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Monday, July 30, 2012

Don’t Settle

I’m late posting my blog entry today as I had an appointment that didn’t turn out as planned.  My boss, one of the most enthusiastic, energetic, and knowledgeable people I’ve met in the wine industry, had set up an early morning appointment for us at a brand new wine shop for today.
We arrived and showed the man our list.  The man responded that he only wants inexpensive, big brand wines right now, and that he doesn’t really buy French, except he’d consider the “cheap kind of Beaujolais” (that’s the part where I died a little on the inside), and he wanted to know why ours are on the pricey side, to which my boss replied, “that’s because it’s Cru.”
It was an unfortunate appointment but another example of narrow-mindedness and ignorance.  He claimed his only reason for not knowing what was in our list or understanding the products is that he’s been out of the wine business for a few years.  Really?
I’m going to guess it’s because lots of people are too lazy to explore what’s really out there, take chances on items with which they’re unfamiliar, and they figure the big brands are a safe bet.  I’d like to know what constitutes “safe,” since many of the bigger brands are turning out a product of poorer and poorer quality with each passing vintage, due to lack of attention to detail, over-oaking, and indifference that mirrors the indifference of many consumers.  And I think that’s sad.
One could make the argument that those wine drinkers who have spent years honing the skills of their noses and palates deserve better than that, a better selection, more knowledgeable staff at shops and restaurants, better quality wines, etc.  But the great Joe DiMaggio once said that, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time.  I owe him my best.”  It’s also the novice that deserves to see the best, because that novice’s taste for good wine, good baseball, good anything, begins somewhere.  And I believe that novice wine drinkers deserve the best of what’s out there as well.  Why should they have to experience wine in the early stages in the form of poorly made, mass produced products?
I’m not saying a shop or restaurant has to order First Growth Bordeaux, or very off-beat wines made from strange grapes from unknown regions, or present a novice wine drinker with a Piemonte selection with several decades of bottle aging (and then the bill).  All I’m saying is that no one has to settle for something sub-par.  Chances are, they’d be overpaying for the mass-produced wines, and getting a pretty good deal on something else - something more exciting and probably quite good quality.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Italian Geek Wines

“Geek wines” are by far the most fascinating to me.  For me, geek wines are the kinds that are made from grapes we don’t usually hear about, or come from lesser known regions.
French wine laws place great importance on region, and we can see by most French labels that they name the region only, expecting the wine drinker to know which grapes will make up the wine, based upon knowing the region where the wine is produced.  In my opinion, however, Italian wines are the most region-centric, in that there are so many wines being made of grapes that are grown only in the most remote regions and areas of Italy - and most of those grapes are unknown to the rest of the world.  To me, those are really geek wines.
In the past year, i’ve gotten to try some fascinating whites from Italy (I do realize that aside from Pinot Grigio, most people think of Chianti as the Italian wine) - Erbaluce di Caluso from Piemonte, Petite Arvine and Prie Blanc from Valle d’Aosta, Insolia, Catarratto, and Grecanico from Sicily to name a few.  Now I’m selling Italian wines from the book I represent, and some of the whites include Trebbiano and Pecorino from Abruzzo, and Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, Fiano de Avellino, and Coda di Volpe from Campagna.  Some interesting reds I also sell are Aglianico from Campagna and Brachetto from Piemonte.  The challenge in selling wines like that - the kind few Americans have heard of - is that if the consumers are unaware of the wine, they might not buy it, so if the shops and restaurants feel perhaps they can’t move the cases of off-beat wines, they might not take the risk and buy them from a distributor.
What’s so great about the off-beat Italian wines is that they aren’t produced anywhere but those small, specific regions, made with great attention to detail and allowed to express their own identity, and are still relatively inexpensive due to unpopularity.  They’re worth trying and Italian wines are known to be very food friendly, and I think it’s exciting to try something uncommon and form my own opinion about it before it becomes popular.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Entertaining - The Wine Matters!

Have you been to an event where absolutely no attention was given to the wine selections, and you either pour yourself a glass and regret it, or decide you’d rather not take the risk on the bottle you see?  People spend so much time (and often money as well) on the food, but forget completely about the wine.

I do understand that not everyone has wine at the top of their priorities list.  But that doesn’t mean that poor quality wines should be the default selections.  There are lots of wines at a very reasonable price available, many of which are good quality, food friendly, and ideal for parties.

I used to write monthly for a wedding planning site, and my most common theme was that it doesn’t take too much effort or money to choose good quality wines for an event.  If you’re putting effort into making an event special, there’s no sense in choosing wines that you and your guests won’t enjoy.  And if you think the guests won’t notice - think again.  You might consider an inexpensive yet well known and dependable producer, or you might consider an off-beat wine if you and your guests have a curious palate.  Either way, you’ll be saving, but you won’t be pouring poor quality wines.

If, while cleaning up after the event, you notice the bottles are barely touched and all of the water bottles are empty, it’s time to think about choosing better wines (at a similar price).  The wine should be just as enjoyable as the food - believe me, your guests will notice.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Anything But Chardonnay? Are You Sure?

I’m sure at least some of us have heard of “ABC” wine drinkers - “Anything But Chardonnay.”  It’s just another one of those things I hear often that leaves me scratching my head.  And in my opinion, when a person says something like that, he or she is sort of saying, “yes, I’m really that narrow minded.”
I know I’ve written on the problem of wine generalizations before, but that one really gets to me, and often.  Aside from the fact that I really love a properly made Chardonnay, I’m of the belief that Chardonnay has so many faces these days based upon where it’s made, how much oak contact, etc., that it’s impossible to justify such a statement as, “I’ll drink anything but Chardonnay.”
I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes we find a grape that doesn’t seem to suit our palate.  It’s happened to me - Gamay is one of those grapes with which I don’t often connect.  But over the past year, I’ve tasted some nicely made Beaujolais at the Villages and Cru levels that have left a very good impression with me.  Cabernet Franc and its green bell pepper characteristics has been a problem for me for a long time, and I hadn’t really found any that I could enjoy.  And then I found one that worked for me.
It’s just plain silly to shut out all possibilities of ever enjoying a Chardonnay, just because of some that weren’t right for a person’s palate.  Yes, many New World Chardonnays are overoaked, heavy, and taste like drinking apple pie.  I certainly understand how that can be quite unappealing.  But Chardonnay is made in so many different styles, and when made properly, Chardonnay can be so expressive, lovely, and enjoyable.  It’s why some of the best and most important white wines in the world are in fact made from Chardonnay.
And before saying you drink Champagne but not Chardonnay, please stop and think first - often, Champagne is made from Chardonnay, particularly blanc de blancs.
It’s all a matter of finding the Chardonnay, or anything else, that’s right for you.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Petite Sirah

I have a pet peeve about a particular grape - Petite Sirah.  It’s nothing against the grape; in fact I like wines made from Petite Sirah.  The issue I have is that since “Sirah” and “Syrah” sound the same, most people think they are the same.  And the result is a mistake about the grape’s identity and a mistake in thinking that wines made from Petite Sirah are just a “smaller” version of Syrah based wines.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Stag’s Leap Petite Sirah (Napa)

Yes, Syrah is believed to be a parent grape of Petite Sirah.  But Petite Sirah is known as Durif, and if we call it Durif, it makes it easier to remember that it is in fact not Syrah.  So what makes it petite?  It’s certainly not a petite wine - it’s very dark purple in color with a round feel, lots of fruit and spice, and plenty of tannin.  It’s petite because the grapes of Durif are quite small, making for a higher ratio of skin to juice, which makes a bigger wine.  So the grape is petite, not the wine.

Old Parcel Petit Sirah (Lodi)

The richness and characteristics and texture of Petite Sirah make it an ideal pairing for bigger dishes from the grill and stews, so it’s a good pick all year round.  It has great aging capability and makes a good blending grape as well as standing alone.  And when tasting a Petite Sirah, it’s worth noting just how different it is from Syrah.

Jam Cellars Petite Sirah/Petit Verdot blend (California)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Back to Basics - Burgundy

I’m sure I’ve covered this topic before, to some extent, but after showing some lovely Burgundies this week, I had to touch on it again.
So many people claim they don’t like Chardonnay.  Why?  It’s too heavy; it’s too oaky; it tastes like drinking apple pie.  I do understand - but that’s because they’ve only been drinking mass produced Chardonnay from some of the producers in the United States that turn out a Chardonnay that shows excessive oak, over-concentrated fruit, too much baking spice, and a fat, gooey texture.
And lots of people claim they love Pinot Noir - but they’re not experiencing Pinot Noir as the grape was intended.  They’re experiencing a high alcohol, overly smoky, almost jammy red wine that’s encroaching on Zinfandel territory.
I’m a firm believer in taking things back to basics when trying to get a better understanding of something - anything.  Taking Chardonnay and Pinot Noir back to their roots means learning their identity - and to do that, we need to taste Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy.  If we spend time with both red and white Burgundies, we find expressive, elegant, clean, terroir-driven wines, with identities that speak for themselves and set themselves apart from everything else.  That’s why it’s so important to know where a Burgundy comes from in terms of village, vineyard, etc. - and we should be able to perceive that sense of place and identity when experiencing the wine, via the appearance, aroma, flavors, and texture.  When producing a wine with extra bold characteristics and oak that masks the identity of the wine, we miss the point of the wine itself.  Burgundies are among the most expressive wines produced.  And after tasting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy as opposed to anywhere else, a wine drinker can gain a new appreciation and understanding of the grapes and region.  There’s nothing wrong with drinking Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from other parts of the world, but to get a proper understanding of both grapes before making a judgment about them based on an inaccurate example of them, we’ve got to look to Burgundy.

Monday, July 9, 2012

California Wine for the Weekend - Spottswoode and Stag’s Leap

As I’ve mentioned before, while I generally prefer Old World style wines, with lower alcohol content, less concentrated fruit, softer tannin, brighter acidity, and more expression of terroir, sometimes I get the crave for bigger, bolder New World wines.
This weekend I had two fantastic examples of California wine - one white and one red.
The 2010 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc, made of grapes from both Napa and Somona, is a delicious white perfect for summer months.  It’s a pale straw color with characteristics of citrus, particularly mandarin orange, peach, some grass, and mineral, and very clean and lovely with bright acidity and a nice finish.  I had never tasted any wine from Spottswoode before and was very impressed.

2010 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc

The other California wine was the 2006 Napa Petite Sirah from the perennially dependable Stag’s Leap.  After several years in the bottle, it’s still quite youthful with its deep purple color and still pinkish rim.  It shows characteristics of dark fruit, stewed berry, plum, some wild fruit, purple blossoms, bitter chocolate, smooth spices, oak, and warm earth.  It has nice acidity and the tannins are still quite firm and present.  The wine is delicious and fortunately it’s so easy to find in shops.

2006 Stag’s Leap Petite Sirah

Friday, July 6, 2012

2011 Domaine Saint-Lannes Blanc Cotes de Gascogne

At the Guild of Sommeliers master class on South West France that I attended last year, we got to taste wines made of grapes that we’re not very familiar with.  Tannat was the star among the reds, but the whites offered some fascinating aromas and flavors as well - wines made from Manseng, Corbu, and others.  Eventually I’d like to find another wine from Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh.
Recently I tasted another white from Sud-Ouest, the 2011 Domaine Saint-Lannes Blanc Cotes de Gascogne - it’s a blend of Colombard and Gros Manseng.  It’s a very pale color and shows characteristics of lots of fruit, mostly citrus, white peach, kiwi, and a hint of lychee and other tropical fruit.  The wine has nice acidity, a very clean and fresh feel and a nice finish.  It’s perfect for this warm weather and it’s a fun alternative to the usual whites.

Wines from Sud-Ouest continue to fascinate me - they’re mysterious and enticing with their big aromas and funky earthiness.  And this week I was fortunate enough to come upon a Bergerac, yet another Fronton, plus a Buzet and the elusive Irouleguy - so there will be more Sud-Ouest reviews to come.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Grows Together, Goes Together - Common Sense?

In the United States, we like to change it up and eat foods from just about everywhere - Italian, French, Spanish, Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, and the classic dishes of our own country as well.  American dishes are often specialties of certain parts of the country, but we don’t really use the “grows together, goes together” guideline for pairing, as they would in other parts of the world.  For people living elsewhere, certain pairings, particularly those native to their regions, seem like common sense.  For us, it isn’t so simple.
That’s why I spend almost as much time researching foods and recipes as I do researching grape types and wine producing regions.  If we learn where a particular food, ingredient, or recipe has its origins, we can then find the proper pairing, and often, the wines produced in the region where the food is produced or the recipe originates are a perfect match.  This is particularly evident with wine and cheese pairing.  Find out where the cheese is produced - then find out which wines are produced in that area.  For example, chevre, or fresh goat cheese, is produced mainly in France’s Loire Valley.  Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley is a perfect pairing with fresh goat cheese, so look for labels that read “Sancerre,” “Pouilly-Fume,” or “Menetou-Salon” - those are where good French Sauvignon Blanc is mainly produced.  Munster cheese is mainly produced in the Alsace region.  The classic pairing?  Gewurztraminer, also from Alsace.

Pouilly-Fume - Sauvignon Blanc from Loire Valley

Pairings can get a bit more challenging when a dish has many ingredients, particularly bolder flavors - but with some research on the origins of the dish, we can simplify the pairing process.  Cassoulet, for example, is a dish from southern France.  Earthy reds with bolder fruit and spice and some funky earthiness are found in southern French wine regions - Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Sud-Ouest reds are often perfect pairings with a dish like cassoulet.

Cahors - Malbec from Sud-Ouest

It takes a bit of research to find the perfect pairing, but it’s worth it - when a food and wine are correctly paired, the sensation is better than what we’d perceive with just the food or the wine on its own.  And if we use the “grows together, goes together” guideline when doing our research, it really is common sense.