Browse Tag


What we ate, pre-2008

[wine cave]This New Year’s Eve was not, for me, an event fraught with wine geekery. Thus, I didn’t take notes (though I scribbled some impressions the next morning). I did plan a menu with wines to match each course, though of course some of the guests were a little more concerned with quantity than quality. Given that, I thought I’d take a slightly unusual approach to this set of tasting notes, and talk about the food and the wine together…why they were chosen, and how they ended up interacting with the food (and the diners). Some would argue that this is what all tasting notes should be. I think that argument has considerable merit, but ultimately I don’t think that specific wine/food matches are a particularly useful form of service journalism; now we’re not just letting wine critics pick our wine, we’re also letting them pick dinner. That seems, at least to me, to be the opposite of progress.

In case the menu looks bizarre, it was done to reflect all the different ethnicities at the table. Which made it more than a little schizophrenic. That said, everything was very, very tasty.

The wine – Roederer Estate Brut (Anderson Valley)

Why it was chosen – Brought by guests as an apéritif, to begin the festivities.

Did it work? Yes. The Roederer Estate is a solid, good-quality sparkling wine that doesn’t make significant demands on the palate, either through excess delicacy, force, or complexity. It’s strong enough to serve with food, especially given the strong pinot noir component that always seems to dominate the blend

The food – Wellfleet & Duxbury oysters with a standard mignonette

The wine – Ollivier “Domaine de la Pépière” 2006 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” (Loire)

Why it was chosen – oysters and Muscadet…how can you go wrong? It’s classic pairing for a reason.

Did it work? Surprisingly, no. It was OK (though not special) with the briny, sweet, thoroughly appealing Wellfleets, but it turned metallic and bitter with the more strident Duxburies. This was a very surprising result, frankly. I’m used to Muscadet shifting with an array of differently-flavored oysters, but not to it simply refusing to play at all. Yet both the wine and the oysters were perfectly lovely on their own. This was a good reminder that to every wine-pairing rule there is at least one exception.

The food – domestic “caviar” (whitefish and salmon) with buckwheat blini, plus the usual accompaniments

The wine – Quintas de Melgaço “QM” 2006 Vinho Verde Alvarinho (Monção)

Why it was chosen – salty fish eggs, the “sweetness” of the blini, and the acidic bite of the onion…the wine pretty much has to be something that normally plays well with fresh seafood of a saltier ilk, and the QM has a core of fruit that can seem almost sweet against the right backdrop of food. There’s plenty of acid for the onions. Plus, there’s an engaging pérlance to the QM that I thought would be fun with the “pop” of the eggs.

Did it work? It was OK…an indifferent match. One of those times when it’s better to alternate the wine and food rather than attempt to pair them. Nothing was damaged, but nothing was enhanced, either. That said, the wine did an admirable job of clearing and resetting the palate for each bite.

The food – beef & chimichurri empanadas

The wine – Edmunds St. John 2005 “Shell and Bone” (Paso Robles)

Why it was chosen – given that we’re still in the early stages of the meal, I wanted something white here, but for beef with chimichurri seasoning it had to be a substantial one. There were tomatoes, pimientos, and green olives in the filling, which should have argued against this pairing, but I gambled on the notion that they’d be overwhelmed by the meat, spice, and pastry combination.

Did it work? Yes, very well. The acidity of the tomatoes didn’t interfere with this lower-acid wine, the spice played well with the wine’s particular complexities, the olives were brought out by the pairing (in the empanadas themselves they were overwhelmed by other elements), and the beef (rather than the wine or the spice) became the sharpening element in the mix. That was an interesting result. The “fat” of the wine was a fine foil for the pastry dough, as well.

The food – butter-poached coho salmon, dill/sour cream cucumber salad with Murray River salt and white pepper, smoked salmon

The wine – Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2006 Sauvignon Blanc “No. 2” (Loire)

Why it was chosen – normally I’d want a little more weight and “fat” with wild salmon, but the cucumber salad was, I thought, the dominant flavor element here. Thus, something with a greenish tinge was called for…but not something that would turn too angular with the salmon. Acidity was a must, too, as a match for the salad and a foil for the smoked salmon.

Did it work? Yes, better than I’d hoped. There’s a kind of spread to good Touraine sauvignon that’s not achieved in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (though those wines have other qualities, of course), yet this particular wine had enough subtlety to not overwhelm the more delicate aspects of the dish; something as aggressive as a Marlborough sauvignon would have been too dominant. The salad and the wine poked and prodded at, but did not penetrate, the poached salmon, seeming to bracket it with different takes on the same realm of flavors. The smoked salmon provided a sort of “seasoning”…which was, in turn, a fine counterpoint to the earthiness of the wine, turning its chalk to salt and the smoked salmon’s salt to a more basic minerality. This was fun.

The food – freshly-made fettucine with broccoli, pine nuts, tomatoes, saffron and Manchego

The wine – Forsoni “Sanguineto I e II” 2004 Rosso di Montepulciano (Tuscany)

Why it was chosen – for whatever reason, I couldn’t get sangiovese out of my head for this dish. Certainly I needed acidity (for the tomatoes), but also enough heft to rise above the Manchego and saffron. And yet, not so much ripe fruit that the broccoli turned weedy.

Did it work? Yes, essentially. I wouldn’t call this pairing indifferent, but both the wine and food stayed mostly to themselves, not really interacting much except at the fringes, where both the saffron and tomato teased some additional complexities from the wine. I think the correct white would have been slightly better here, but we’d had a lot of whites already, and I felt that the switch to red was overdue. I’d like to try a Basque white with this.


The food – spicy Portuguese squid “stew” (tomatoes and lots of heat)

The wine – Sella & Mosca 2004 Cannonau di Sardegna “Riserva” (Sardinia)

Why it was chosen – under the assumption that, given a red with the previous course, a red would also need to be poured here, I wanted something that could handle tons of acidity (from the tomatoes, onions, garlic, wine, and red pepper), was light enough for fish, and was strong enough to deal with the spice. That’s a tall order, and I’m not sure there’s any one perfect solution, but I’ve always found this Sardinian grenache to be an excellent cross-color match for fish, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Did it work? Yes, absolutely. Though some of the wine was certainly hard-pressed to stand up to the dish’s heat, its core of sweet, ripe, red fruit (strawberry and bubblegum, in the classic grenache fashion) remained unbent, while the “space” inherent to the wine allowed the fish to join the party unmolested. This was neither my favorite nor the most surprising match of the evening, but there was something about it that was just right.

The wine – Feuillatte Champagne “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne), from magnum

Why it was chosen – brought by guests for toasting at midnight.

Did it work? Not my favorite producer. Feuillatte’s bubblies tend to be overly angular while lacking incisiveness, and this was no exception. There was a little more leesiness than usual, but it was like dousing a nascent brioche with a too-tart lemon glaze. Still, we were amidst all the usual turn-of-the-year midnight stuff, and not really paying all that much attention to the wine, so it didn’t really matter that much if the wine wasn’t a great one..

The food – duck terrine (all duck; we had several non-pork eaters) with an endive/dried cherry/walnut salad

The wine – JM Burgaud 2006 Morgon “Les Charmes” (Beaujolais)

Why it was chosen – another nod to classicism in the gamay/terrine pairing, the heft of a Morgon (plus its acidic cut) for the weight of the duck, and the particular qualities of the wine for the dried cherries and walnuts (the latter of which, I felt, would need tannin in the wine to offset their own).

Did it work? Incredibly well. Probably the best match of the night. Everything worked as I felt it might, and the wine’s structural length managed to linger as long as the delicious gaminess of the terrine. This is a classic for a reason, I suppose.

The food – lamb tagine (ras el hanout, raisins, dense meat stock reduced until almost syrupy, honey)

The wine – Easton 2006 Zinfandel (Amador County)

Why it was chosen – a big red was unquestionably called for, but the sweetness in the dish needed addressing. I could have gone for an outright sweet wine, but I felt that would be overkill, and most off-dry reds are either light or slightly candied, and thus would be grossly out of place here. The only options that make real sense are, perhaps, an off-dry Banyuls or an Amarone, but both represented enough of an uptick in cost that I was eager to find an alternative. My thought was that zinfandel, via the qualities of its fruit and, at times, its high alcohol, would provide a “sweetness” of its own…one that could deal with the dish’s peculiarities.

Did it work? Fairly well. In retrospect, a lush Australian shiraz or domestic syrah might have been an even better choice. The thing about zinfandel is that despite its high alcohol, explosive fruit, and general intensity, there’s usually a nice dollop of acidity that can only be beat back by the most extreme ripening regimens. I normally like acidity with heavy dishes, but I don’t think it works as well when the dish is heavy and sweet. There was nothing bad about this pairing, but it didn’t exactly sing, and eventually the food proved too dominant for the wine.

The food – a selection of Swiss, Irish, & English cheeses

The wine – Costières & Soleil “Sélection Laurence Féraud” 2005 Séguret (Rhône)

Why it was chosen – I’m generally in agreement with those that think, on average, whites go better with more cheeses than reds. But I’ve also learned that when the wine is red, I like a little sweat and leather. Hence, a Southern Rhône. And, frankly, knowing that at this stage the alcohol has been piling up for everyone, an uncomplicated wine seemed called for.

Did it work? See above, re: the quantity of wine preceding this course. But yes, it worked OK. I’m not sure there’s a good wine match for proper Cheddar (and I’ve tried most of them), but the Séguret was decently versatile, and flavorsome on its own. I wonder if the ESJ “Shell and Bone” might not have been a better choice for this position.

The food – “Irish cream” bread pudding with white & black chocolate

The wine – Mas Amiel 2004 Muscat de Rivesaltes (Roussillon)

Why it was chosen – I actually wanted a Banyuls Blanc here, or something similarly weighty (a sweet oloroso Sherry was also a possibility), but I had no luck finding either, and I wasn’t willing to chase all over town looking for a perfect match. So I defaulted to this, figuring that fortification would help mitigate muscat’s lack of weight and harmonious (with this food) aromatics.

Did it work? No. Not heavy enough. and too…well, muscat-ish for this dish. It was tasty on its own, but didn’t work at all with the dessert.

Robert Parker, time-traveller

Though he’s managed — for a change — to avoid referencing his much-beloved ’47 Cheval Blanc, Robert Parker has a remarkable palate memory for a man in his seventies.

In reference to the never-ending controversy over whether the full-throttle Aussie wines (on which he used to bestow zillions of points and dramatic, albeit untested, aging curves) will age, Parker writes:

The best of the big Aussies will age quite well..remember all the negative comments when Penfold’s Grange was launched 50 years ago

No, I don’t. And neither do you, Mr. Parker. Because you were 7 years old, or maybe 8, when the wine was released.

There’s no history to these wines on which to base an opinion on aging, and there’s no real foundation of wines in this style from which to deduce an opinion on aging, either. So a critic — any critic — has to make a guess. Now, I’m all for a critic defending his or her reasons for a guess. And certainly, given the breadth and depth of his tastings, Parker should be able to defend his position. But all too often he doesn’t, instead preferring to simply argue from authority (a logical fallacy, though not the most egregious one), savage anyone with a contrary opinion, or…as in this case…accord all of recorded wine history to his lifetime.

Will the wines in questions age? Well, of course, it depends on which wines you’re talking about…but in general, I have no idea. I’m quite sure many of them last for a long, long time (with those fearsome levels of dry extract, how could they not?), but whether or not they will develop interesting tertiary characteristics at some point in the distant future…well, we’re all going to have to wait on that.

Where critics fear to tread

[map]As I predicted the moment I finished tasting the wines, posting notes on a Washington Wine Commission tasting led to an angry blowback. Mostly from one impassioned winemaker, but also from a few anonymous snipers. As I know this sort of thing gets passed around amongst otherwise busy wine industry folk (“can you believe this guy?”), I’m sure I haven’t yet heard the end of it, either.

There’s nothing surprising about this…in fact, it’s the norm for critics of all stripes. If there’s one blessing about the wine field, it’s that the criticisms tend to be coherent and well-written, rather than the incomprehensible gibberish that, say, music critics receive on an hourly basis; I know, I’ve been one. Other than a few letters to the editor, the general public doesn’t usually get to see this sort of thing. But that’s all different now that everyone and their sister has a blog. Unless comments are turned off (and frankly, that’s not a terrible idea for an opinion-monger), everyone gets to see the criticisms, the counter-criticisms, and (usually) the arguments that follow. Though others may disagree, I tend to believe that transparency is a generally positive thing. So if I post notes, and there’s a consensus out there that I’ve missed the boat, I think it’s worthwhile to have that response where readers can see it.

In case you’re wondering – and you’re probably not – there are actual consequences to criticism, and not just those claimed by those whose products are being criticized. Critics get uninvited to tastings when they post negative notes. They lose access to resources – winemakers, PR agencies, trade commissions – which can be very helpful in “getting it right,” or at least getting a broader picture; this lowers the overall quality of wine criticism, but it’s probably an inevitable result of the necessarily antagonistic producer/critic relationship. I doubt, for example, that the WWC will be eager to invite me to their next Boston event, and I doubt a lot of cellar doors will be open to me on my next trip to Washington. It can even make everyday life difficult, as criticizing a local restaurant or retailer makes it very, very difficult to patronize that establishment (which, in the latter case, makes it hard to buy wine). And it can get even worse. Though it seems hard to fathom, I’ve actually received physical threats over things I’ve written. So has my family. It’s an ugly world out there, sometimes, with some ugly people in it. Thankfully, this WWC-related tiff (and I should note that, at least to my knowledge, I’ve heard nothing from the fine and generous people at that commission) was nothing like that. It was just regular old criticism, which almost seems like a relief when compared to other possible responses.

So how did I know that there would be an angry mini-mob after I posted those Washington notes? Well, as long-time writers know, there are three critical “third rails” in the wine world. One is Champagne, because those massive marketing and advertising budgets have to count for something. “What is the source of your personal hatred for Veuve-Clicquot?” cried one devastated agent after a negative review…not even in print, but on an online wine forum. (Answer: I don’t have a personal hatred for V-C. I just don’t think the wines are what they should be, and the yellow-label Brut is incomprehensibly popular given its low quality.) The second is any critic more successful than yourself. Because you will be accused of jealousy, and of insufficient experience, and both the human shields and (too often) the critics themselves will snippily crush you like an insignificant bug on their way to another few months of mutual back-slapping. It’s simply not worth it, and in any case no one cares about critics critiquing critics except…critics. Talk about inside baseball…

And the third? The third is domestic wine. Outside of Champagne, you can write anything – no matter how harsh – about a foreign wine, and only on a rare occasion will you hear a complaint harsher than “well, I liked it, and I think you’re wrong.” But criticize a domestic wine, and you will hear from everyone. The criticism will sometimes be personal, but even if it’s not, it will be defensive and more than a little angry.

So why is that? Well, part of it is an ongoing reaction to years of “European wines are better because they’re better” sniffing from critics around the world. And that’s understandable. No one should seriously question that domestic producers are capable of making truly world-class wine, or that many of them already do. Too many don’t, but that’s no different than anywhere else. However, very few critics actually make that claim anymore, even subconsciously. A lot of the defensive response from the domestic wine industry is actually rooted in attitudes that are, for the most part, of the past. Which is not to say that there aren’t still Europhile palates out there…after all, I’m one, and the East Coast is rife with them…just that critics, even if they’re Europhilic, have a duty to be fair to wines they don’t necessarily like. And I think, for the most part, they fulfill that duty. Oenophilic anti-Americanism should be a non-factor, but in some cases we’re still waiting for the producers to catch up.

Another part of it is because too many critics aren’t actually critical. Especially with writers local to wine regions, the appeal of boosterism is difficult to ignore (though there are many skilled exceptions). Some publications even insist on it; I’m writing for one now, for example, that doesn’t want too much negativity in its pages (which might explain why so much of it ends up here). Local cheerleading is helpful because it doesn’t pit you against the people you’re going to see on a daily basis (and that you’ll need to see to do your job well), and it can lead to book-writing opportunities, which is one of the very few semi-lucrative outlets for wine writing. Plus, as noted earlier, being critical is a reliable way to be cut off from the gravy train of samples, meals, trips and other largesse. Given that a large number of critics make this choice for entirely understandable reasons, it’s not surprising that the ones that are actually critical stand out like a very sore thumb.

But there’s something else at work, too, and I’ve never been quite sure how to identify it. Some domestic winemakers and winery owners just can’t seem to abide any criticism. Is it the classic American sense of entitlement? An oddly anti-capitalist over-personalization of the market, where the product becomes conflated with the person, and thus criticism of the former is incorrectly taken as criticism of the latter? Is it somehow related to the high prices of domestic wines (which, given equivalent history and quality, often sell for much more than their European counterparts…discounting currency effects, of course, though even then American wines are expensive), wherein so much money is riding on each bottle that negativity is more keenly felt? I don’t know, and I’m not going to play armchair psychologist and guess. All I know for sure is that it’s a known phenomenon, and I (and, one presumes, other critics) deal with it every time I’m negative about a domestic wine.

There’s more to this issue, too: the nature of criticism, the purpose of negativity, the use and abuse of language. But this is already far too long for a blog post, and so I’ll have to leave those issues for another time. Meanwhile, I’ve got angry correspondents to deal with.

Wayward Washington

[vineyard]In September, I was approached by the Washington Wine Commission. Boston, it had been decided, was a target expansion market, and they were taking the opportunity to assess the landscape and show a few of their wines to the locals.

My thoughts on the landscape assessment are here, and now – after a bit of a travel delay – I present the notes from a lunchtime tasting a few days later. The question, as asked then and repeated now, is: how will these wines distinguish themselves from everything else on the market? Will they show definition and difference? Or will they be, for the most part, the standard Bordeaux-influenced blends, with heavily-managed tannin and the lush smoothness of new oak…a style that is already done very well in countless other locations?

Woodward Canyon 2006 “Dry” Riesling (Columbia Valley) – Ripe honeydew melon and honeysuckle with fig and Golden Delicious apple. Despite the label, it doesn’t taste entirely dry, but that could be a mere inference from the extremely ripe, almost boisterous palate. There’s a touch of heat on the nose, but otherwise this manages to pair intensity and balance fairly well. It is big, however. (9/07)

O S Winery 2006 Riesling Champoux (Horse Heaven Hills) – Extremely dry, showing Makrut lime, candied ginger and an aluminum core. Long, with dominant structure, but there’s a worrisome Styrofoam element to the finish. (9/07)

San Juan 2006 Siegerrebe (San Juan Island) – Even though the winery is perfectly entitled to use the name of its geographical location, there’s just something…I don’t know, jarring…about seeing “San Juan” on a wine from the Pacific Northwest. Well, whatever, let’s get back to the important stuff. Green elements (gooseberry, asparagus) vie with spice here, and there’s no lack of acidity. Beautifully weird. Or weirdly beautiful. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, though I’m not sure why that’s important. (9/07)

DeLille 2006 “Chaleur Estate” Blanc (Columbia Valley) – A sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend. Fig, peach rind and dried yeast, with pit bitterness and lurid nut oils drizzled over the top. Far too thick, and (blessedly?) short. (9/07)

Abeja 2005 Chardonnay (Washington) – Smoky and very ripe, with cantaloupe and Calimyrna fig. Quite woody, though there seem to be pleasant enough materials underneath. The finish is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, which is unfortunately par for the course with such wines. (9/07)

[vineyard]Columbia Winery 2006 Viognier (Yakima Valley) – Light aromatics at first, followed by a thoroughly hollow midpalate. The finish is classic and varietally true to its peach flower/honeysuckle destiny, but there’s just not much else to enjoy here. (9/07)

Di Stefano 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – Fig, cucumber and white rose. Round and ripe, with good acidity, yet it also seems softened…normally, I’d guess with a tiny bit of aging in wood, but that doesn’t seem otherwise indicated here. Pretty nice. (9/07)

As noted, I’m a little more enthusiastic about the prospects for the whites than the reds. Not just because I think the whites are better – the reds are probably “better” from a modernist standpoint, which means they’re less to my taste – but because they have a better chance at standing out in the Boston market, which is Europhilic and unkind to a surplus of big, fruity, oaky reds made over and over again from the same few grapes. And then again, maybe not: my fellow diners were, for the most part, only willing to taste whites if forced to do so, preferring to spend the majority of their time with the more famous reds.

l’Ecole No. 41 2005 Merlot Seven Hills (Walla Walla Valley) – Buttered toast with dark blueberry jelly, ripe and leathery tannin, plus a finish that disappears from the inside out. Rather soupy. Not very good, but not horrible. (9/07)

Pedestal 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley) – All toasty wood and brioche, no fruit or character. I’m told that über-consultant Michel Rolland had a hand in this. Certainly I’m no great fan of his ever-expanding portfolio, but his wines are almost never this horrid. (9/07)

Leonetti 2005 Merlot (Columbia Valley) – Big, spicy wood with a chewy yet lush texture. The quality is obvious, as is the seductive nature of the wine, but despite the overtly apparently quality, the wine is thoroughly anonymous. It could be from anywhere, made from anything. So what’s the point, exactly? (9/07)

Cadence 2003 Klipsun (Red Mountain) – 82% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon. Balanced fruit, big but ripe and pretty, that softens to a somewhat silky cotton candy texture on the finish. So close, but yet so far… (9/07)

buty 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Franc (Columbia Valley) – Technically, that’s 61% merlot, 39% cabernet franc. Espresso and chocolate with dark blueberries and a very concentrated, liqueur-like, but (weirdly, given those descriptors) not entirely overblown aspect. However, there is one significant flaw, and that’s the heat. It’s there on the nose, it’s there on the palate, and it positively burns on the finish. If you like a little brandy in your Fronsac, this is the wine for you. (9/07)

[vineyard]Nicholas Cole 2003 “Camille” (Columbia Valley) – 47% cabernet sauvignon, 38% merlot, 15% cabernet franc. Dark and structured, with blackberry and blueberry ruined by green, tarry notes. There’s a medicinal quality as well. This is a strange mix of New World fruit bomb and Old World greenness, with none of the positive qualities of either. (9/07)

Col Solare 2004 (Columbia Valley) – 80% cabernet sauvignon, 17% merlot, 2% cabernet franc, 1% petit verdot. Cedar and smoke, with simple fruit. Long and relatively balanced, supported by good structure, but it dries out on the finish. It’s as if the wine just gives up. (9/07)

Hedges 2005 “Three Vineyards” (Red Mountain) – A cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. Tobacco and dark fruit dusted with black pepper. Tannin wavers between leather and more strident bitterness. There are some balance issues here, that age will help but probably not ever truly resolve. (9/07)

Fielding Hills 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Wahluke Slope (Washington) – Eucalyptus, blueberry and blackberry with a chocolate/coffee underbelly and myrtille liqueur on the finish. But that’s not all…there’s an herbal Chartreuse element to it as well. Perhaps blessedly, the finish is rather abrupt. A weird, weird wine. (9/07)

Pepper Bridge 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – Reasonably balanced (or so it seems at first), showing coffee and toasted spice amidst the over fruit. Very, very thick. This might otherwise be considered promising, but there’s an unmistakable burn that eventually overwhelms everything. (9/07)

Woodward Canyon 2003 “Estate” Red (Walla Walla Valley) – 44% cabernet franc, 41% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon, 1% petit verdot. A classic blackberry and tobacco nose bodes well. But then: flowers and nutmeg. OK, if it must, but then: extreme wood and nasty weeds on the finish. And hot. Scaldingly hot. Yeesh. (9/07)

[barrels]McCrea 2004 “Sirocco” (Washington) – 40% grenache, 30% mourvèdre, 25% syrah and 5% counoise. Bubblegum and strawberry over gravel. The fruit is sweet, light and fun. Don’t ask any more of it and you’ll be reasonably pleased with this wine. (9/07)

Gordon Brothers 2003 Syrah (Columbia Valley) – Mint and blueberry, tight and twisted and hollow. Or perhaps fallow. Either way, there’s almost nothing here. Bad bottle? (9/07)

Gramercy Cellars 2005 Syrah “Lagniappe” (Columbia Valley) – Lush and ripe, but overly toasted and too buttery, with a texture like well-worn velvet throws on a long-used sofa. Turns sickly in the finish. A shame, too, as there are a few promising aromatics hanging about. (9/07)

Amavi 2005 Syrah (Walla Walla Valley) – Strongly fruity, showing blueberry, black cherry and blackberry with a dense overlay of spice and chocolate. There’s a hint of thyme on the finish. Good weight and decent (but only just) structure make this a reasonably solid wine. (9/07)

And so, as I feared, the reds are decidedly not my sort of thing. Do they say anything unique about Washington? The best of them say “we can be just like everyone else” and preach the gospel vinous conformity that’s currently sweeping the wine world, and the worst of them…well, they say something unique about Washington, but unfortunately they rather strongly suggest that the wineries aren’t yet ready for prime time.

I’ve had better wines from Washington, so obviously selection is, at least in part, an issue. And certainly, my preferences play into it as well. But this…was an unconvincing tasting. Others, with different palates, will be more enthusiastic. I wish all those involved luck. They’ll need it.

You cannot be serious!

[caged bottles]

I got into a discussion the other day about the word “serious” in relation to wine. The person who used the word was setting it in opposition to what he termed “quaffable”; specifically, Beaujolais was the latter, while Burgundy and Bordeaux were the former.

There was some objection to both characterizations on my part — the best cru Beaujolais is hardly quaffable, while the worst mass-market Burgundy and Bordeaux are hardly serious — but it got me thinking about how I might actually apply the word “serious” to wine, were I to do so.

The first, and most obvious, use would be a characterization of the wine in the glass…a stern, solemn wine that lacks any sense of joy, frivolity or fun. And indeed, many a top Bordeaux might qualify. This isn’t to say that one can’t derive joy/frivolity/fun from such a wine (drinking will to that to a person), only that the wine itself doesn’t bring those characteristics to the party. Or any party. This sort of wine doesn’t party.

But that’s not what the person who originally used the word intended. He was talking about something else, a quality that might otherwise be identified as “noble” or “fine” vs. something more prosaic. I understand this use of the word, but I don’t endorse it, because it smacks of faith in hierarchies over intrinsic qualities. While I might agree that, on balance and for my palate, certain wines regularly reach greater heights than other wines, I think to imply that the best efforts among that latter group are somehow “unserious” is to unwisely and unfairly denigrate their qualities. I’m not arguing for vinous socialism, nor am I embracing the often-abused refrain “all that matters is what’s in the glass” as a way to take down the high and mighty of the wine world, I just think that to divide up the world of wine into “serious” and “unserious” categories is dangerously reductive thinking. The qualities of individual wines really do matter. “Serious” wines are to be found everywhere, not just where one expects to find them.

So if my interlocutor was using the word in a fashion I didn’t like, how would I use the word? For me, a serious wine is:

  • A wine made to the highest quality possible given the restrictions in place. These include terroir, cépage, climate, typicity…any or all of which may or may not be legally mandated…and more external concerns like available money, etc. The wine would be made without marketability or price point as the primary consideration, though this is not to say that they can’t be strongly considered; winemaking isn’t a charitable pursuit.
  • A wine that is “serious” in intent, made to be the best it can be and not something merely acceptable or only good enough for uncritical quaffing. This doesn’t, however, mean that serious wines can’t also be quaffable. For example, the best Bugey Cerdon or brachetto d’Acqui can be serious, if they’re made with maximum care and attention. Both are, obviously, “fun” wines. But they’re made with a seriousness of purpose and a laser-like focus on quality, not simply because winemaking is what Dad and Great-Great-Great-Grandad did for a living, or because any idiot can sell Central Coast pinot (not true, of course) given the success of Sideways, or because there happens to be a perceived market for a drinkable $10 Bordeaux and a supply of grapes to fill that market.
  • It’s also important to note that these requirements say nothing about style. A serious wine might be resolutely traditional or employ every modernizing trick in the book. Again, it’s the intent that matters.

The opposite term — unserious — would apply to wines that are made with a primary consideration other than the highest possible quality. This would include price-point wines, wines made with compromises (which is not necessarily a value judgment) along the way, and wines made simply because they’re fun, or experimental, or in any non-qualitative way entertaining (e.g. Marilyn Merlot).

There’s a need for both types of wine, serious and unserious, in our modern marketplace. Who wants to be serious all the time? But it’s important to understand what seriousness really is. It’s not a pedigree, or a shockingly elevated price, or a reputation, or a bunch of points, or even the chorused acclaim of the oenogeek masses. It’s an expression of passion and skill, fired by intent, and given birth in a glass.

Universal sufferage

[label]Minnesota wine. The very idea is absurd. And yet, the lure of a trio of wines from Alexis Bailly of Hastings, Minnesota is, on a recent visit to the homeland, ultimately irresistible. “Where the grapes can suffer” is a frequently-appearing tagline on the labels, and having grown up in Minnesota, it certainly fits. Frankly, one has to have a severely masochistic streak to even attempt winemaking in the land of 10 trillion mosquitoes and endless sub-zero days.

See here for the gory details…which, actually, aren’t that gory, though the results are unexpected.

Walla welcome


Let’s start off gently, shall we? I’ll leave the harsh criticism for another day. Though I assure you: it will come.

I had a meeting the other day — brief, over water and coffee rather than wine — with two representatives from the Washington Wine Commission. Boston and environs are one of their target markets for expansion, and they wanted to do a little information exchange…get their message to me, and let me give them some local knowledge of the market and a few of the key players within it.

Personally, even though I have fairly strong Europhilic tendencies when it comes to wine, I welcome the effort. Other than the mass-market stuff brought in by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and the like, we don’t see much Washington wine here. Oregon does better, with a fair sampling of the lowbrow and the more interesting stuff on the shelves (or allocated in the back room), and of course through sheer size and inertia California does the best, but for whatever reason, we don’t see much (in fact, very close to any) of the higher-quality, artisanal stuff. That’s a shame.

On the other hand, I wish them luck, because it’s going to be a tough sell. Which, it’s worth noting, I told them as clearly as possible. Boston is, itself, a very Europe-facing wine market, both figuratively and literally. We welcome some measure of European obscurity — this is, at least the last I’ve heard, still the number one domestic market for Alsace, we’ve long had a very solid Portuguese underground, and there’s not quite so much focus on Tuscany on Italian shelves as there is pretty much everywhere else — but domestics are a tougher sell.

It’s not just Europhilia, though. Our asinine anti-shipping laws, bought and paid for by the greedy wholesalers (oh, now just watch the invitations to their tastings roll in), keep a lot of the cultier, mailing-list-only wines completely out of the market…at least for those unable or unwilling to use one of the usual but time-consuming work-arounds. So if the wines aren’t on the shelves and aren’t in the private cellars of wine geeks, it’s hard to build up much of a market interest in them. And with the rapid contraction of distributors in this market, there are fewer potential buyers than ever; the small, focused distributors tend to have almost exclusively European portfolios.

Washington will have to be careful, too. The big, ripe, woody reds that so impress certain critics will not be a showstopping success here (not that they need to be; they sell very well without our help). Leaner, more…well, let’s be honest: more “Old World” wines will do better. And perhaps the best option of all is to push non-chardonnay whites. Riesling, in the form of “Eroica,” has done well (though note that it has done so primarily through its German connection; there’s that Europhilia again), and other rieslings could be successful. Sémillon is a difficult grape, but there’s potential for success there as well. Among the reds, it seems to me that syrah (which is better known for a general aversity to oak, a fact I’d hope Washington state winemakers embrace) would do better than cabs and merlots, but I’m not an expert in such things. I was given a cabernet franc to taste (haven’t yet), so maybe there’s potential there. And, of course, there’s always interest in an expansion of the varietal palette past the handful of big-name grapes…grapes that far too many places produce already. Washington may indeed have something unique to say with, for example, a cab/merlot blend, but there’ll be an extra burden of convincing to sell it in this market.

Overall, and as always, the wines will succeed or fail on their merits and their pricing. But the key will be to get them in front of consumers in the first place. Alsace succeeds because certain key figures visit to push their wines, year after year. I’d expect to see Washington put on a lower-end push at next year’s Boston Wine Expo, and then bring the better stuff to a dinner at the Boston Wine Festival. Perhaps Nantucket. I’d expect to see them in the market, collectively or individually, showing the wines to trade and press at other times of the year (the frenzy around the previous two events, when everyone is in the market and wants the same fifty tasters’ attention, is hard to cut through).

As for that cabernet franc, I’ll report back as soon as possible, over on oenoLog.

Down with big pinots!

It’s time to say it as clearly as possible: big pinot noirs must be eradicated from the earth.

No longer is it enough to embrace them as some sort of “alternative expression” of wine. No longer will their misguided individuality be tolerated. No longer will the excuse that they are “representative of their place” be permitted. No longer can wine lovers everywhere sit idly by while something they’ve paid a lot of money for is rendered utterly useless by the misdirected dabblings of their producers.

Why have we reached this point of conflict? It’s simple: the super-sized pinot has infected the home soil, the motherland, the cradle of civilization. Outsized pinots have now worked their insidious evil in Burgundy itself. Burgundy! Imagine!

Oh, sure, I hear what you winemakers are thinking. “Who are you to say what I should do with my pinot?” Well, Mr. Arrogant Winemaker Dude (or Chick), I am the representative of wine lovers everywhere, who will no longer tolerate these abusive horrors of modern technology that waste our time and our money. We have had enough, and we demand change! Smaller pinots, now!!

Why, just last night, I took one of these monstrosities from a box. Try as I might, I could not encompass its fat-bellied girth. No food, no apéritif, no amount of mitigating technology could reduce its size. I pushed, and wiggled, and bent…but it simply would not fit in any part of the cellar.

Wait, you thought I was talking about the wine? No, no…

It’s the bottle size. Damn it, these things are way too big. What are we supposed to do with these keg-shaped monstrosities, anyway? They don’t fit in wine racks…or if they do, they tilt and slide into precarious positions, their flabby midsections intruding into nearby slots and rendering them equally unusable. They don’t stack, because there’s not a flat surface anywhere on the bottle. And lifting a dozen of them is all it takes to give your average oenophile a permanent wrist injury. What are they made of, lead crystal instead of glass?

Sure, there are occasional producers elsewhere who use oversized bottles. Huet. Turley. Others. But in the world of pinot noir, the disease has grown beyond spot infections into a full-blown plague. Next thing you know, we’ll have 750ml wines in 1.5L bottles, with a solid half of the total volume made up of hand-crafted stained glass studded with lead weights; $30 for the wine, $125 for the bottle, 75 pounds each and in the shape of a llama. People will need forklifts to move a case from their car to their cellar, and retailers everywhere will be nursing spinal injuries. Cellars will start to resemble glass topiary. And Wine Spectator will have a whole new thing to photograph.

It has to end, I tell you! Join me now in eradicating the scourge that is destroying a grape we love.

Down with big pinots!