-100 points, but once you start throwing around the 100-point score, well, let’s get all irrational and exuberant, eh, chappie?

To put this in perspective, that’s more than all the 100-point scores Parker handed out to all American wines between the years of 1985 and 2005. Even the much-heralded (at the time) 2003 vintage saw only four wines, Pavie, Montrose, Latour and Ausone, touch the perfect score. And it might be instructive to know that many of the 2003 wines haven’t turned out so well, at least not to this writer and others of similar mindset.

But the 2009’s are not likely to suffer the same fate as so many of the 2003’s, some of which are already tasting hard and even dried out. The 2009’s, by contrast, are generous and fruit-laden. Where the 2003’s were the product of one of the hottest years on record, with their fresh fruit and refreshing tartness baked right out of them, the 2009’s retain both fruit and acidity.

Some, like Rauzan Segla, carry a remarkable amount of crispness, perhaps too much for those who prefer their Bordeaux rich and brooding. The heralded champion for some I spoke with is Lafite Rothschild (Parker: 96-100); it’s exciting, dense and represents one of the top wines of any recent Bordeaux vintage, without a doubt.

But is it worth the price? And what separates it from Parker’s 18 other potential 100-point wines? Indeed, there’s nothing in those numbers to provide any answer. For Parker and others of his palate, 100-point wines are “perfect”, which for his palate means incredibly powerful and intense. But what if “perfect” for someone else is delicate and elegant?

When confronted with the criticism that the 100-point system is inherently flawed and subjective, Parker has repeatedly stated that the numbers are merely shorthand. “Read my reviews,” he has always said.

Doing so is informative but perhaps not in the manner intended. The Beausejour-Duffau has “massive concentration, power and intensity”; the Bellevue Mondotte has “massive concentration and huge tannins”, Branon is “hugely concentrated, intense, dense”; Cheval Blanc is “staggeringly concentrated, very full-bodied and powerful”

Throughout the notes, mocha and chocolate abound: mocha describes heavily toasted barrels and chocolate is more typical in overripe Barossa Shiraz than in young Bordeaux. He regards wines with 14% alcohol as balanced, but betrays his tendencies towards opulence when he enthuses over wines nearly approaching 15% alcohol. Perhaps those sorts of numbers don’t alarm some people, but I was weaned on Bordeaux in an era when even 13-percent levels were rarely breached.

Readers should reasonably conclude that Parker prefers wines that are concentrated, dark, rich and intense. Indeed, it seems that the dominant critics value wine only for its intensity, and have little interest in a wine’s balance or ability to age, or at least in its ability to have flavors other than intense ones.

That remains Parker’s right, just as it is for any other critic whose mouth, nose and body incline them to love intensity. But not everybody likes caviar, not everyone thinks foie gras is good and some people think Brussel sprouts are disgusting, unless they’re drenched in butter and smothered in bacon. People’s food preferences shouldn’t be deemed right, or wrong.

And so it is with wine. Some like it sweet, some like it cold, some like it young and some like it old. The great flaw of the 100-point system is that it fails to reflect that reasonable people differ about the foods they like and don’t like and they will certainly do the same with wine. The 100-point system tells you what the critic likes and dislikes but offers scant guidance as to whether a given consumer will like it, unless that consumer eats the same foods and drinks the same wines as that critic. Even that might be a stretch.

Some 25 years ago, I was standing next to Parker after a long day of tasting and one of the members of the party (who apparently possessed fewer spitting skills than the rest of us) was ranting at Parker that the 100-point system was a fraud. Parker was patient and respectful and said, “well, the 100-point system helps me sell magazines, and I’m in the business of selling magazines.” At the time I thought, fair enough.

But are people really intending to buy a magazine, or do they simply need guidance? They need to know what a particular wine tastes and smells like, how it will age, when and how to drink it, and that information doesn’t need to lay hidden in the pages of a journal beneath myriad numbers and ciphers.

Moreover, wine information shouldn’t come from only one source. Wine as the province of one solitary palate is a sham, no matter how skilled and experienced that palate. Why? Because palates are different. Some like salt and some like sugar. If it’s a light and soft white wine I seek, I should read a review from someone who loves those sorts of wines. If it’s a tangy, earthy red wine that excites me, then I need a reviewer that understands those. And if I’m searching for a rich and powerful youthful Bordeaux (oh, I meant concentrated and intense), I will seek out someone who likes that kind of wine. Lest anyone think that I’m Parker-bashing, I think Parker is a very reliable source of information regarding such wines.

Even more importantly, wines change. Good wine is a living thing; it tastes differently today than it will next month, and those differences will be more obvious a year or a decade from now. Even in the short term, that wine might shift its shape when it’s cold and wintry outside, or when you’re sunburnt and sweaty. The simplest of wines can be stirring at a romantic dinner or at a heartwarming gathering. The best part of wine cannot be accurately deduced from a two or three digit number.

There are many trustworthy palates; you should seek out as many as you can. You should find out their favorites and if you can afford them, you should try them to see if your palate roughly aligns. If they offer no great reviews of affordable wines, you should look elsewhere; great wine is all around, just like good reviewers. But I will offer this warning: if the reviewers insist upon a numerical score, your business and your palate are being taken for a ride.

Alex Chilton RIP

There are a lot of us for whom Alex Chilton was about as heroic a figure as any Memphis cab driver could be. Well, I guess he wasn’t just ANY Memphis cab driver; he was Alex Chilton; once upon a time half of Big Star (the band named for a Memphis grocery chain), one of the seminal groups for those who believed that rock’s best side was on the downlow, on the cheap, slightly cracked and half crazed. Chilton seemed to be all that. His brief time as a teen pop singer, with the BoxTops (yeah, I bet his baby done wrote him a letter and I’m guessing it was more like a restraining order) was always irrelevant to his career as a songwriter and producer of his own work, his work with Big Star, his production work for the Cramps and such.

I guess it was a career; it was more like a careening. Big Star lurched into view and slipped over the precipice almost before we noticed. Or perhaps, like Chilton’s songwriting ex-partner, Chris Bell, it went straight into a lamppost and that was the end of that.

I was lucky enough to see Chilton when he resurrected his band in the early 90’s. He told a few great stories and one of them was this: “It was the early 60’s, kids,” he told a not nearly packed enough Grand Emporium in Kansas City, “and the Byrds were on Ed Sullivan. They were just starting to play when Roger McGuinn said something and they all stopped playing and started turning their guitars. This was live TV, kids, and they tuned their guitars for forty-five seconds. Forty-five seconds of dead air. And then Roger McGuinn turned to the camera and he said, ‘We tune, because we care.'”

We all broke up, laughing. And then Chilton said, “We don’t tune, because we don’t care” and cranked it up.