Sunday, April 29, 2007

Napa: A Day of Contrasts, Part One

When working in the wine trade, it becomes quite common for wine visits – part pleasure, part work – to be intertwined with personal vacation. Case in point: when making a long overdue trip to visit some good friends in Monterey, California earlier this year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take them along for the three-hour drive up to the Napa/Sonoma heartland for a few days of wine exploration. After two very relaxing days investigating the Sonoma, Russian River Valley and Healdsburg areas, we capped things off with a whirlwind of a day in Napa. Our choice of winery visits that day, Harlan Estate and Stony Hill Vineyard, proved to be a most unusual combination, a stark study in contrasts.

Morning session – Harlan Estate:
As it stands today, Harlan Estate is the end result of the classic California modest-to-magnificent entrepreneurial success story. A butcher’s son, founder Bill Harlan grew up in Southern California. As an adult, he and some friends founded Pacific Union Realty, where Bill quickly amassed a fortune through strong investments and a good head for the market. When the wine bug eventually bit, he leveraged his capital to become a partner in Merryvale Vineyards. During his tenure at Merryvale, Bill’s dream, to create a Napa Valley equivalent to the First Growth châteaux of the left bank of Bordeaux, eventually gave birth to what is now Harlan Estate. He spent roughly ten years purchasing and piecing together the six original properties that now make up Harlan’s 240-acre spread. Today, forty acres are under vine, with a pure focus on hillside vineyards; the remaining 200 acres consist of building lots and protected forest area. Since their first vintage in 1990, Harlan has quickly built a reputation for producing one of the most highly sought after and expensive wines in the state, appearing on just about every major critic’s top-five list of most collectible California “cult wines.”

Before I proceed too much further, I should warn you: don’t get your hopes up, wine country tourists. Harlan is not typically open to visitors. As a rule, they accept only one visit per week, always by appointment only, almost always by a member of the trade or a large-scale, existing customer. I lucked my way into an appointment via the trade route as I work at a shop which is one of the few retail outlets in the country for the wines of Harlan. Again, don’t get your hopes up, shoppers. Every bottle is pre-sold. The wine never makes it onto the shelves. It probably doesn’t in any store. Frankly, Harlan could get away with never accepting visitors. They’d still sell every bottle they make. But any good marketing mind knows that allowing an occasional peek at the elite builds demand and anticipation. To that end, Harlan Estate employs a full-time hospitality and PR manager, Ted Davidson.

Ted’s job began well before our arrival. I don’t believe I’ve ever received so many confirmation and informational phone calls and e-mails for a single winery visit. His last call provided details for a detour, through the vineyard paths of neighbors on the valley floor, around some unannounced road work on the lane leading up to Harlan’s unmarked, private drive. Once through the electronic security gate, we wound up the switchback drive to find Ted ready to guide us into an appropriate parking position. Our first stop on the tour was less than typical. A set of wooden stairs led to a wooden landing built into the hillside looking down onto Harlan’s lower vineyards and the valley below. Waiting on the landing were five Riedel flutes and a chilled bottle of Bollinger NV Brut Champagne – not a bad way to get things started. We enjoyed our early morning glasses of bubbly while learning a bit about the history, mission and landscape of the estate, our discussion intermittently accented by snips from the pruning shears of the Central American field crew working the vines immediately below us.

The terraced vineyards at Harlan spread across the hillsides of their property over an elevation range from 200-1200 feet. The dips and curves of the Oakville Grade provide for a diversity of exposition and slope, leading to the identification by Harlan’s vineyard manager of over 60 different block characteristics. Typical to the terroir of Oakville, which includes a high percentage of Napa and Sonoma volcanic soil, Cabernet Sauvignon rules the roost, representing about 80% of the estate’s plantings. Vines are rounded out by Merlot (10%) as well as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot which together comprise the remaining 10%. About 40 different plot and vine-specific barrel selections are made by the winemaking team, giving them a great degree of flexibility and nuance when determining the final blend in any given vintage. Fruit is not put into production here until the sixth or seventh leaf; vines are considered mature at 15-20 years depending upon site and variety. With yields ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 tons per acre, fairly low by Napa standards, concentration and quality are sought first and foremost. Roughly 20% of each year’s crop – produce from the youngest vines and fruit not quite up to grade – is sold off anonymously on the local market. Anonymity is strictly maintained to avoid possibility of brand dilution via the creation of “Harlan Vineyard” bottlings by any other producers.

The biggest parts of the typical visit, a walk through the vineyards and a tour of the cellars and winery, turn out to be Ted’s simplest. We set not one foot in a vineyard, viewing the plants and earth only from our perch on the hillside deck and from the upper driveway. And the winery is the epitome of simplicity. Harlan makes only two wines, both red and both relatively non-interventionist. As a result, equipment is kept to the highest quality basics. Because bottling is simultaneous for both wines and done only once per year, hiring a mobile bottling unit is preferred to owning and maintaining in-house equipment. Most primary fermentation (about 80%) is carried out in open-top oak casks, with the remaining 20%, mostly for the Merlot and Cabernet Franc, conducted in steel. Aside from space for the vats, a bladder press, de-stemmer and a few other necessities, the majority of the pristinely clean, unadorned yet handsomely designed space is given over to barrel storage. To support the richness and structure of their fruit, Harlan uses 100% new barriques in which their wines age for 26 months, resulting in three vintages resting in barrel at any given time. Cooperage is of the highest quality. The center exterior portion of each barrique is intentionally “painted” with a coating of its contents, giving the barrel room a warm, organic yet highly manicured aura. We were not offered barrel tasting samples.

For our final destination, Ted led us into the hospitality section of the winery, a single, high-ceilinged, exposed beam room with a lounge area, tasting/dining table and one of Mr. Harlan’s three private wine libraries (books, not bottles). Floor-to-ceiling glass doors span each length of the room and, in warmer weather, can be opened to admit the hillside breezes and provide a panoramic view of vines and benchland forest. In this “hunting lodge chic” room, the hopes of something to taste would finally be realized. First though, all of us relaxing in the black leather arm chairs in the sitting area, Ted took the opportunity to provide us with a fuller understanding of the concept of the estate.

As mentioned earlier, Bill Harlan’s original and continuing vision is for his property and wines to be thought of in the same way one might consider the greatest estates of Bordeaux. When one mentions Château Latour or Château Lafite-Rothschild, the idea goes, there is little need to mention that they are located in Pauillac and, in theory at least, there should be no need to mention grape variety. They are known simply as “Latour” and as “Lafite.” This aim is reflected in the branding campaign, the labeling and the packaging of Harlan’s two wines. In addition to elegant and consistent artwork, the labels simply state the name of the wine and the place of origin. Grape names do not appear and there is no “story” on the back label. Also like many of the most respected estates of the Médoc, Harlan produces only two wines: their first-quality wine, Harlan Estate, and a second wine, The Maiden. The Maiden is not intentionally crafted to be gentler, simpler or cheaper; rather, it is an honest second wine, produced from the younger vine fruit of the estate and from barrel selections that do not make the cut for the first wine. And like the great growths of the Gironde, Harlan’s wines are expensive. The most recent releases, straight from Harlan’s mailing list, were priced at $350 and $100 per bottle. Good luck finding them at those prices once they hit the retail and secondary markets. Harlan Estate, in particular, can at least double in value as soon as it hits the shelf or the auction block. They are wines only for the wealthy, the lucky and the foolhardy; that said, the wines are good.

When we finally got down to the business of tasting, we realized that we were, after all, being offered barrel samples. The final blend of the 2004s had been racked for bottling just days earlier; the half-bottles of each wine we’d spied on the coffee table had been pulled from the bottling vat that very morning.

The Maiden 2004 offers a lush, forward mouthful of plum, raspberry and blueberry fruit with a subtle hint of menthol, all framed by ripe, fine-grained tannins. The wine is built to last but already, before even undergoing its destined sixteen months of pre-release bottle aging, eminently drinkable. Less than 1000 cases of The Maiden are produced each year and it is offered for sale only via the estate’s mailing list. Contrary to popular myth, you need not “know someone” to get on Harlan’s list. Anyone interested can sign up and all will be offered a limited number of bottles of The Maiden in the first year. It will, however, typically take three or more years of purchasing The Maiden before access to the Harlan Estate bottling is offered. Once you’re offered Harlan, your previous allocation of The Maiden is turned over to new customers.

Not much remained at this point of our visit other than the pièce de résistance. Harlan Estate 2004 is seriously good juice. Black cherry in color and opaque at its core, it shows a lovely tint of ripe cherry red at its rim. The flavors are bigger, more powerful and brooding relative to The Maiden. Its tannins are firmer and more muscular. One senses a serious expression of the Oakville hillside terroir, not loaded up with unwieldy winemaking flourishes. Flavors of concentrated black currant, blackberry and roasted meats prevail, with tremendous length on the finish. Winemaker Bob Levy targets a 20 year peak for this wine, well beyond the current trend for a 5-10 year apogee at most Napa wineries. By contemporary standards, its alcohol content is reasonable at 14.5%; its balance is impeccable. I’d love to have some of this in my cellar. At $350+ per bottle though, I can’t afford a drop of the stuff – and Ted wouldn’t sell me any that day, even if I could. At least two-thirds of Harlan’s limited 1,500 case production is sold directly to mailing list customers. The balance goes primarily to high-end restaurants and to a very limited number of retail outlets.

At the end of the morning, when Ted made it clear that our time was done, it was hard not to leave feeling impressed. Harlan’s property is one of the most spectacular, not in ostentation but rather in natural position, in Napa wine country. It was also hard not to feel like we’d been rolled through a highly practiced exercise, seeing and hearing only what is desired. And tasting, it seems, only by luck. If not for the recent racking of the 2004’s, I was left wondering if we’d have been served any samples. Even on visits to Latour and Lafite in the winter of 2004, in full knowledge that I was not representing a buyer of their products, I was offered at least two or three vintages of the marquee wine plus several back vintages of the second wines. But then, their production levels are about ten times that of Harlan – and their history and experience centuries longer. It will be interesting to see how the vision at Harlan Estate stands the test of time.

Stay tuned for a report on part two of the day. Our visit to Stony Hill Vineyard would prove to be another world relative to the morning’s adventure.

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Recommended reading:

Sunday, April 22, 2007

To Swirl or Not to Swirl?

When conducting tutored wine seminars, I often demonstrate basic tasting techniques. Foremost among those techniques, I always stress the importance of sniffing. I see far too many people just grabbing a glass of wine and chugging away. Slow down folks! Taking a good whiff of a wine before sipping is a great way to preview what’s to come on the palate. And I always find it interesting to discover the similarities and the differences between aroma and flavor.

An easy way to enhance the sniffing experience and to increase one’s overall enjoyment of the wine experience is to master the art of the swirl. Whether on a table top or freeform, left-handed or right-handed, there’s a point to it beyond just trying to look like a member of the cognoscenti. The act of swirling coats a greater surface area of the glass with a thin layer of liquid, encouraging dispersal and evaporation of esters – the aromatic compounds in wine. By swirling, you’ll get a much more complete exposure to the range of smells, good or bad. And that should increase not just your overall enjoyment of imbibing but also your understanding of what differentiates one wine from the next.

An increasing number of restaurants, recognizing the importance of wine to the overall dining experience, have incorporated a form of the swirl called “seasoning” into their sommelier services. A small bit of the wine to be consumed is poured into your glass and swirled while tipping the glass, coating the entire inner surface before being poured into the next glass where the process is repeated. The idea is both to remove any remaining vestige of dish soap or lint from a polishing cloth and also to prepare the glass for receipt of the small test pour and, once the wine is accepted, a full pour. Think of it as full-service swirling. It takes only an ounce or so to season the stemware for the entire table. Babbo, Mario Batali’s flagship Manhattan restaurant, has developed a reputation for seasoning glasses. It’s the kind of practice that can lead to rather spirited discussions between admirers and detractors.

Of course, there are times when swirling can be a bit over the top. I occasionally find myself absentmindedly swirling a glass of water. A coworker’s boys grew up swirling their milk, a trick learned from their dad but a practice they quickly unlearned in the school cafeteria. For adults, the habit can be harder to break.

As important as swirling is to the wine experience, it is anathema to tasting and analyzing spirits. Swirling wine, remember, helps to release beneficial aromatic esters from the thin coating distributed inside the glass. Do the same with your favorite straight spirit, though, and you’ll quickly find yourself with a snoot full of little other than the burn of alcohol. When making the switch from fermented beverages to distillates, the rules change. Once the alcohol percentage crosses into the twenties and higher, the nature of the drink becomes more volatile. The higher rate of evaporation occurring in drinks of greater strength is enough, glass left still, to lift and release the full aromatic spectrum. Swirling will only intensify the perception of alcohol which will, in turn, obscure the more subtle and pleasing aromas of the libation itself. And sniff that after dinner grappa gently, my friend. Wine rewards deep breaths; spirits punish them.

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If you're only going to own one glass...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Rieslings of Weingut Ratzenberger

Looking down at the St. Jost vineyard from the small footpath cut into the top of its hillside, perched high above the village of Steeg, it’s amazing to believe that vines can grow there at all, much less that people farm them by hand. Knowing the potential quality of the wines that emanate from the slope, it’s equally hard to believe that some of the owners of parts of this vineyard – and many like it throughout the Northern Rhein, the Nahe and the Saar – have chosen to let their land lie fallow. The work is just too hard. Thankfully, Jochen Ratzenberger perseveres.

Representing the second generation of estate production at Weingut Ratzenberger in the village of Bacharach, Jochen works 25 hectares of vines planted mostly to Riesling along with some Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and small quantities of Grauerburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Rivaner (Müller Thurgau). The property is based primarily on three Einzellagen (single vineyards). Posten, which is closest to the river, and Wolfshöhle, next up the valley, both lie above the village of Bacharach. Furthest from the river is St. Jost, spanning a larger elevation range above the tiny town of Steeg. The valley, which runs east-west, perpendicular to the Rhein, provides a perfect and necessary southern exposure to the entire property. In all three sites, slate of varying shades of blue and black – the same stone used for roofing the buildings in town – dominates the soil and provides a tough foothold for man and vine. The wines that Ratzenberger coaxes from these sites are without peer in the commune of Bacharach and can certainly be ranked among the best of the entire Mittelrhein region.

Capping off the better part of a week in the Philadelphia and New York areas, Jochen stopped by the shop yesterday to taste through some of his current releases with me and the rest of the crew. Following are some notes on what we tasted and what we learned along the way.
  1. Bacharacher Kloster Furstental Riesling Sekt Brut 2001: Year in and year out, this is one of the most special wines I sell. Made in the Champagne method, including riddling by hand courtesy of Jochen himself, this single vineyard sparkling Riesling spends five years on its lees before disgorgement. Always a clear expression of both site and vintage, it’s a wonderful pairing with oysters and other shellfish and makes a splendid aperitif. The 2001 vintage is drinking wonderfully, crisp, completely dry, showing a very fine mousse and brimming with lightly toasty notes of apple and peach. The Kloster Furstental einzellage is located one valley to the south of Ratzenberger’s primary property. Its soil base is richer in loam than to the north, its rows are more widely spaced and its orientation opens it to the winds blowing along the river. All of these factors combine to make it a dry site with very strong vines, ideal for production of perfectly healthy fruit. Botrytis does not occur here and grapes can hang long on the vine, in some vintages into February. Jochen makes only two wines from the Kloster Furstental – Sekt (from an early picking) and Eiswein.

  2. Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett trocken 2003: Ratzenberger’s village wines, produced only at the Kabinett trocken and QbA levels and labeled simply as Bacharacher with no vineyard designation, come from a cross-section of all three vineyards on the main property, usually dominated by fruit from Wolfshöhle. The warm, dry growing conditions of the 2003 vintage lend a creamier than typical structure to this bottling. The stoniness of all of the estate’s wines is present, soft yet dry, with hints of apricot on the palate. Jochen prefers this wine with fresh water trout caught in the streams near his home. Try it at home with any mild to medium flavored fish.

  3. Steeger St. Jost Riesling Spätlese trocken 2002: Looking back on my notes from a visit to Weingut Ratzenberger in February 2004, we tasted this very wine shortly after bottling. Three years on, it’s developing wonderfully. Spätlesen trocken, late picked wines fermented to total dryness, give a more intense, vinous flavor profile than that found in earlier harvests and lesser degrees of dryness. That vinosity shows itself aromatically, with intense scents of minerals, peach and lime zest and greater body in the mouth. These elements, combined with textures resulting from a higher-acid vintage, make this a great choice for pairing with oilier fish such as salmon or with game birds. The St. Jost vineyard, with its high elevation and soil base of slate, clay and sand, is ideal for this style. The only other wines made there are a Kabinett halbtrocken and a Großes Gewächs.

  4. Steeger St. Jost Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken 2003: The tasting order selected by Jochen surprised me here, as I would have expected to taste this before the Spätlese trocken. No matter, the wine is delicious. Very delicate and gentle, it shows crystal clear flavors of peaches and canned pineapple melded to soft yet refreshing acidity. This is incredibly versatile with lighter foods of all kinds, makes a wonderful aperitif and would hold its own with a wide range of modestly seasoned Asian cuisine.

  5. Bacharacher Posten Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 2002: Now the order begins to make sense, a clear progression from trocken to halbtrocken and on to sweeter styles. The aromas of this wine are the most intensely mineral yet, showing hints of what many refer to as petrol married to rich tones of apricot and a lush, persistent and lively mouth feel. Full body, lively acidity and a nuance of sweetness make this suitable for pairing with fatty birds and rich sauces. Posten’s proximity to the Rhein and its somewhat sheltered position, both contributing to light morning fog, make it an ideal site for the production of late harvest and botrytis effected styles. From here hail most of the Auslesen, Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen produced by Ratzenberger.

  6. Bacharacher Riesling Kabinett 2003: Not yet for sale, this was tasted from a sample bottle. It reminded me instantly of the 1998 Bacharacher lieblich wines. Soft and broad across the palate, its transparent flavors of white peach and slate, subtle acidity and very low alcohol (8%) make this a classic aperitif style. I’m already looking forward to its availability.

  7. Kloster Furstental Riesling Eiswein 2002: Back to the vineyard where the tasting began, this time with the showstopper. Real, handmade, farm grown Eiswein is a rarity in Germany. Some producers, depending on their vineyard sites, might only produce three or four bottlings per decade. Because of the special characteristics of Kloster Furstental though, Ratzenberger is able to make Eiswein, albeit in tiny quantities, in most years. Sporting 250 grams of residual sugar and 20 grams of acidity, this is pure nectar, unctuous, tooth coating yet still balanced. Subtler aromas but much more intense flavors emerge than in the earlier pickings – lemon and lime oils, kumquat, papaya, passion fruit and orange blossom honey. Its best possible serving scenario is straight up. If you must eat, pair it with a slice of good foie gras. But please, please don’t serve it with sweets; at $135 for a half-bottle, it would be the epitome of waste.

Looking at Jochen, with the flavors and textures of his Eiswein still lingering on my palate, it’s hard to imagine the dedication it takes to produce these wines. Always affable and perpetually relaxed, he tells us of the incredible toils of making his Beeren- and Trockenbeerenauslesen. It takes one person an entire day, selecting one berry at a time, to pick enough to make a single half-bottle. I’ve seen, in person, the guide wires used by Jochen and his picking and pruning crews to hold themselves in place while working the perilously steep hillside vineyards. And I’ve seen the tiny amounts of “topsoil” that must be carried back up the hill and redistributed after hard storms and at the end of the season. I would wonder how he justifies it all – perhaps thinking him mad – if I’d never tried the wines. They are Bacharach-Steeg in a bottle. They make it all worthwhile. Gladly, I think he enjoys them even more than I do.

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Recommended reading:

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wine Course: Loire Valley Overview

Registration is now open for my upcoming course at Tria Fermentation School and the seats are going fast. On Tuesday, May 15, I’ll be walking a group of two dozen through an introduction to some of the fascinating wines of France’s Loire Valley. Here’s what we’ll be sampling and discussing:

Sparkling wine:
  • Ampelidae “Armance B” NV
White wines:
  • Château Les Fromenteaux Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie “Clos du Poyet” 2005
  • Domaine Étienne Daulny Sancerre “Clos de Chaudenay” 2004
  • Domaine des Baumard Savennières 2002
Red wines:
  • Domaine Ricard Touraine “Le Clos de Vauriou” 2006
  • Fabrice Gasnier Chinon “Les Graves” 2005
  • Domaine du Carrou (Dominique Roger) Sancerre Vielles Vignes “La Jouline” 2004
Moelleux wine:
  • Prince Philippe Poniatowski Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1990
The registration fee of $50 is inclusive of wine, cheese and the course itself. Sign up for the last remaining seats at Tria’s website. I hope to see you there.

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Recommended reading:

Sunday, April 15, 2007

My Mixed Case

I don’t always get the chance to read the Wednesday food section of The New York Times so it’s a real pleasure when I do. It’s also not terribly frequent that I feel compelled to comment on or quote another wine dude’s article but I have to say that Eric Asimov nailed something quite primal in this week’s installment of his column, The Pour. The tenet of the article is summed up tidily by its title: To Study Wine, Buy and Drink. People ask me virtually every day how they might learn more about wine. “What books should I read?” “Do you guys teach classes?” The best answer really is simple. Drink. Drink regularly. Drink different. Most important of all, pay attention to what you drink. Keep notes, no matter how basic, on the experience.

As someone who spends his days working in a retail wine shop, I was particularly happy that Asimov recommended a good wine salesman as the consumer’s most important link to this learning process. He suggests that those in search of knowledge build rapport with a consultant at their favorite shop and then have that salesperson put together a case, half white and half red, to get the ball rolling. We’ve been doing exactly this for years at the shop where I work with our mixed-case samplers. At $125 and $175 respectively, these both come in pretty well below the $200-250 range suggested by Eric. So, in the spirit of the week, I thought I’d compile a list of my own selections based on what’s currently in the shop, with one rosé included among the whites, and targeting the $250 price point.

McDuff’s Case:
  • Delavenne Brut Champagne NV $38
  • Brunori Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore “San Nicolo” 2005 $15
  • Ratzenberger Steeger St. Jost Mittelrhein Riesling Spätlese Trocken 2002 $20
  • Domaine Ricard Touraine Sauvignon “Pierre à Feu” 2005 $13
  • Andre Bonhomme Viré-Clessé 2004 $21
  • Château Calissanne Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence Rosé “Cuvée du Château” 2006 $12
  • Isole e Olena Chianti Classico 2004 $21
  • Germano Ettore Langhe Nebbiolo 2005 $20
  • Castel di Salve Salento IGT Rosso “Armecolo” 2005 $14
  • Fabrice Gasnier Chinon “Les Graves” 2005 $14
  • Domaine Olivier & Anne-Marie Rion Côtes de Nuits Villages “La Pretiere” 2003 $25
  • Domaine Combier Crozes-Hermitage 2005 $30

These wines are all estate bottled, naturally made, and clear expressions of their places of origin. You may not like them all but each one should provide a meaningful learning experience.

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Recommended reading:

Friday, April 13, 2007

Easter at Osteria

The annual Philadelphia Film Festival is in full swing right now. We had tickets to a self-constructed double feature on Easter Sunday night so we figured, what better day to head for an early dinner at Marc Vetri’s new outpost, Osteria (640 N. Broad Street at Wallace). When calling for a reservation (which is essential) we were denied a table at 5:00 but offered one at 5:30. Knowing that the timing was an effort on the restaurant’s part to stagger tickets in the kitchen, we presumptuously arrived a few minutes after 5:00 as we didn’t want to have to rush through dinner to make our first screening. Greeted at the door by one, then two and finally three suit bound hosts and hostesses, we were told our reservation wasn’t actually until 5:45. After a few moments of deliberation though, we were graciously seated at a spacious two-top near the center of the room, adjacent to the lengthy chef’s bar.

Osteria is a big space, befitting of its setting in a rather wide open section of North Broad Street. High ceilings have been left unfinished, exposing duct work and lending a modern loft look which balances out the warm, rustic tones of the wooden tables and bars. Loads and loads of windows let in plenty of natural light and showcase panoramic views of the church next door – and of the Meineke shop across the street. Taking a page right out of Batali’s book at Babbo, pop music is cranked up fairly loudly. The twist here is that the music is pseudo-Italian. We heard covers of REM and U2 mixed in with some rather insipid Italipop. So much for the soundtrack – we hoped the food would prove to be worth the ear-sore.

The menu is classically Italian in structure, broken into sections for Antipasti, Primi, Secondi and Contorni. A pizza list adds a bow toward the casual intentions of Marc’s new enterprise. Here I must say Osteria is intended to be a more casual and less expensive alternative to Vetri Ristorante. It is. However, a look around at the décor and staff and a quick perusal of the menu make it clear that Osteria is not terribly casual and is quite expensive. Pizzas range from $15-24; antipasti from $10-16; primi are priced in the high teens; entrees land in the high $20s; and contorni at $8-10 a pop could quickly push the entrée ensemble into the $40 range. Do the math and the bill for a multi-course meal adds up fast.

As a saving grace, the modest wine list is, especially for Pennsylvania, quite reasonable. The most expensive bottle I noticed was a good deal at $81, the 2001 Barbaresco “Canova” from Cascina Vano. And most of the list comes in at under $50 per bottle. Though I didn’t ask, the numerous empty bottles of Sassicaia displayed around the room and the rear wall, which is decorated with wooden crate ends from high-end Italian juice, lead me to suspect that there may be a reserve list available for those looking to drop more coin. Of the handful of wines available by the glass, we settled for a couple of different whites – I for a glass of 2005 Pieropan Soave Classico and my wife Lori for some Prosecco – and got down to the business of deciding what to eat.

After listening to the fairly extensive list of daily specials, we opted to work mostly from the regular menu, though it was tough to pass up the Easter special of stuffed spring lamb. Lori opted for an Antipasto and Primo combination; I went with a Primo and Secondo. Here’s what we ordered:

  • Wood grilled octopus, cured lemon, potato and chives (antipasto)
  • Candele with wild boar bolognese (primo)
  • Capon tortellini with sage brown butter (special primo)
  • “Casoeula” braised pork ribs and sausage with cabbage and soft polenta (secondo)
The clear standout was the wood grilled octopus. Nearly whole (headless) baby octopi, incredibly tender and flavorful, were paired with well-chosen flavor enhancers: slivers of preserved lemon, perfectly firm little cubes of potato and quality olive oil. The boar Bolognese served over candele – long, extruded pasta (think of extraordinarily lengthy ziti) – was comforting and hearty, only lightly influenced by tomato, much more highly informed by slow cooking and mellow seasoning. If there was any disappointment to be found, it was in the slightly under-seasoned tortellini. The pasta component was supremely delicate, as was the mild, tender capon filling. The aroma of ample, rich butter rose from the plate but its color and flavors were still on the fresh side, lacking the nutty depth of a well-browned butter sauce. And for me, the sage element was just a little too subtle. The braised pork ribs, offering a perfect balance between the heartiness of braising and the slightly lighter ingredients of encroaching spring, were done to fall-off-the-bone perfection. The rustic sausage, like all of the cured meats on the menu save the Prosciutto di Parma, is made in-house.

To accompany everything, we selected a bottle of 2004 Langhe Nebbiolo “Perbacco” from Vietti, a large but very reliable producer of mostly estate bottled Piedmont wines. At $40 per bottle, it’s one of the best bargains on the list. Though served at too warm a temperature, it showed well – once it cooled down on the table – and worked admirably with most of the food. Warm red wine is one of my biggest restaurant service peeves. Though the bottles were not stored in the worst scenario – the kitchen – they were sitting out in service station shelving units around the room, exposed to the warming effects of sunlight on the back of the wood and computer screens below. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that the wine actually cooled down once poured and left on the table. There is a wine room, presumably temperature controlled, in Osteria. Even if it means twenty extra steps for the service staff, the reds, not just the whites and beers, should be cellared. Luckily the whites were poured at a proper, slightly cool temperature, circumventing the all too common fate of being served ice cold.

Our early arrival had worked out well, leaving us just enough time to enjoy dessert and coffee before heading to the theatre. The desserts were perfectly acceptable if not memorable. The chocolate flan with pistachio gelato turned out to be nothing other than a well-executed version of the now ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. I absolutely love pistachio gelato when it’s done well; this one was just a little too heavy on the custard and, as a result, on the palate. Polenta budino with giandula delivered a predictably rustic, savory dessert. Its flavors were harmonious and satisfying. In retrospect though, I should have skipped dessert in favor of a pizza or antipasto at the beginning of the meal. Urged on by Rick Nichols’ recent write-up of Vetri’s coffee fetish, I couldn’t pass up topping everything off with a double espresso. I did need to stay awake through two movies after all. A good brew it was, hearty, with just the right bitter/sweet balance and an admirable crema.

With just a little work on some minor service issues and perhaps a rethinking of the music selections, Osteria could easily become one of Philly’s most attractive dining destinations. I’m looking forward to a revisit. The chef’s bar, the salumi plate and the pizza list are calling me now.

610 North Broad Street (at Wallace)
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Osteria in Philadelphia

More recent visits to Osteria:

Monday, April 9, 2007

Men of Monforte

Tasting the 2003 Barolos of Elio Grasso recently, the first thing that struck me was their amazing restraint. In and of itself, that restraint should be no surprise. Grasso is not a particularly modernist producer. Most Piedmont fans would call him a “traditional centrist.” Big, in your face color and texture are not overtly sought nor highly prized. 2003, though, was an incredibly hot and dry growing season in Piedmont, much as it was in Western Europe as a whole. Many wines, whites and reds both, suffered from the heat, showing high, often out of balance alcohol, lower than typical acidity, overripe aromas and over-extracted colors. The elegance and typicity of Elio’s Barolos in such a difficult vintage bespeak not just skilled winemaking – that’s self-evident in all of the estate’s wines – but also great farming. Knowing the man – men, actually – behind the wines, it’s no surprise.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Elio Grasso estate, located in the beautiful hills of Monforte d’Alba, during a trip to Italy in February 2006. After a nail biting descent down an ice covered dirt road, we were greeted at the winery by Elio’s wife, Marina Grasso. Marina informed us that Elio and their son Gianluca were both out at a business meeting with the engineering and architectural teams working on a new underground cellar for the estate. Marina wasted no time in getting us started at the tasting table, graciously walking us through – “Prego! Prego!” – the current releases of their Langhe Chardonnay, Dolcetto d’Alba, Langhe Nebbiolo and Barbera d’Alba.

As Marina moved on to pouring the family’s Barolos, the sound of gravel crunching under wheels alerted us to the arrival of Elio and Gianluca. Sure enough, a few minutes later we were joined by Gianluca who, after greetings and introductions, launched right into a detailed explanation of the special characteristics of each part of their property and the corresponding wines. There was a time when Gianluca, like many sons and daughters of the next generation, was unsure that he wanted a future as a farmer, as a winemaker. Over the last few years though, he’s not only accepted the role but embraced it. As we walked through the cellars and then the vineyards, his knowledge of each barrel and each plot became incredibly clear. As Gianluca talked to us about farming techniques, about the rigors of both the 2002 and 2003 growing seasons and about the fantastic vintage just past of 2005, we began to wonder what had become of Elio. He had returned from town with his son but we had yet to see him.

It wasn’t until the absolute end of our visit that Elio finally appeared. As we turned the switchback out of the Grasso’s driveway toward the road, a portion of the Vigna Martina plot, previously hidden, came into view. There was Elio, the patriarch, pruning shears in hand, working his vines. He’d returned home, changed straight away into his work clothes and headed directly out to the farm, a man at one with his land. Having met both of the Grasso men before, I know that they hold the utmost respect for other producers who do great work in the vineyards and then let their wines speak for themselves. It’s the ideal that Elio – and now Gianluca as well – strive toward. And it’s the only honest way to make great wines in “bad years.”

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Recommended reading:

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Dining at a Virgin Table

“You’ll be our first.”

I’d called Aimee Olexy, co-proprietor – along with chef and husband Bryan Sikora – of Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, to confirm dinner reservations for Saturday night. Already eagerly anticipating the meal, my excitement ratcheted up a notch when I realized our party would be the first to grace the chef’s table. I’d been missing Bryan’s cooking and Aimee’s touch in the front of the house since their days as original owners of Django in Philadelphia. This promised to be a special evening.

Our party of eight arrived in smaller groups just before 7:00, as the market was going through its final moments of regular business. As the shop staff swept up and performed the usual closing rituals, we mingled around the table, sharing some Blanquette de Limoux and sparkling Montlouis to kick start our palates. Those who had not yet visited Talula’s were offered a tour of the kitchen by Bryan while the rest of us talked shop with Aimee, caught up with each other and tried our best to be unobtrusive.

Just past 7:30, we were asked to take our seats. I poured everyone a glass of Riesling in anticipation of the first course: House-Smoked Salmon Profiteroles with Smoked Scallop Sausage and Highfield Dairy Yogurt. My hunger got the better of me and I took a bite before remembering to snap a picture. Eye-opening and delicious as a starter, this dish could really be a shining star on a brunch menu. Bryan’s been experimenting, to good effect, with the smoker in his new kitchen; he perfectly dialed in the flavor and texture components of the salmon and scallop duo. I fought the temptation to wish for more, knowing that there were another seven courses to come.
Wine note: Saarburger Rausch Riesling Kabinett, Zilliken 1994. A simple wine yet it was still showing lovely petrol and peach tones along with the broadened, softened yet still refreshing acidity of a mature Saar Riesling. A particularly dry style for a Kabinett, it paired well with the smoked seafood.

After a brief pause and another round of pouring, Aimee and her service team brought out course two: Fish Soup with Paprika and Cod Fritters. One of the things that made Bryan’s food at Django so special was his ability to take what was essentially European influenced comfort food and bring it to a high culinary level through sourcing top ingredients, applying a deft hand at the stove and making subtle, creative twists. As soup may be the ultimate in comfort food, it was apropos that this dish leaned clearly toward the straightforward end of the spectrum. Rich, flavorful fish stock highlighted by small chunks of seafood provided float for a crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside bacalao croquette. A hint of Spanish influenced seasoning tied everything together.
Wine note: Soave Classico “Carniga,” Cantina del Castello 2001. Common wisdom would have it that Soave, one of the classic white wines of Italy’s Veneto, should not be age-worthy. Arturo Stochetti is out to prove that wisdom wrong. His 2001 vineyard designated Soave, golden in the glass and only slightly oxidative on the nose, was carrying its age beautifully. One of the most subtly satisfying matches of the evening, it handled the hot liquid base of the soup with its rich texture and nutty, orchard fruit flavors.

Up next, our third course of the evening: Duck Terrine with Foie Gras. A classic of the French farmhouse table, elevated to a more elegant level, this was a lovely terrine presentation, a country style duck pate with foie gras at its center, all wrapped by a thin layer of fig gelée. On the side, a dollop of decadently rich foie gras “pudding” added a touch of grace – and a strong temptation to utilize pastry chef Claire Shears’ fantastic mini brioche as a dipping tool. The flavors and texture of the terrine itself could, I feel, have been improved by coming to the table a bit closer to room temperature. Served on the chilly side, perhaps for the benefit of the gelée, the textures were just a bit too firm and the flavors just short of perfect harmony.
Wine note: Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese, Joh. Jos. Prüm 2005. Yes, Riesling again. There are few wines that can provide such versatility on the table or that can handle the rich flavors of a dish like this so well. This time, a fresher, sweeter style was called for, so we reached for a Spätlese from a classic producer and one of the finest sites in the Mosel. Though this wine will easily last another 20 to 30 years in a cool cellar, it was already stunningly good.

Moving from antipasti to the primo of the evening, the fourth dish was House made Tagliatelle with Spicy Bolognese Sauce and Wild Mushroom “Meatballs.” Though I might split hairs and call its width more akin to fettuccine, the in-house pasta, if a bit on the soft side, was flavorful and stood up well to its light coating of sauce. The “Bolognese” was a ragout of ground beef and pork, brought beyond the traditional by a spike of chipotle seasoning which provided a subtle tingle of heat on the finish. The woodsy flavors of the wild mushroom “meatballs” were echoed and amplified by a sprinkling of fresh, lightly sautéed pom-pom and oyster mushrooms.
Wine note: Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Vigneti di Ravazzol,” Ca La Bionda 2000. Another older yet still sound entry from the Veneto, Alessandro Castellani’s middle-tier Valpolicella has developed into mature flavors of dried red cherries, leather and a certain spicy earthiness. Though not a stunning wine on its own, it did provide a good foil to the hearty flavors and prickle of spice in the pasta course.

A good chef knows how to build. In an eight course tasting menu, it’s a required skill. The next plate provided an ample stage for Bryan’s talent for continuing to escalate flavors and complexity without dulling or tiring the palate of the diner. Dish five consisted of Striped Bass, Crisp Capicola Chips, Saffron Mussel Sauce, and Sweet Pea Risotto. A medallion of perfectly cooked, moist, crispy-skinned striper sat atop a bed of risotto redolent of springtime. The mussel sauce – essentially bisque – was sublime in texture and had just the right touch of saffron, a seasoning all too often applied with a heavy hand. Two or three small, succulent PEI mussels were brightened by a scattering of fennel fronds. The dish was perfect without the stack of capicola, genoa and salami chips crowning the fish. Though a minor distraction from the harmony of the plate, they made for awfully tasty snacking.
Wine note: Wien Pinot Noir “Select,” Wieninger 2003. This one found its way home with me from a trip to Vienna (Wien) last fall. As a group, we fought the temptation to veer back to white with this course. And boy was I glad. Pinot Noir with fish is not an instant recipe for success. That said, the ripe, spicy red fruit, lively acidity and supple texture of this Austrian Pinot worked really damn well with the fresh flavors of this course. I wish I’d brought more bottles home with me.

The culmination of work on the hot line came with the next course, a Petite Pot Pie of Slow Smoked Angus Short Ribs, Homegrown Spring Vegetables, and Vintage Balsamic Tomato Sauce. Not many dishes epitomize the comfort food ethos more than pot pie. In Chef Sikora’s kitchen, it rises to another plane. The essence of beef flavor and richness, brushed by just a subtle hint of smokiness, ensconced in a buttery, dense yet flaky pastry shell, all brought to life by the tang from the balsamic/tomato sauce. As if not already rich enough, the addition of a smidgen of Edel de Cleron under the top pastry layer added a little cheesy goodness. Free of vegetables within, balance was provided to the robust pot pie by the grounding crunch of just barely roasted baby carrots and turnips.
Wine notes: This course, once we got started, called for two wines: Barolo, Luigi Baudana, 1997; and Saint-Éstèphe, Chateau Cos d’Estournel, 1993. On its own, the Barolo was one of the wines of the night. It was sublime, drinking at its peak, aromatic and long. With the beef, however, the ’93 Cos made the better match. Surprisingly youthful wine from a difficult vintage; its dark, brooding flavors and solid structure were not as fine as those of the Barolo but were right on with the short ribs.

If Aimee was known for one thing above all else during her tenure at Django, it was her passion for the cheese course. The passion isn’t gone. Scaled down to single-serving size, Aimee presented us each with a plate of eight cheese selections culled from the offerings at the market.
Wine notes: Oporto “Quinta do Bomfim,” Dow’s 1989; and Savennières, Domaine Baumard 1997. Eric, one of my workmates, had decanted the Port when we first arrived at Talula’s. We kind of had to drink it, so what better place than with the cheese course. Because Port can be a bit heavy handed with non-blue styles of cheese we felt it necessary to reach into the Savennières as well. The Port gave credence as to why 1989 was not a generally declared vintage. Though still sound and quite tasty, it was rather four-square and showed little promise for further development beyond its current stage. The Savennières, on the other hand, was doing what Chenin Blanc based wines can do only when from the Loire – maturing beautifully, emitting ethereal aromas and sucking everyone’s palate dry. That said, it was an awkward pairing with the Port (no surprise) and worked well only with the mildest, freshest tasting cheeses.

Finally, it was time for the ultimate course: a Tasting of Petite Sweets. Dessert was the second offering of the evening from the arsenal of Talula’s pastry chef. We’d already enjoyed, early on, an assortment of small breads baked in-house by Claire Shears, including one of the best examples of brioche ever to pass these lips. This night’s dessert was not a creation for the evening but rather a sampling from Claire’s current offerings in the pastry department. A Hazelnut Torte provided simple, satisfying richness and lovely texture. The Rhubarb “Napoleon” with Rhubarb Mousse, Strawberry Compote and Crispy Cinnamon Phyllo was the most adventurous item of the trio. And the plate was rounded out, with an entry into high classical pastry art, by a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Rum-Soaked Dried Cranberries. The cake was moist and fork-friendly, with just the right level of sweetness.
Wine note: Tokaji-Aszú “5 Puttonyos,” Royal Tokaji Company 2000. If not with dessert then as dessert…. Viscous, honeyed and dangerously tasty, drinking this now was a worse crime than committed earlier with the Prüm Riesling. It was worth it.

In summation: wow! At $85 per person (plus tax and tip) for a meal like this, you’d be hard pressed not to consider it a culinary steal. If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the offering evolve over time into a slightly smaller number of courses. I can seriously eat but many of my dining companions began to struggle with finishing their courses at about round five or six. The atmosphere at Talula’s is wonderfully pacific, like a cross between an elegant country inn and the comfort of your own dining room. The drop ceiling, framed with rustic wood panels rescued from a Lancaster County barn scrap yard, and its Arts & Crafts chandelier form a snug cocoon around the table area. Service, particularly for a first time effort, was excellent: friendly, quiet and smooth, though I suppose it may have helped that Eric and I did all of the pouring (at our own insistence). I considered it a privilege, at least a great stroke of luck, to be one of eight at the first supper at Talula’s Table. Call and schedule a date for yourself. Eat. Enjoy. Just don’t go so often that I won’t be able to get another reservation.

Talula's Table
102 West State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348

Additional visits:

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Havertown/Oakmont Farmers' Market

News flash! My little home village of Havertown has just received approval for its own European-style farmers' market. Scheduled to open on May 23, 2007, the market will be a weekly venue for a select group of the region's best small farms. The Oakmont Farmers' Market, its official name, will be located in the Oakmont parking lot on Darby Road, just west of the intersection with Eagle Road, on Wednesdays from 3:30 PM until 7:00 PM. The season is scheduled to run from May 23 through November 21. Thus far, nine vendors have signed on, including:
  • four vegetable and fruit growers (two of them certified organic)
  • Great Harvest bread company
  • a grass-fed cheese, beef and lamb producer from Lancaster County
  • a Bucks County pastured bison farmer
  • an organic chicken and egg producer from Montgomery County
  • and an Amish flower grower.

I've volunteered to participate as a member of the Farmers' Market Association and, of course, am looking forward to doing a good share of my weekly shopping in my own neighborhood. So stay tuned for more details and updates as the Oakmont Farmers' Market nears its debut.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Producer Profiles

This page is an index of narratives, often with detailed tasting notes, of trips to visit wineries and other producers of fine beverages. It is arranged geographically and will be updated as appropriate.





United States:

Restaurant Reports

This page is an index, organized by locale and updated as appropriate, of restaurant, bar and specialty shop reports.

Philadelphia and vicinity:

New York (Manhattan, unless otherwise noted):


Baltimore/Washington area:




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