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Friday, April 26, 2013

Difficult Crop

I was told the other day that this was not a particularly exciting year for the NFL draft, which took place yesterday.  I asked why this was the case, and the answer was that the pool of players to choose from just didn’t seem so exciting.  I replied that perhaps a surprise would come from either the pool of first round draft picks, or perhaps someone picked much later on would have the best first season of all the young men entering the NFL.

Sometimes a particular year produces a bad crop.  The weather in the growing season may not have been conducive, or anything else could have affected the outcome of the quality of the grapes picked at harvest time.  When this happens, it can affect one region, or it can affect many regions.  The result could be a very limited yield and therefore very high prices on a small amount of wine, or it can result in wines of a lesser quality than normal.  Either way it can be disappointing, due to there being not much wine available that vintage (and consequently wines being far from affordable), or undesirable wine from our favorite regions.

We’re all well aware of the downside of a bad crop.  But what about the upside?  I think the upside is that there can be some surprises, a diamond in the rough, or perhaps an opportunity to look to other regions that may have had a better crop - perhaps places from which we don’t normally drink the wine, for no particular reason except that we’re so used to drinking those from our favorite regions, that we forget to look to other places.  Well, a bad crop in some regions might be the best excuse to drink wines from somewhere else.  We might even find some new favorites.

I’ve been hearing quite a bit about rough vintages lately, for a few reasons.  One reason is that in France, some bad weather brought about some lesser vintages and some very limited yields, even in places that normally have lovely and often predictable weather (e.g., Provence - the 2012 vintage was down about 14-20% across the region, which poses a problem for rosé consumption).

The other reason is - well, I’ve been asked for my ID enough times this year that I suppose I have nothing to be ashamed of, so it’s safe to tell you - I’m turning 30 this coming November, and I’m looking for as many 1983 bottles as I can find.  As you may know, 1983 wasn’t the best vintage, and aside from prices, 1983 bottles that are available and drinkable in 2013 are very difficult to find.  So far, I’ve found two, perhaps a third, but I’d like to find more than that.  I’ve been keeping my age a secret from just about everyone but the importance of finding 1983 bottles has trumped my vanity.  And while snooping around for the wines, I’ve realized just how difficult a vintage it was.  But what might happen is that I may find some bottles from regions I never really thought about, and those might make up some of my choices this November.  And that could be part of the upside of a difficult vintage in my birth year.

One thing is for certain - difficult crops make us appreciate a great vintage all the more.

Friday, April 19, 2013

But Since When Does Anyone Have a Clue About What They Want?

ne of my favorite parts of working in the wine industry is getting to hear about what people think of the wines - what they enjoy, what’s a mystery still, and what’s trendy.  Talking with store managers, restaurateurs, and people in the wholesale end of the industry fascinates me when we compare observations.  Pouring tastings that are attended by the public is often the most interesting for me.

I’m amazed when I hear things like, “that doesn’t taste like Pinot Noir, it’s so light,” “why is it red if it says Sancerre,” and “I don’t drink Chardonnay but I like Chablis.”  I know that not everyone has the time or inclination to learn more about wine, but I do try to take the time to understand things in other fields just so I know what I’m saying and how to form an opinion and preferences about it.  And it’s a good idea to take the time to learn more about what we think we like and dislike, and why.

My favorite line from Bruce Almighty is, “but since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?”

And it’s true.  Many of us, probably all of us actually, don’t really know what it is that we want, in many parts of our lives.  But isn’t it worth trying to find out?  Isn’t it worth knowing why we tend toward certain things and repel other things?

Just like people, wines are all individuals.  No two of them are the same.  As I’ve explained in prior posts, we see a great deal of variation in wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  A Pinot Noir can be so light and bright (Burgundian style) or it can be rich and deep and smoky (California style).  A Chardonnay can be crisp and lemony and almost tart, or it can be creamy, buttery, and reflect almost baked fruit characteristics.  Do you have a preference?  I know I have preferences!  But we need to keep on tasting in order to find out what we like best, before just saying outright, “I don’t like Chardonnay” or “I love Pinot Noir.”  What style do you like?

I did enjoy the movie Sideways, but I was pretty annoyed when I realized that people were going around saying they love Pinot Noir just because Sideways told them to do that.  (And for the record, most of the Pinot Noir shown in Sideways was not made in the traditional Burgundian style - I recently tasted Sea Smoke, which was shown in the movie, and I can assure you I prefer something Burgundian in the same price range.)  I can also assure you that another line from that movie caused the sales of Merlot to plummet, and undoubtedly the people who knocked Merlot after seeing the movie never actually tasted a good Pomerol or Saint-Emilion.

My point is, the best way to learn is to keep on tasting.  If it sounds like a fun learning experiment, it is!  It’s how I did most of my learning.  Yes, I’ve read up on lots of grapes, regions, production methods, etc., but tasting is how most learning is done, when it comes to wine.  And there’s no better way to find out what we like best.  That’s how we find out what we really want in a wine.  Pouring tastings are fun for me for that reason - I love it when someone tastes something they’ve never had before and realize that they connect well with it, they want to know more about it, and ultimately leave with a bottle of it.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Not So Obvious

I’m the kind of person who appreciates certainty and security to an extent - but sometimes I need to change it up - that’s what keeps things exciting and entertaining and interesting.  What fun is there in the obvious?  Not much, I’m afraid.  But there are times for the expected, and times for the unexpected.

Madiran, made from Tannat, with duck
Recently I was pouring a tasting.  Usually I enjoy pouring tastings very much because I love having the opportunity to help people find the wines that are best suited to their preferences, and even help them branch out and find new things to enjoy, perhaps things they’ve never considered before.  I love getting to talk about wine with lots of people.  At a recent tasting, one of the featured wines was a Pinotage from South Africa.  I’ve never been a great lover of Pinotage, but this one was pretty easy on the smoky hickory notes and I felt would be a great wine in the summer when grilling meats.  A man who was tasting the wine (who was already getting on my nerves for a number of reasons) was on the fence about the Pinotage, and he asked me what it would pair with.  I thought for a moment, and said, “well, there’s barbecue...” and before I could say anything else, he retorted, “ASIDE FROM THE OBVIOUS?!”

For the record, I rarely consider food and wine pairings to be obvious.  And since he had never even heard of Pinotage, I doubt he knew it was “obvious” - one thing was obvious to me, however - this man was obnoxious and I pitied his wife for “obvious” reasons.

Maybe the idea of pairing a very rich smoky wine with barbecued meats seemed like a “common sense” sort of pairing, but to me, pairing is not obvious.  It will never be obvious.  Why?  Because sometimes there can be a marriage of aromas, flavors, and textures that we had never before considered, and yet after trying it, we wonder why we hadn’t thought of it before.  We hadn’t thought of it because it isn’t obvious.

While we can be reasonably certain that many white wines will pair nicely with fish, what about some reds?  One of my recent favorites is California Pinot Noir with salmon, but that’s because the salmon is crusted with almonds and herbs and drizzled with raspberry sauce.  (And a Cru Beaujolais seems to work quite nicely with grilled fish dishes as well - don’t even think about that Beaujolais Nouveau.  Try a Villages or Cru, and try it with a light grilled fish dish with fresh vegetables or tomatoes - it’s a fantastic pairing!)  And for years I had been choosing Syrah based wines to pair with duck, until one day at Gilt in Manhattan I tried a Barbaresco with the duck - wow!  And if you haven’t tried Madiran with duck, what are you waiting for?!

Petite Arvine and Erbaluce with 7 Fishes
This Easter (see my last post) we opted for a Viognier, Gigondas, and Saint-Joseph.  I happen to love Rhone wines with lamb for their earthiness, spice, and fruit, and there’s something about the texture of a Rhone wine that seems to bring lamb dishes over the top.  But for some people, it’s Bordeaux or bust, when it comes to lamb.  And for Thanksgiving, every year we have Riesling from Alsace and red Burgundy.  But I hear about so many other wines people choose - Chardonnay, Zinfandel, American Pinot Noir, even Chianti.  And every Christmas Eve we have Italian whites with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and Italian reds with lasagne and roasted meats on Christmas Day.  I’ve picked Erbaluce di Caluso, Petite Arvine, Vermentino, Muller-Thurgau, Dolcetto, Montepulciano, and Nebbiolo in the past couple of years.  Everyone has something else they like to pair with Christmas dinner.

I ask you - while the selections may make perfect sense, what’s so obvious about it?  Nothing at all.

So, Mr. Know-It-All who attends a complimentary tasting, don’t go telling me that you don’t know the grape and that you didn’t know they produced wine in that region, and then go on to inform me that my suggested pairing is “obvious” - if it’s so obvious, why are you even asking?  I’ll be happy to help you - in fact, most of us in the industry are happy to help - that’s why we’re in the industry.  But in my opinion, if there’s anything about wine that’s obvious, it’s that nothing is obvious, and we can keep on learning, and keep on making it exciting.

Friday, April 5, 2013


Rhone wines

It wouldn’t be Easter Sunday without lamb for dinner, and for me, an ideal pairing with lamb is a good red from Rhone.  And I do love a good Rhone, be it red or white, so the wines chosen for Easter dinner were all from Rhone - a Viognier, a Gigondas, and a Saint-Joseph.

Appetizer - quiche
For the floral, exotic, aromatic Viognier, quite a beautiful wine, I created a fun appetizer that was very easy to make but the many flavors and textures coming together made it appear complex.  I opted for a quiche, which I made with brie, caramelized granny smith apples, fresh watercress, and almonds, with slices of crisp fresh granny smith, lemon zest, and a drizzle of local wildflower honey.  The pairing with the Viognier was perfect and that’s a dish and pairing I’d recreate in a heartbeat.

The lamb was slow roasted with herbs and vegetables (carrots, onions, and zucchini), with haricot vert and my sister’s red potato dish.  Earthy and so flavorful, it was a perfect combination of dishes for a satisfying Easter dinner, and the fullness and earthiness was reflected in the Gigondas and Saint-Joseph.  There’s something about Rhone reds that I find very appealing - I think it’s the balance of fruit, spice, and so much expression of earth that makes the wines so wonderful.  (And one other thing I love about Rhone - the prices still seem to be within reach, generally speaking, making them usually more affordable than their counterparts in Bordeaux and Burgundy.)

Dessert was something fun of course - I made molten chocolate cupcakes topped with melted chocolate and salted peanuts, with raspberry, and Mom made her homemade vanilla ice cream.  Needless to say, we were all quite full by the end of dinner!