Tag Archives: California

April 20-21, 2005

April 21

I still have a few bottles of Montebello 1977 left but one of them (from a friend’s cellar) tastes like very powerful, sinewy California Cabernet. I thought it was a California Cabernet from a mountain vineyard but from the tight 1986 vintage.

I mention this because I have been tasting Montebello for many years and have been uncannily consistent in calling it ” Bordeaux from a California vintage” for years. Suddenly, in this tasting, I have started getting Montebello right. Give or take a decade of age.

April 20

Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage 1990 is still powerful, compact, muscular and completely in need of another five to ten years. And that’s the bottle from my cellar, which is not usually the most long-lived version of the wine you will find.

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.


February 2005

February 29, 2005

The DC Wine Expo is in no way as insane as the Boston Wine Expo. It’s also far less organized. This year is no exception – wines are missing, the help is missing, the crowd is missing.

I showed a group of Spanish wines again, this time a group of intense reds including Marques de Caceres’ Gaudium 1996,Bodegas Aalto 2000 from Ribera del Duero, Guelbenzu EVO 2000 and Numanthia 2001 from Toro. Those were the well-mannered wines. Of the ill-mannered wines there will be more tomorrow.

These polite wines are not stylistically similar. The EVO is Grenache and Bordeaux varieties blended together into something soft, compelling and mild, as Spain has been so good at doing for a few decades. The Gaudium is intended to be over-the-top Rioja, but is balanced and soothing instead. The style of House Caceres is not so easily abandoned.

I’ve been critical of Numanthia at times, but not this bottling. Like its predecessors, the 2001 is oak-laden and powerful. It’s very backward now but shows lovely balance. Bodegas Aalto is powerful Ribera del Deuro, an appellation than can as often be difficult as it is impressive. This is nearly over-the-top Ribera, nearly over-ripe and over-wrought. As such, it’s a nice segue into the other wines of the tasting, which were mostly from new (old) areas and built for body not balance.

February 28

Dry Comal Creek is making a small amount of Black Spanish, a grape about which the experts cannot agree. Is it a wild hybrid? A Vinifera? The grape was widely grown in the 1830’s in Texas and used to make a kind of port there. Messina Hofuses it to make their pleasing port.

Dry Comal’s Black Spanish is turning a few Texas winemakers’ heads. Their interest lies in revealing its Petite Sirah like intensity, if only they can tone down the tannins. In the tasting, I’m fussy about the tannins. Tom likes it a great deal more than I do in the blind tasting. I like it so much better when I know what the label says. That could be said of a lot of wines.

February 27

Chardonel has yet to convince anyone but the winegrowers and winemakers that it can be important to the wine industry. Tom has few kind words to say about the Chardonel flight, quoting a friend who believes that the proper name for the grape is “Chard in hell”.

February 26

Montelle’s great Seyval Blanc 2002 is in the tasting. It’s won sweepstakes at the Riverside and San Diego competitions last year. But Tom’s not impressed. He says that there are far better Seyvals in England. I’d like to taste the proof of that. My next trip to Scotland, I will be trying to find some of those.

February 25

The first flight of the day consists of some sparkling wines from a few different areas: New Mexico, Michigan and California. Tom finds them all disappointing, but then he routinely drinks and writes about the world’s greatest sparklers. He practically bathes in Champagne.

New Mexico’s Gruet is highly regarded American bubbly and for good reason. While their standard Brut can be a bit simple and the Blanc de Noir straight-forward and short, the vintage dated Blanc de Blanc is exciting. The 1999 is in the tasting, but it’s too young, at this point

Michigan’s Larry Mawby makes delightful bubblies too. His Grande Reserve 1997 is as exotically leesy as a bottle of Bollinger RD. Frustratingly, it’s not in the tasting. Instead, the Talisman and the Blanc de Blanc have to stand in for Larry’s excellent work. They don’t.

February 24

I’m preparing to taste a bunch of American wines with Stevenson. The wines are all leftovers from the Jefferson Cup Invitational and are almost all from the Midwest – that could be good, that could be bad.

Mostly, it’s just okay. The tasting is disappointing. The wines are good but rarely great. The kind folks at the Missouri Department of Agriculture collected the bottles from the bottles not used but sent for the Jefferson Cup. They didn’t focus upon bringing the best, but then, they weren’t really asked to. I should have asked.

February 23

In a conversation with Tom Stevenson, he disagrees with my complaints about Weinbach. To him, the wines simply were not on the mark in the 90’s but he believes that they are returning to form and great wines are being made there. I hope so.

February 22

A bottle of Trimbach Riesling 1995 occasions a reverie upon the changes in Alsace viticulture. With Zind Humbrecht leading the way, producers in that tradition-bound area are breaking some shackles, and freedom can have some ill effects.

The high alcohol and slightly sweet wines Zind Humbrecht produces are impressive but they are never elegant. I like elegant. Domaine Weinbach has always been my benchmark for elegant Alsace. But no longer. Now the Weinbach wines are high in alcohol and somewhat sweet.

February 21

A dinner at a Sullivans Steak House begins with some pointed jabs. My host insists upon selecting the wine because he’s sure that I’ll “pick something too expensive, you know you guys just buy that esoteric crap.” I’m wounded deeply. Doesn’t he realize that the whole point of being good at this wine thing, is to find the BARGAINS??

Worse yet, he orders Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay and an $80 bottle of Napa Cab. Yeah, way to save money.

February 20

At a little bar in Miami, a friendly waitress serves me a real Mojito, a tasty one, absolutely chockfull of fresh mint leaves. A few weeks later I will search for something similar in the Caribbean – that shouldn’t be hard to find. San Juan’s Parrot Club does me right. But the boat we’re on, a gorgeous and gargantuan ship called the Constellation, serves Mojitos with something like an ounce of bitters and one mint leaf. No. And the boat doesn’t possess a single bottle of good tequila.

February 19

The last day of the COEX conference. I talk to chain restaurant people. They listen. Some of them attend. Most are golfing.

The most interesting things in restaurant wine sales are happening in the underestimated chains. Olive Garden tastes wine at the front door on Saturday night. They offer the greatest number of wines by the glass of any chain; including the big money, steakhouse chains.

February 18

The Del Maguey Mezcals are superlative products. Those who think Mezcal is worm laden or worse need to drink one of Ron Cooper’s world class spirits. He bottles mescal with indelible regional character and one of the greatest spirits in the world, the Mezcal from the wild dwarf Maguey called “Tobala”. People need to know about these spirits; they inarguably prove Mezcal’s importance.

But the market is comatose. There’s a new substandard product called Scorpion that has a scorpion in the bottle.

February 17

Wine is good. Beer can be better, at least at certain times. Beamish remains the most underrated stout, and one deserving of a fresh look by beer lovers.

Lowenbrau has been nearly reprehensible beer for years. It’s now being brewed back in Germany and, while it won’t set your world on fire, at least it’s worth a drink now.

February 16

Wine geeks have a pretty bad reputation. Most of that is deserved. We sniff corks, reject perfectly well-meaning wines, and wax poetic about wines, grapes and places no one has ever heard of.

Beer has a populist reputation that makes it America’s drink of choice. So why do still have beer people interrupt me when I’m pouring a bottle of beer into a glass, to tell me I’m doing it wrong?

In every case this has happened, I’m not doing it wrong. I’m just not doing it the way they think it should be done. At the end of the day, the beer should have a decent head, some released gases and be drinkable – that is, not too much head. I agree, too much head is an oxymoron in many cases, but not with beer.

I was twice corrected while pouring a beer at the Cheers Conference. “Pour it faster, it’s got the nitrogen plug!”, one said. Another told me that I HAD to tip the glass while pouring. Well, that’s preferable, but when your other hand is engaged and you’ve got to pour it now into a glass some idiot bartender is holding straight, you just aim for the other side of the glass and pour hard. It’s tricky, but works.

In each instance, the well-meaning and ill-informed beer specialist was drinking straight out of a bottle of beer. Gimme a break.

February 15

At the Cheers conference the attendees are far less demanding than one might expect. Bear in mind, this is a group that comprises the who’s who of chain restaurant alcohol buyers and the salespeople who love them. They should know good drink from bad, and good service from bad.

I’m sure they do, but it’s a conference and so no one’s very demanding. The beers are all mainstream, and the cocktails all made by banquet bartenders at portable bars. It could be different, but somehow the restaurant industry doesn’t demand anything more than a mediocre drinks experience, in a hotel setting like the Cheers Conference.

I don’t ask for much, but I like a whiff of dry vermouth in my martini. I asked the bartender and he said no.

February 14

Emilio Lustau Pedro Ximinez San Emilin Sherry – there’s all sorts of ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Perhaps you weren’t thinking of Sherry to spark your celebration. But a great tradition in Spain is to take a big scoop of ice cream and carve a little hole in the center. Then pour this kind of extravagantly rich, fig and maple syrup flavored Sherry into the ice cream. Serve to a loved one, although it makes a nice topping for more corporeal edibles as well.

February 13

Far too many producers are sneaking a little Syrah into their Pinot Noirs to boost their color (why do wine writers still think this matters?) and fatten them up. Conversely, there’s something about the Russian Hill Syrah 2001 Estate that makes me think somebody’s blended a little Pinot Noir into it. Not that anyone would, it’s just there’s a freshness, zip and roundness to this wine that’s charming like, say Pinot Noir.

There’s a bit of Viognier in it, but that just lifts the floral notes, maybe it hides a hint of sweetness. But at this price, it’s valid – usually around $20.

February 12

And the last, a real rarity, a bottle of 1853 Port called Reserve King Pedro. It was bottled from barrel in 2001 – do the math. That’s one old Port of the vintage; today we would call it a “colheita.” The first instinct was to consider it an old sweet Madeira because of its obvious oxidative notes.

But closer inspection said otherwise. Not enough acidity, obvious sweet fruit, probably red in origin. Some thought it too dried out. I strongly disagree. Maple syrup, layers after layer of buttered nuts, butterscotch and dried fruits.

February 11

And finally two wines to anger the reader. First, the 1885 Barbeito Verdelho, which was classic nineteenth century Verdelho: sweeter than today’s versions. Nonetheless, the acidity was as pronounced as any Madeira and profoundly complex. Certainly there were some volatile acidity problems as well – this is old Madeira after all. The usual shellac meets floor polish notes. But breath past that; these sorts of things happen when you don’t top barrels up for decades at a time.

Beyond the funny aromas lie other aromas and flavours of tart green apples, tiny sweet madeleines and tangerines, molasses, maple syrup and a finish of caramel apples.

February 10

Domaine Guyon Vosnee Romanee les Brulees was young, powerful and meaty, but never unclean or excessively earthy. It’s the sort of wine to convince others that Burgundy (this was about $50) is a relatively good value, especially when a wine like this can so easily be relied upon to age greacefully. Now if only I had lots more in the basement.

February 9

Another tasting pitted the 1982 Pichon Lalande against its 1985 counterpart. The 1982 has come together so beautifully and, as opposed to some of the other once-lovely 1982’s such as Gruaud Larose, isn’t damaged by excessive Brettanomyces levels.

The 1985 is surprisingly still disjointed. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just that at this stage I would not have guessed that 1985 was in need of more time, even with such a great house as Pichon Lalande.

The arguments over the two finally centred upon the longevity of the 1982. I think it has already begun the long, slow slide into decrepitude. It’s twenty-one years old, it deserves that. And most of us have always believed that 1982 was a relatively early drinking vintage – there’s nothing wrong in that. Rather there’s something wrong with thinking a wine has to last twenty-five years or more.

February 8

Many other pleasant wines: Hamel Syrah 2000 from Sonoma, Stone Hill semi-dry Vignoles 2001, Mission Hill Riesling Eiswein 2001 (British Columbia), and Remelluri 2000 Rioja Crianza all deserve mention.

One of the wines I remain fixated upon was a bottle of Lindeman’s Semillon 1987. Old school Semillon has no oak, is harvested early and is nearly undrinkable for years. I identified it as an Aussie Semillon (not too challenging) but missed the vintage by a decade. That’s what Aussie Semillon is like – green apple, green pear, orange tang and something that reminds me of freshly washed linen.

February 7

The Mondavi has taken more abuse than it deserves, and I won’t heap more on top of them. We tasted a 1985 Reserve Cab that I mistook for Bordeaux of the same vintage. That’s to say there was some cedar and Brett.

The newer wines showed the same fixation with Parker-approved Brett notes. I’m not hell-bent against Brett, but a little goes a long way for my nose.

The annoying irony to my Mondavi host was that the wine I most preferred was the 1999 Reserve Chardonnay. Like, you know, Jim Laube says the wine is undrinkable and the Mondavi staff act as though they might be ready to give up on it at any moment. Please don’t. It’s crisp, lean and far more enjoyable to drink than most other California Chards, at least in this bottling.

February 6

The Master of Wine annual seminars affords fewer opportunities to taste great wine than it ought to, just because we teachers are so damn busy. But some wines stand out – for better or worse. A dinner at the Robert Mondavi Winery is always interesting; the wine and food matchings reflect good ideas and practice.

Not so at a later dinner at Beaulieu Vineyards where a disastrous course had BV Pinot Noir 2000 and a young, tightCorton 2000 matched with smoked salmon and a decidedly lumpy crème (not-so) fraiche. This is no typo. Smoked salmon is so laden with fruit drying entities (smoke, oil, massive umami) and the oil requires additional acid (not tannin!) to cut it. Bring me New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, bring me a Tom Collins, bring me a shot of tequila! Pinot Noir?

February 5

Two delightful Zinfandels from that perennially underrated Dry Creek producer, Dry Creek Vineyards – Beeson Ranch 2001 and Somers Ranch 2001.

Beeson Ranch is my preference. Its oak is more caramel in style, its fruit more blue than black, clove-dominated oak spice is easily trumped by plummy, soft fruit. This is utterly charming.

Somers Ranch has lots of spice, a touch of volatile acidity (not that uncommon in overripe wines such as Zinfandel) and warmth at the end (14.5% alcohol) and a tight and fairly oak-laden and somewhat pinched finish. The virtue is its bright, bright fruit and some curranty acidity.

February 4

A few wines to consider today: but the Kim Crawford Pinot Noir 2003 is more interesting than the rest. It’s screw-cap finished (thank you), fruity (is this just boring carbonic maceration?) and fairly short and simple (too young?). It’s a touch herbal and not very compelling. I really like the Kim Crawford whites, though I don’t think they’re great wines. But they’re well priced and tasty. This is not outside the pack of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, it’s just a typical New Zealand Pinot Noir – simple.

I still believe great Pinot Noir is possible here; it’s just that it’s almost always only a possibility.

February 3

The major props for my group of Spanish wines has to be saved for another product of a big company (like Barbadillo) surprising with high quality. The Freixenet group has a Priorat brand called Morlanda, which is nearly affordable Priorat at $45.

Priorat is a very hot place, with some wonderful soils, amazingly old vines and enough cool evenings to create something that doesn’t taste like Lodi wine. Dried fruits meet spice, and hang out with long, long fruit and spice.
It won’t blow you away with complexity but Morlanda 2000 has balance and that’s hard to do in this climate. In a word, it’s very recommended.

February 2

Amongst a group of new Spanish reds, there were some remarkable wines. Numanthia from Toro hasn’t been one of my favourite wines; it seems far too oaky to be balanced.

But the 2000 has me eating my words. It’s pretty delicious.

And Vina Mayor Reserva from Ribera del Duero wasn’t particularly exciting from the 1997 vintage – but then a lot of 97’s were pretty boring. The 1998 makes a virtue of Vina Mayor’s mildness; the nose is cedary like a soft Bordeaux, round and fruit-laden, but the tart finish possible in Ribera del Duero isn’t left behind just because it’s a ripe year.

February 1

I was conducting some Spanish wine seminars (including a Sherry seminar) and I can’t help but remark upon several of the wines. Barbadillo isn’t one of the Sherry houses the geeks love to praise, but the Principe Amontillado is genuine Amontillado, an all too rare animal.

The Principe is simply fascinating: rich like maple syrup, nutty like pecan pie, but as dry as a pile of orange zest.