Tag Archives: Australia

Before we leave 2007 behind…

So I judged at the Sydney International Wine Competition in late 2007, and aside from the beauty of the Blue Mountains, it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had at a tasting. Let me explain…

The Methodology

First there is the methodology. Each wine is tasted several times. After an initial culling process, each of the promoted wines is placed in a particular weight class (light medium, heavy) and then each wine is tasted again to set its position within its weight class (is it very light bodied, or only somewhat light-bodied?). Next, within their weight categories, the wines are first judged on their own, and then the wines are re-tasted alongside a particular food pairing. This reflects the organisers’ belief that wines are judged in an unnatural setting if they are tasted by themselves and not with food. While many of the world’s wines seem intended for consumption in the cocktail hour, wine’s traditional place is at the dining table and judging wine alongside food should be obvious. Instead, it’s virtually unknown in any other wine competition.

The Judging Panel

While the tasting methodology offers enough differentiation from other competitions to make it unique, there is another critical difference the Sydney International Wine Competition has to offer: the caliber of the judges is top notch. While there were only fourteen judges, each judge was an experienced and skilled professional with demonstrable expertise in the business of wine judging. And the fourteen judges represented seven different countries, so there was far less opportunity for the “regional palate” problem to influence the outcome. Depending on which stage of the elimination process to select the Award winners it represented, each flight involved a different group of judges; in the earliest stages there were only two judges on a flight. But for the Finals judging there were six or more judges assessing each wine in the Category.


As I write this, I still don’t know the results of all our efforts. But I am clear enough in my reactions to the wines I judged to draw a few conclusions.

Conclusion One

Flawed wines were far less prevalent than in other shows I have judged. Within the groups of wines we tasted, as well as many from well-known New World wine regions, there were wines from Bordeaux and other traditional regions of France. In general, Bordeaux, though it likes to claim otherwise, has a problem with Brettanomyces. While I have heard numerous Bordelais winemakers claim that those band-aid, leather and animal notes represent terroir, I disagree. These aromas derive from barrels that are laden with Brettanomyces. Some New World wines share this problem. And some New World wines (often in California and Washington) exhibit high amounts of volatile acidity. It’s a problem that shows no sign of abatement in many such regions. Many South African wines suffer from issues with both Brettanomyces and volatile acidity. Yet the overwhelming proportion of wines (including wines from those countries) represented in this Competition showed clean winemaking. But it should also be strongly noted that the entire New World is struggling to control alcohol levels; some of the wines we tasted had alcohol levels that were bordering on the absurd.

Conclusion Two

The move towards cooler New World sites has not resulted in wines of better balance than those from the better known areas in general. Instead, we experienced an array of wines with green and bitter tannins. California has traditionally struggled with this issue. Its hot climate results in rapid ripening of the grapes, so the grapes become sweet and mature before the tannins can soften and ripen. In California, the tradeoff is that the best of these wines have tremendous richness, and the green and sandpapery tannins are offset by rich flavors. With some of the Australian Cabernets and Merlots I tasted, the tannins were green, but the sweet and jammy ripeness so typical of great Australian reds was missing.

Conclusion Three

Australian and New Zealand Chardonnays have become better balanced, cleaner and less oak dominant than their Californian counterparts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more interesting wines.

Conclusion Four

Finally, I would draw one more conclusion from my participation in the Sydney International Wine Competition: the methodology of the SIWC offers great benefits. I say this because:

  • It is appropriate to taste and assess wine with food.
  • It is appropriate to taste the same wine several times before reaching a final conclusion.
  • It is appropriate for a wine judge to consider, “should I offer this wine greater merit when it demonstrates that it can skillfully handle a plate of delicious food?”

Postscript: so why was this a grueling tasting? Imagine tasting the same wines four times in four days. And imagine being in Australia but not really able to cut loose and see your friends and see new places and, well, I’m just whining now, aren’t I? I am a Master of Whine,  after all.

One more note: while I wrote above that other competitions don’t include food, one of the competitions I help run, the Mid-American Wine Competition is doing that this year – it’s been in the works for a year. But I knew that judging at the Sydney Competition would assist me in my understanding of the process, so for that as well as many other reasons (cool judges, etc.),  I’m glad I was there.

March 2005

March 31, 2005

Stocking cap chef disappears back into the kitchen. Then he comes around the bar into the dining room and says, “No charge for the show, folks.” He leaves. I figure for a smoke, but it appears he doesn’t smoke. He just stands at the back door.

Sean is chuckling. “I handled that like a god!” he says.

The Pompano is undercooked. The rest of the meal is great. There was no charge for the entertainment.

March 30

Chef-brother begins screaming from the kitchen. Curses. Oaths.

We begin to pay attention. The curses grow louder with some slamming and assorted snarls. Sean is looking away. Finally chef comes out of the kitchen and grabs Sean by the ear. Growling. The oaths become personal.

March 29

Mamma Zu’s is odd in a cool way; a blackboard with pizzas, varied fish names, and items of sundry appetizer provenance, things hanging about, faded newspaper clippings, odd photos and knickknacks. A cross between an Italian deli, a country gas station and a old geezer’s barbershop. Without the geezers. Dreadlocked chef. Some tattoos. Numerous educated, bourgeois customers on the way to/from the theatre.

Sean and his brother seem to run the place, although the mildly amiable bearded guy (let’s call him Mr Unidentified) probably has a set of keys too. Sean’s brother is a skinny wisp cooking in the tiny but rollicking kitchen. He wears a stocking cap. In the kitchen. That should say enough.

March 28

Have to explain that this meal was at a Richmond, Virginia spot called Mamma Zu’s. A conch salad, scungilli, was perfectly poised between rustic and elegant, between real and imaginary, if you will. Lots of olive oil, red pepper flakes and god I don’t know what else because I don’t want to know, I just want to eat it. And I did. With my glass of Pinot Grigio.

March 27

Treated to wine advice from the nearly ill-mannered but merely and sincerely ill-informed. At an otherwise wonderful restaurant, I asked for the wine list. “There’s no wine list,” someone unidentified from behind the bar (his choice to be unidentified) told me. “Go look at the rack and pick your wine.” Okay. The rack has only red wines.

A waitress grabs a bottle next to me. “Where are the white wines,” I ask. “We’ve got Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay”, she says. “Nothing else?” “No, white wines don’t go with our food here.”

Oh, reeeaaally. Baked Pompano, Grouper, shrimp, fried oysters, scungilli, shall I go on?

Why do people assume that THEIR taste is THE taste for everyone else?

March 26

More Chardonnay notes. If nothing else, I figure it ticks off those that complain about Chardonnay (they tick me off, after all) and it’s proof that I actually drink the stuff, as I claim.

Gloria Ferrar Chardonnay Carneros 2001 – Gloria Ferrar is always a Chardonnay I look forward to. This is not off the mark, though there’s a caramel/butterscotch note that makes me think of ill-timed malolactic fermentation. It could also be heat damage in shipment, but no other evidence of that is here. It’s still crisp and appley.

March 25

Rosemount Giant’s Creek Chardonnay 2002 always proves my complaints about the Hunter Valley as shallow and stubborn. These are the wines of a true craftsman; but it should be understood that in some senses that is an unkind statement.

The Hunter Valley is uniquely unsuitable for white winemaking. It’s hot through the season and rainy at harvest. Hunter Valley Semillon has always been the best response; harvested early, it retains some acidity. A drinker deals with that by laying it down for ten or more years. I love that stuff with a fixation.

But Hunter Chard? Well, every time I taste a Giant’s Creek Chardonnay I find myself making sullen excuses or justifications like these here. Face it, Phillip Shaw is an amazing winemaker. He crafts rich Chardonnay out of a region that is unlikely to offer any hope of balance. He always finds refreshing crispness.

March 24

A simple and relatively cheap bottle of Syrah 2001 from Washington Hills was a nice balance to the spicy, barrel intensity of the Stella Maris. While it carries a Yakima Valley appellation, it seems decidedly fat and high of pH for a Yakima wine, even one from this ripe vintage.

The wine is pretty, ripe, seemingly a trifle sweet and definitely chocolate flavoured in the finish. If I were blinded, I would have thought it was a Merlot with the attributes of simple Merlot – delicious, but drink it now!

March 23

The lead pencil aroma, if I may digress, is soooooo over-rated. Lead-pencil is not really an attribute of Mouton Rothschild, in my poor opinion, as wine writers love to intone. Lead pencil is an attribute of the oak barrels in which Mouton is stored. Lots of other wines exhibit this characteristic; they happen to use oak barrels too.

March 22

The Stella Maris is just the setup for the Northstar Merlot, for which I’ll have notes later. The 2001 Stella has unknown quantities of Cabernet in it – though I wouldn’t guess it to be much more than a third Cabernet and the rest Merlot. I gave it a few days of rest after tasting half of the bottle. Time brought out the lead pencil oak and didn’t greatly hamper the fruit. But it began to taste a bit like a second wine, although the retail is $30.

March 21

After covering the Walla Walla scene for the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago, I received some unhappy responses from a few folks who felt left out. No one was more surprised, I’ll venture, than Northstar. I simply hadn’t tasted their new releases and they haven’t ever responded to my queries for samples.

Well, I guess my evil plan worked. Two bottles of Northstar arrived at my doorstep Saturday and I popped open the Stella Maris bottling, Wow. This is why I like Washington – even with lashings of young, pencil shaving laden oak, the fruit and structure shines through. It’s very elegant, even the note of American oak I detect. Juicy red fruits with clove and cherry skin finish.

March 20

A well-priced ($18) Cotes du Rhone Villages called Melodie d’Amour Chusclan 2000 went down very easily. The story goes that the owner named the wine after his girlfriend, Melody. Then they broke up. Maybe that’s why the wine is so cheap for the quality. The dominant grape, Grenache, is attractive and easy and goes down without a trouble at all.

March 19

Geyser Peak is one of the standards for affordable California wine and their Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 is cut from that cloth. Geyser Peak is always a source of excellent values and overall the 2001 vintage is offering its share of values as well. So put the two together and you have a plummy, spicy, stylish Cabernet with just a couple of years needed to show what’s it got.

March 18

Typically cheap Aussie fare comes from warm to hot vineyard sites. But Ferngrove Shiraz 2001 Frankland River hails from one of the cooler spots in Australia, Frankland in Western Australia and this sort of climate makes for more elegant Shiraz based wines than that Yellowtail you’ve been drinking. Consider it time to step up. Ferngrove is chewy and peppery, just like the cheap Aussies, but unlike them, it has length and earthiness. This is real wine.

March 17

Redbreast is an extraordinary Irish whiskey. It’s a great way to celebrate St. Pat’s. I plan to chase it continuously with Boulevard’s delicious Irish Ale. If you don’t live in the Midwest, then you’ll just have to imagine the combination.

March 16

The Old Forester Bourbon that won however was not your dad’s Old Forester. This is the Small Batch Bourbon carries plenty of nutty, even creamy oak-aging. There is a crisp peach-tinged note, with a classic Bourbon cherry and ash finish. It’s got delightful balance for a dramatic whiskey.

March 15

The real battle royal at the World Spirits Competition was over the Bourbons. Old Forester (yes, you’ve read that right) won, though I think that the Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve should have prevailed. As well, I was mystified as to why Grand Marnier 100th Anniversary Bottling was overlooked for the best brandy. Indeed, my favourite brandy was the Montesquiou 1965 Armagnac; it was one of the best brandies I’ve tasted in some time.

Bowmore 25 year old won as usual for the best brown spirit overall. How could we do otherwise?

March 14

The World Spirits Competition was even more fun than in previous years. I think we’re all becoming used to working together and a lot more comfortable around the stresses of the event. Carol Siebert, who organizes the event for Andy Dias-Blue, certainly was a lot less stressed than in the past.

The results were just as interesting as in years past. Tanqueray prevailed among the white spirits, but this time it was the straight Tanqueray, not the brilliant Tanqueray Ten, that was voted the top white spirit. I figured it was the straight Tanqueray and, as a voter, I’m decidedly biased. I have spent years tasting a glass of Tanqueray first thing in the morning at my spirits classes. So this tasted just perfect to me. But most of the other judges agreed, so maybe it’s not just a bias.

March 13

I wouldn’t want to leave aside my other cocktail at Bix. The Porch Swing is a forgotten cocktail: Bourbon and Orange Juice essentially. In this version, the barman used blood orange juice with some lime and simple syrup, and served it up with a sugar rim. I found it delightful with foie gras. Yes, I did.

March 12

I’ve flown back to San Francisco for the fifth (?) annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For dinner, I thought it appropriate to stop in at Bix, that mecca for cocktail lovers. I have no doubt that it was a handmade Sidecar I drank at Bix fifteen or years ago that reawakened my love of cocktails.

So I had to start with one again. With America’s own Germain Robin as a base, Cointreau (ugh, but a good mixer nonetheless) and fresh squeezed juices and simple syrup, it’s one of my favourite cocktails, to be honest.

I matched it up with Bix’s Firecracker Shrimp, which are the usual very lightly battered and fried shrimp with a tangy, not garlicky, aioli. Very nice match.

March 11

We’re back in San Juan for a great meal at Wilo Benet’s Pikayo that included some great little one and two bite (my favourite size) appetizers. Arroz Pegao with spicy tuna tartar – the pegao is a little rice cake scraped off the bottom of the pan when you cook rice. Crispy, sweet, spicy, tuna and a glass of Albariño. The same Albariño stuck around long enough to go with some conch spring rolls with orange sofrito sauce.

My main course was broiled lobster with julienned chorizo; it has drama and flavor. And we also had the best Cod Brandade I’ve tasted. And I’ve had a lot, so I should know. In fact, I’ve had it far more often than I’d like.

March 10

For sheer entertainment, I’m not sure I can top my visit to the Sugar Factory on Antigua. We grabbed a taxi from the docks after half a day of snorkelling and followed our noses to the stinkiest place we could find. That would be a rum distillery.

Our taxi driver had a friend along who obviously either trying to sell me some ganja, or trying to find out if I had any he could buy. No help.

The inside of the distillery contained more bizarre aromas than I’ve ever discovered between four, er, walls. Are they still walls if they’re just posts holding up a, er, roof? Kinda of a roof?

The entire place looks to be a cross between a ghost town and a landfill. Then again, the problem with living on a island is that you don’t really have lots of places to put your trash. So here, the concept is simple. When you don’t want it anymore, push it to the side and put the new one next to it. And so it goes, seemingly forever.

Clarke’s Choice, the rum brand made here, is perfectly acceptable and Old Grog, the top of the line, is harmonious and friendly. Where do all those weird aromas at the distillery go?

As we were leaving the taxi driver’s friend fell behind as he was trying to buy ganja from one of the distillers. As he hurried to catch up with us he went headlong down the stairs. Somehow I’m sure he found what he was looking for.

March 9

A visit to Mount Gay’s visitor center was far less enjoyable. Mount Gay is perfectly good commercial rum, don’t misunderestimate me, as our Chief Executive likes to say.

The visitor center however is a little laughable. The well-meaning guide shows us a movie of an unknown date that made me momentarily nostalgic for Billy Idol. Only for about a second. My favourite part of the tour was stopping at pictures tacked to a bulletin board and pointing at various elements in them to a crowd of neck straining optimists. One of the pictures kept falling down.

March 8

A visit to Jonathan Simpson at R. L. Seales doesn’t yield much information. David and Richard Seales are unavailable (sigh) so we take a twenty minute cab ride up to the Foursquare Distillery.

I really like the rums being produced here. Foursquare is a wonderfully balanced and endearing spiced rum. A lot of people think spiced rum is somehow beneath them, but it’s a style that is centuries old and, when well executed, needs no mix. Although it’s pretty cool in rum punch.

The top line rum produced by the company is Doorly’s XO. That, like Foursquare, is something you simply need to go out and taste. Indeed, one of my favourite tricks is to put it in the middle of a Cognac tasting and see if anyone spots it. No one ever does.

March 7

We had dinner at a little enclave in the relatively impoverished town of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. La Casita served us some of the best river prawns I can recall eating, along with some other great lobsters and prawns, including spiny lobster. Had another relatively tired Italian white wine, this time a Greco di Tufo 1997 from Feudi di San Gregorio, but this had more fruit than the Gravner had showed.

The ride home was of a different picture. The streets were flooded with bodies in T-shirt and short summer dresses. Doors were open and through the smoke, swinging light bulbs and shouting. Buzzing scooters and a few rusty cars belching smoke, lots of loud music and rum drinking.

March 6

There’s something so bloody about “fine service” restaurants. Ocean Liners, the top spot on this particular boat, offers the kind of food normal people expect from a “fine dining” establishment, which is to say, this food was fussy in all the wrong ways. I’m not pinning blame anywhere, but so much time and effort was spent on useless details, and little attention paid to the most important aspect – pleasing guests.

A gentleman who had attended my first rum seminar, Jerry Horner, was kind enough to drop off a very interesting, though controversial, bottle of Italian white wine. Gravner, a cultish producer of white wines in Friuli Venezia’s Collio Goriziano region, is making amphora wines. As such, he is not merely toying with oxidation in wine production, he is seemingly embracing it.

One of the chefs at my table pronounced it undrinkable. I drank a bit and decided that a couple of glasses were enough for me. Primarily made from the Ribolla Gialla grape, the nutty and aldehydic character of the wine was compensated for by the citrus fruit. But no at the table was buying it. To me, Gravner’s ideas are still works in progress. I am unwilling to reject the wines just because they show some aldehydes and oxidation, but I wouldn’t expect many to share my interest.

March 5

The Caribbean trip was part of a rum tour sponsored by Bon Appetit Magazine, and each week during its eight week run, a different rum expert presented seminars (some would call them parties) on the boat. The other speakers included Ed Hamilton (he has the greatly recommended Ministry of Rum web site), Steve Olson (a great wine/spirits teacher/mentor/friend), Dale DeGroff (if you don’t have his The Craft of the Cocktail, go buy it now), David Wondrich (Esquire writer and all around good guy), John Hansell (editor of the must-have Malt Advocate magazine), Paul Pacult (the legendary spirits writer and yet another great guy), and Audrey Saunders, a New York hotel beverage director who left behind a short but excellent primer on the basics of spirits and cocktails. As a short primer, I don’t think anyone has ever done better than this little piece she created for the guests.

Steve and I along with our respective wives (and his baby daughter Maya) met in San Juan at the fun spot The Parrot Club for a massive lunch before my wife and I sprinted to the boat. Roberto Trevino, the chef there, also owns the excellent AguaViva. If you’re in San Juan (and who wouldn’t want to be), consider this wonderful seafood spot. If they’re full, go next door to Roberto’s take on Asian cuisine, Dragonfly.

March 4

Bob Bath and I conducted a Master Sommelier class on Sea Island, Georgia, but I was delighted to find myself not at the Cloister. I like the Cloister but I still think it feels more like a retirement community than a resort.

Instead we were ensconced at the Lodge at Sea Island, which has to be one of the best resort hotels I’ve stayed at in a while. Highly recommended. I brought with me a bottle of one of Merry Edwards’ first rate Pinot Noirs. It was the 2001 Sonoma Coast bottling and was so delightful that I’m eager to get home and taste the Windsor Gardens Vineyard bottling – a now grubbed-up vineyard that has continually made stellar Pinot Noir for Merry.

March 3

I’m in the middle of a three week jag. With stops in places like Nashville, maybe I can whine to a sympathetic ear. But with a week in the Caribbean also on that agenda, I will assume that no one cares about my “problems”.

Nashville hardly needs my recommendation, though I’d bet a few readers would argue that point. Let’s put it this way; I tasted some ten year old Ramonets, as well as a number of Leroy wines at the house of Tom Black, a Nashville collector with a famously deep cellar. A tasty dinner at F. Scott’s, followed by a free-wheeling late night tour that included a set by the Mavericks at Exit Inn (Tejano is so very in); well, I hope you get the drift.

March 2

The other wines for the DC Wine Expo were particularly new concepts in Spanish wine. The first, Ribas de Cabrera Mallorca 1999, is from a very old wine producing region, the island of Mallorca. Ribas de Cabrera is definitely hot climate wine, but atypically has far greater breed than any Mallorcan wine I have yet tasted. Its new wine styling is in keeping with the re-thinking of hot climate, old vineyard winemaking in Spain

Marques de Grinon’s Valdepusa is one of the two Vinos de Pagos, Spain’s newest designation for single, highly-regarded estates. The other bottlings from this vineyard are respectable, but I’m taken with this Syrah. It seems to carry Aussie intensity and hot climate cooked fruit character, but with Spanish structure. The Cabrera is expensive ($65 or so), the Valdepusa is not ($18).

March 1

Laurona 2001 and Cellar Capcanes 2000 (both from Montsant) hardly deserve that left-handed praise I’ve just dispensed. They are extremely well-balanced, but it must be said, balanced for their region. Montsant lies in the shadow though wrapped around the region of Priorat. The wines of this area taste more like wines from California’s Sierra Foothills than they taste like Spain’s traditional output. In that regard, these are very well balanced.

Morlanda, poured in DC as well, is more prototypical Priorat. Immensely rich and powerful, it carries a surprising amount of acidity – the result of Priorat’s elevation and proximity to the ocean. It may be built for girth but it’s like a bodybuilder training to run a marathon.


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!