Sunday, April 28, 2013

Stupefying Pinot Noir

I’m convinced Pinot Noir is evil.

As seductive as a piece of warm cherry pie, but much more dangerous.

Why do I love it so?  No rational being will put up with the frustration of it.  Face it—it’s hard to find great tasting Pinot Noir.  So many versions have the taste of pickling spices, or they’ve been darkened and plumped up to resemble Syrah more than Gevrey-Chambertin.  You can spend a lot of money searching for the right one; obsession takes over from mere curiosity, and you may find yourself broken and alone, folded up on a curb in some desolate town wondering what might have been.  The wrong lover does that to you.  So does the wrong Pinot Noir. 
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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Finding Happiness

A networking colleague of mine came into The Wine Country this past week and looked me square in the eye.

"O.K., Randy, what's a good wine to go with Thai food?" I hesitated a second because no good wines should go with Thai food.

"Thai food is tough on wine because of the sweetness in some dishes and especially because of the heat of all those red peppers," I answered. "Some people like Riesling."

I might as well have recommended putrified fish judging by the look on his face.

"No, it has to be red wine," he said.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Peak Season for Sauvignon Blanc

Wine represents different things to different people. In a wine store, we learn a lot about what motivates people to buy certain wines. My job, as I see it, is to try my best to make you happy with your purchase, no matter your taste or motive in buying it.
But I also have a mission to try to get our customers to stretch out a bit, to experience wines they wouldn't normally try in ways they wouldn't normally ponder. The reason is simple: variety is not only the spice of life, it is an antidote to boredom. Drinking the same thing over and over is as dull to me as hearing the same joke over and over. Pretty soon you lose interest, not because the wine or joke wasn't good to begin with, but because you simply got tired of it. What kind of businessman would I be if I let my customers get tired of my products? That's why it's in both our interests to try new things, discover new tastes and explore new ways of enjoying wine.
Nature gives us a key to help us with wine appreciation. As gardeners know all too well, there are peak seasons for fruits and vegetables--and they are not found in the supermarket, but in the taste of fresh-picked produce at the time of perfect ripeness. Cucumbers and lettuces are sweeter, tomatoes burst with flavor, melons and strawberries--which have lost all their flavor in grocery store bins--are intensely flavored once again when they are plucked from the ground or the vine or the tree.
I couldn't help think of this last Saturday when Samantha Dugan staged a white wine tasting I wish all of you could have attended. The theme was "Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire Valley." The lineup included brilliant wines from well known and not-so-well-known Sauvignon Blanc regions two hours southwest of Paris: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Menetou Salon, Quincy and Valencay, and I was surprised at how good, and varied, these crisp, minerally wines were from the 2011 and 2012 vintages. Samantha had included several of our customers' favorite producers like Sylvain Bailly, Didier Dagueneau, Regis Minet, Vieux Pruniers and Henry Pelle--but I was astonished at how good her newer selections were from Fouassier, Le Claux Delorme and Montintin.
Fouassier 1 Montintin-2011-Sancerre-Loire Didier-Dagueneau-2009-Blanc-Fume-de-Pouilly-SilexSylvain-Bailly-2010-Quincy-Beaucharme
There is, of course, another explanation why these wines tasted so good, and it relates to the concept of seasonality. It's simply this: I typically lose interest in these wines in the fall and winter when my tastes crave heavier white and red wines. Now that the signs of spring are all around us, these wines seem so fresh-tasting and right. It's like discovering you like fresh fruit all over again when you bite into a just-picked ripe peach, for example. In the spring you put away your winter sweaters and you put aside your winter wines. The season tells you it is time to renew acquaintances with some old friends you discover you dearly missed. And now you know why they were wasn't the right time before, and now it is.
The same thing happens when the 2012 roses are wheeled in our back door and just as quickly move out our front door. Each year more and more of our customers are ready for spring and summer wines when they arrive. They may still love their heavy reds, but they're not eating rich stews and roasts in the summer, so they gravitate toward more seasonally inviting wines. And if they are barbecuing steaks on the grill, they are reaching for their lower alcohol reds from Chinon and Bourgeuil and Beaujolais, perhaps with a light chill on them so they are cellar-cool to the tongue.
Spring Wines grill_outdoor
Last night a young friend confided she preferred Sauvignon Blancs with an oaky taste--a style more in line with the prestige chateaux of Bordeaux than the vignerons of the Loire. I don't want to dicourage her from drinking what makes her happy, but I predict there will come a day--maybe not this year, or even five years from now--when the heavier, oakier whites she prefers now will lose interest for her.
And that will, in all likelihood, be in the spring.
Spring Wines 1

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Only Half of the Story

This has been a busy couple of weeks for me at The Wine Country. The biggest news is after a year and a half of planning, our new website is finally live at .
Web page
Other things have been percolating, too, not the least of which was putting together our April newsletter, which should be posted online April 1, entertaining my business seminar classmates at a wrap party at the store Wednesday, making a powerpoint presentation on Friday introducing our store to the Tippers, a networking group I belong to, and squeezing in a visit to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, something I haven't done in well over a decade. I'll tell you more about this short, but amazing trip at a later date.

Through it all are the day-to-day demands of running a large wine store, a loveable task that seems to consume more and more of my time, energy and creative thought. And along the way I get to see first hand evidence that we are right about wine and most of the wine press is full of it.
Wine Writer
Exhibit A: The 100 Point System. This past week someone asked me what I thought of the "Point" system of evaluating wine. My answer: "I hate it. It's a fraud. Aside from the fact that there is nothing "systematic" about it, what does a 92 score really tell you about a wine? It tastes good with osso bucco?"
Exhibit B: Tasting Notes. While pouring breakfast Prosecco and Bellini Mix at my Tippers event, a member pulled at my sleeve and asked a question I'd heard many times before. "I'll read a description of a wine that says 'cedar' and 'leather' and 'tar' and 'Asian pear', but it tastes like wine to me. What do you think? My reply: "It's mostly horseshit. Of course it tastes like wine. Those descriptions are meaningful only to the guy writing it. Nobody else smells the same things, or tastes the same things. If anything, they only confuse people. They are weak attempts to describe the indescribable."
Wine Notes
Exhibit C: Where the rubber hits the road. Nearly all wine evaluation is conducted in a laboratory-like setting: a row of glasses set up with wines in them, one-by-one swirled and sniffed and tasted, then notes jotted down on a pad, and on to the next flight of wines. As tannin cakes up in the mouth, or one's taste buds get numbed from acid and alcohol, the perception of the next wine is affected by the wine(s) that went before. We see it all the time, especially while we set up for every tasting, trying to determine the proper order in which to present our wines in their best light. Not only will one's evaluation be skewed toward bolder, more assertive wines as time goes by, balance and subtlety, two essential qualities in fine wine, go right out the window. And even in the most perfect tasting setting, the results only tell half the story of a wine.
Wine Judging
The fact is some wines are made to blossom by themselves, but many more need the addition of the right foods to bring out the truth in a wine. European wines, for the most part, reflect the latter while the vast majority of California and other "New World" wines are created to be independent of food.

Three examples of wine changing people's minds occurred recently, and I always love to see the lightbulb going on when these wine-loving folks discover something they never experienced before.
The first involved Gunderloch's 2010 Jean Babtiste Riesling Kabinett, a wine currently selling for $5 less than the regular price. Someone came to me asking for a recommendation for Easter ham. When I suggested German Riesling there was an immediate negative reaction, a shudder in fact, at the thought of a "sweet" wine desecrating their dinner table. This was a personal challenge for me, because good German Riesling, like no other, has the capacity to take a person on a journey and back all in one sip. The first impression is fruity sweetness, of course, but the acidity in the wine makes itself known by the firmness in the wine's texture and in the tangy-tart finish, a taste not unlike a Loire Sauvignon Blanc like Sancerre. The next sip will be sweet and the circle begins anew.
"See, it doesn't just lay there, it performs the way you want fresh fruit to perform, combining fruit flavor with gentle sweetness and a tangy snap at the end," I said. Reward, tartness, then reward again. It's a genius varietal, really. And that's only half of the story. When drinking slightly sweet German Riesling with a salty dish like ham, much of the taste of the acidity will be absorbed by the dish and it opens the floodgates of fruitiness, amplified like nothing you can imagine by drinking the wine alone. It gives pleasure by itself, but it amazes when matched with the right food.

The second eye-opening event happened at my wrap party when a couple colleages sipped a south-of-France dry rose for the first time. I could sense both tasters were wary of the taste--it didn't have the pleasant fruitiness of the wine that went before, and there was a built-in rawness to the flavor that Languedoc and Provence roses often possess. I told both of them to nibble on a piece of salami, then taste the wine again. After doing so, their eyes went wide as each exclaimed, "It completely changes the wine! The fruit is amazing! It's delicious! I never would have known!" Tasting the wine alone was only half of the story. The wine was meant to be fruity, but it needed the right food to release its fruit.
Finally, the third example occurred at dinner last night as Dale and I entertained Brian and Yolanda Flook. Brian, a thirty-year wine lover, had never set eyes on the rare 2011 Domaine Tempier Bandol Blanc, even though he was very familiar with the Provence estate's great red wines and their greatest-of-all roses. His first response, before he even tasted the wine, was pretty typical of American wine drinkers: "What's in it?"
Bandol Blanc
"If I told you, would it matter one bit? If I said Clairette, or Ugni Blanc, or Bourboulenc or Marsanne would you appreciate this wine any more? 'Ah yes, I love a good Clairette in the springtime!' You don't need to know any of that shit. What you need to do is discover the flavor of white Bandol, and drink it with dinner."

Brian wasn't completely convinced...he really wanted to know what was in it, and I didn't know all the varieties for sure ("I think there's Ugni, Bourboulenc and Marsanne in there..."). But the question disappeared completely once he inhaled the pretty floral aroma and sipped the crisp, exotic wine.
"Wow! I can't believe how delicious this wine is! he exclaimed. Tempier is the king!"

I have to admit that just prior to extracting the Tempier cork, we were drinking south-of-France rose while eating flatbread arugula pizzas drizzled with olive oil. And now we were about to chow down on a green salad made with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and shallots. The Bandol Blanc got even more delicious, its fruit transforming into a melon-like flavor, its acid nearly imperceptible. The Mediterranean-style food took an impressive wine and made it even more impressive.

Context is so important when dealing with wine. Food, other wines, your company, the seasonal temperature and air can change wine for the better and for the worse. How do you put a numbered score on that? Since wine is not consumed in a lab setting, but in real life, with real people, in changing situations, a score is useless. Guesses about what to eat with a wine are next to useless. Only experience and personal preference really matter.
With the emphasis on experience.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Little Curiosity, Please?

In my experience, most people are creatures of habit, appearing to be rather timid when it comes to new foods and beverages.
Some people who buy wine fit into this category, but most of the customers we meet in our store do not. In fact, they love to explore and engage in the vast variety wine offers. They are the tasters, the vinous versions of restaurant grazers. They are all about experience and discovery.

We host at least three wine tastings per week at The Wine Country. Attendees range from novices to experienced tasters, and everyone samples interesting wines they’ve never experienced before, and they learn something along the way.

I’d say the connecting tissue between all of them—and all of us who work at The Wine Country—is our collective curiosity: the curiosity about new aromas and tastes, wines we’ve never sampled, wines from cultures we want to know more about, and the curiosity to simply expand one’s appreciation of wine.
Occasionally I’m asked to pour wine for a fund-raising event. The dynamics are quite different at public tastings of this sort. The level of expertise in wine is similarly varied, but unlike a wine store tasting where everyone is there for wine, the main motivation for those at a charity event is supporting the cause. Therefore, the overall wine curiosity factor isn’t quite as apparent.

For example, there are some tasters who come up to the table—whether we’re pouring Italian or German or Spanish wine—and ask for “a good Merlot” or “your best Chardonnay.” Most are not interested in trying all, or even a few of the wines at the table, or learning anything new about wine, but only in those wines they are most familiar with.

That’s how I get declarations like “Red only—I don’t drink white wines,” and its counterpart. At one fund-raiser recently, a woman wasn’t interested in anything on the table unless it was Chardonnay. God forbid a drop of Pinot Gris or Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc or Soave should touch her lips. Heaven help us if she found something new to like.
Those still avoiding south-of-France dry rosé continue to astound me, especially in a coastal community like Long Beach where our climate screams for cool, light, crisp and fresh-tasting wines. Pink-o-phobia, perhaps?

I spoke with a lady yesterday at the shop who told me she doesn’t drink white wine anymore, yet white wine was all she used to drink. Now she likes big red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. But this particular woman also told me she’d try white wines again because they are nice with lighter foods and agreed with me they provide better refreshment in warmer months than heavy reds. She had her preferences, but she was open to new ideas.
This is what I love about wine people! We all have our favorites—hell, I bounce around, settle on something I like, drink a lot of it for awhile, then search around for something different. I can’t imagine eating the same dish every night of my life—why would I drink the same beverage every night?

My nephew once complained to his mother when she substituted a different dish for an old favorite side dish at a Thanksgiving dinner. “Why change it when it is so good?”
The answer is one I’d give to someone always drinking the same wine.

“So you won’t grow tired of it.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Challenge

About a week ago my colleague Samantha Dugan asked a simple wine question in her blog "Samantha Sans Dosage" with a not-so-easy answer.  In fact, I haven't been able to solve her provocative conundrum, yet I can't get her challenge out of my mind.
The challenge:  Name five wines you wouldn't want to live without. 

What's so hard about that? 
There are some who would answer
1.  Rombauer Chardonnay
2.  Rombauer Chardonnay
3.  Rombauer Chardonnay
4.  Rombauer Chardonnay
5.  Rombauer Chardonnay
But most of you who are interested enough in wine to read this column are also curious enough about wine to sample a wide variety of them.  The choices on such a list would reflect your taste, your lifestyle, your aspirations, your experiences and perhaps your income.
So what are they?  What are your five favorite wines? 
But wait, that wasn't the question.  The question was what wines you wouldn't want to live without.  Would you be sad, for example, knowing you would never be able to enjoy, say, Champagne, aged Port, Barolo or red Burgundy again?  These are aspirational wines--maybe not the kinds of wines we'd drink every night even if we could afford them (too much of a good thing), but wines I am comforted to know are waiting in my cellar to offer hope of an ultimate wine experience someday.
Perhaps you are more utilitarian, as I tend to be.  You might not want to live without Beaujolais, Riesling, Chablis, south-of-France rose, Sancerre, Vouvray or Pinot Noir, just because they are so damn useful.  Others may choose Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chianti for the same reasons.
It was interesting reviewing Samantha's reader responses.  Many internalized their list as "desert island" wines, then offered wines you'd never want to drink on a literal desert island, unless they were thirst-quenching and ice-cold.  Others offered lists that seemed like passing fancies, reflecting stimulating, rather geeky wines they had just discovered and found compelling, like Poulsard, Picpoul de Pinet and Palo Cortado (for their grilled prawns).
Samantha's own selections reveal her passions:  Pinot Noir-based Grower Champagnes, Gevrey-Chambertin, Sancerre, Provencal Rose and Sherry, a fine and varied  list that reflect a combination of aspiration, utility and adventurousness.
Stop reading this for a moment and write down five wines you wouldn't want to live without. 
It isn't as easy as all that, is it?
I tried it and couldn't do it.  That's why I got into the wine business.  Because I like so much of it.  I don't drink German Riesling very often, but when I do, I love it.  I'd hate the thought of never having to drink one again.  But would it make my top five?  Would Alsace Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc make my list?   Madeira?  Russian River Pinot Noir?  Northern Rhone Syrah?  Napa Valley Cabernet?  Any and all Heritiers du Comte Lafon Macons, so perfect with roasted chicken? 
In a subsequent post, Samantha reveled in the fact there are so many wine choices available to us today--now really is a golden age of wine exploration.  Everything from Albarino to Zweigelt.  Why do we have to choose just five?  Fortunately, we don't, even if our finances often make choices for us.  We can always aspire to a luxury wine for someday.
Maybe this is all an exercise to learn what we value most about wine.  Or maybe this exercise reveals our favorite wines today, like that simple $9 white wine from Gascony I can't seem to stop drinking.
Tomorrow, who knows what will ring our bell?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Inspiring Choices for Tough Dishes

Samantha Dugan stuck her head into my office and said, "I need some food pairng advice for a couple of our customers."
As I got up from my desk, she whispered, "Red wine for liver and onions."
Samantha doesn't do offal, but she knew I'd endured many years of overcooked, dried-out liver in my youth, although this particular organ meat isn't something Dale and I cook at home and rarely, if ever, order out. 
My mind sorted through its imaginary flashcard file of red wine types as I made my way toward our customers, now standing at the edge of our French wine department.  My personal search engine landed on Beaujolais, which is the most reliable food support in all the realm of red wine.
I pointed first at the last bottles of 2012 Nouveau Beaujolais, now red-tagged at $8.99, yet perfectly fine as a vin ordinaire.  Then I pointed out the overachieving Dupeuble 2011 Beaujolais, a worthy successor (at $13.99) to the amazingly popular 2010.   Our customers were going to a dinner party and they thought they should be spending more on a bottle of wine.  My attention focused on the 2011 Regnie from Domaine des Braves ($18.99), a generously flavored, richly textured Cru Beaujolais I had enjoyed at our recent Oscar party the week before.
Our customers took my recommendation to heart and happily left the store, confidently prepared for liver and onions, though I'm sure they expected to pay much more for that evening's dinner wine.
The gist is, you can't pay much more for any Beaujolais.  It is not a wine that has been glamorized by the American wine press, mostly because it is not meant to be a stand-alone icon like modern-day Cabernet Sauvignon.
It wasn't always this way.  My 1965 edition of Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine defines Beaujolais as "one of the most popular and best-loved wines of France...few wines go so wonderfully well with good food, and fine Beaujolais is unquestionably among the most agreeble red table wines in the world, fruity, full-bodied, with a special, almost spicy flavor and no trace of harshness."
Beaujolais is a wine best drunk young, when it is full of charm and liveliness.  It is not a wine meant to be cellared.  It is what I like to call a wine for real life.  A useful wine.  A wine to be enjoyed, but not worshiped, although I've had many meals where the combination of food and the right Beaujolais was an occasion worthy of adulation.
1988's Adventures on the Wine Route author and importer Kermit Lynch writes, "Beaujolais must be the most inspired invention in the history of wine.  What a concept, downing a newborn wine that has barely left the grape, a wine that retains the cornucopian spirit of the harvest past.  It even serves to remind us of the first time man tasted fermented grape juice and desided it was an accident of nature worth pursuing."  Kermit calls the best of these "living wines."
In The Oxford Companion to Wine, Master of Wine Jancis Robinson describes Beaujolais this way:  "Early-drinking Beaujolais at its best provides the yeardstick for all the world's attempts to put red refreshment into a bottle, being a wine that is essentially flirtatious, with a juicy aroma which, combined with its promise of appetizing acidity, is sufficient to release the gastric juices before even a mouthful of the wine has been drunk.  In this sense, Beaujolais is the very antithesis of the intense, barrel matured reds currently considered the height of fashion..."
That brings me back to the subject of real life.  Cheap, mass-produced Beaujolais is a pretty dull wine, as are many Nouveau Beaujolais.  But when the Gamay Noir of able growers is made into wine by small-production artisans, well, we are talking about the potential for pure joy at the table.
Last night Dale looked into her sheaves of printed-out recipes from magazines and friends and found one from Food and Wine that made use of some andouille and chicken we conveniently had in our refrigerator, Chicken-and-Andouille Etouffee over rice.  The recipe calls for seasoning with salt and black pepper, served over rice, with hot sauce.

Food and Wine's asinine wine suggestion:  "Pinot Noir is a terrific partner for light, spicy stews like this one."  I shit you not.
Honestly, did recipe author Grace Parisi actually drink Pinot Noir with this dish?  Of all the wines in the world to select with hot sauce and spicy sausage, this is her best?
Pinot Noir, the queen of red wine, noted for its subtle aromas and flavors, for its ethereal character, for its ability to haunt one's dreams, should never be served with spicy foods of any kind.  Unless you are pairing it with the Pinot I tried the other night with its 15.7% alcohol and its sweet, thick, Grenache-like flavor.  The heat from the andouille and the heat from the Pinot-Grenache could raise the dead, or certainly amplify the hellish heat level to smoldering, enabling one to lower the thermostat and save on gas bills. 
I looked into our wine chiller and found a bottle of 2011 Domaine Chignard Fleurie ($24.99), one of the most beautiful examples of Cru Beaujolais at its silky, seductive best.  Served at 55 degrees, the coolness of the wine provided a fruity counterpart to the spice in the sausage (I passed on the hot sauce).  And though the recipe was a disaster beyond belief--actually making andouille boring--the wine was perfect.