Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Few Good Wines

With a birthday and Thanksgiving separated by only a couple of days in the past week, there were no shortage of reasons to open a few good bottles. Today though, just a few quick impressions, as these were enjoyed for the pure sake of pleasure, at the table and without any note taking or overt analysis.

Vouvray "Clos du Bourg" Sec, Huet 2005
A really glorious bottle. Redolent of wet wool and damp clay when first opened then growing ever rounder and more honey and herb laced as the bottle grew emptier. I need to drink Vouvray more often... and I really need to drink Huet more often.

Nuits-St.-Georges "Les Grandes Vignes," Domaine Daniel Rion 2001
When last I tasted this, it provided a much needed breath of fresh air. The better part of two-and-a-half years later, it's continued to develop and continues to surprise, taking on greater weight with its slumber in the cellar. Rich red fruit laced with dark spice notes and beautifully ripe, round tannins. The wines of Domaine Daniel Rion are made in a very reductive style that can render them ungiving when young but, when all things are right, they can develop very nicely given a few years of patience.

Bacharacher Kloster Fürstental Riesling Brut Sekt, Weingut Ratzenberger 2000
This proves to be maturing more rapidly than the 1998, 1999 or 2001 versions of Ratzenberger's Sekt. Perhaps that's not surprising given the wet conditions in the fall of 2000. In any event, this has gone very much toward the truffle and oily end of the mineral spectrum, leaving behind much of the bright citrus and orchard fruits of this wine's youth. Still damn tasty but it's definitely time to drink up now.

Morgon "Côte du Py," Jean Foillard 2008
I thought it was fun. My wife thought it was serious. You know what? We were both right. Foillard's wines combine airy grace and delicacy with a depth that can be explored or simply accepted as fits the moment. The '08 may still be lacking something at its core but I think it's only a matter of time before everything settles into place. Even now it's delicious, with pure small red berry fruit allied to an earthy savor that made it a great match on the Thanksgiving table, especially with the turkey and the sourdough/shiitake/sage stuffing. (PS: Guilhaume published a neat photo essay at The Wine Digger a couple of weeks back on his visit with Foillard.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is a Thanksgiving Post

My boys. Two of the many things for which I'm thankful every day.
Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This is Not a Thanksgiving Post

Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays. A time to share food, wine and festivities in the company of friends, family and loved ones. Working in the wine trade, though, Thanksgiving is also one of the busiest, most frenetic times of year. Christmas may surpass it as the holiday for which the most wine is sold but no holiday, not even Xmas, drives a single, repetitive mission with such ferocity: "What should I drink with Thanksgiving?" There's not even a need to mention the food, the tradition is such a given.

After days and days of answering the same question over and over again, there are nights when the last thing I want to do is have to think about what I'll drink myself. Or what I'll cook for that matter. I just want comfort. The comfort of familiar surroundings, a simple meal and a wine that I know so well that drinking it is like getting together with an old friend. Funny thing is, what I reached for on just such an evening earlier this week was a wine I'd been recommending all week long for the TG feast. But I wasn't about to cook turkey.

So, without further ado, here's what to drink with Thanksgiving... if you're having pork chops.

Nahe Riesling "Lenz," Emrich-Schönleber 2008
$24. 11.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
"Lenz" is an archaic German word for the season of spring. Though not labeled as such, it is Werner and Frank Schönleber's halbtrocken offering, a bottling that's replaced several different pradikat and vineyard designated halbtrocken bottlings they had produced before simplifying and reconceptualizing their portfolio along VDP lines a few years back. It's what Lars Carlberg of Mosel Wine Merchant might call a "dry tasting Riesling," a wine that contains a measurable element of residual sugar but finishes with a completely dry sensation, driven home by mouthwatering acidity and an intense dose of minerality.

The 2008 is punchier and seems drier than did the 2007. It's nervous as a tightrope walker in training. Schönleber's wines, even the theoretically simple ones like this, can take years to really show their stuff. They're delicious when young, so much so that it can be hard not to drink the whole bottle. I always get the distinct feeling when drinking them this young, though, that I'm only seeing part of the picture; yet that part carries a distinct imprint of the whole. Like seeing a young girl who's cute in a gangly way today but you just know will be dangerous in a few years. Or like admiring an orchid in partial bloom.

I'm not sure I can really improve on the producer's own cleverly concise tasting note: "Vineyard peach, animating acidity, 'Spring fever' in the mouth."

It was great with pork chops. Salt, pepper, a light rub of olive oil and a quick turn on the grill. A buttered baked potato and a simple salad. Couldn't get much simpler, I don't think, or more comforting. But yeah, it'll work just fine with turkey, too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ribeira Sacra "Alodio"

There was a time in my life, in my earlier days of wine exploration, when I drank Spanish wine much more often than I do at present. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Bierzo, Albarino and wines of any number of other regions, vines or styles were just as likely to grace my table as were the wines of France, Northern Italy and Germany that more typically find their way home with me now. I think that's a fairly typical pattern in the evolution of the exploration of any field, whether it be art, music, science or, in this case, wine. Fields narrow, focus intensifies. The urge to dig deep overcomes the tendency to dabble on a more piecemeal basis. Once those roots have grown, though, the desire to venture outward returns. And the country that most often calls me back, much more so than Australia or the US, is Spain.

But where to start? I've definitely fallen into the same trap as others, where Spanish wine begins and ends with R. Lopez de Heredia, along with the occasional dalliance with Sherry. Aside from that, too much of what I have drunk over the last decade has been either dried out and bereft of expression or pumped up into something jammy and homogeneous. Recently, however, I've made some intriguing initial excursions into Ribeira Sacra, a tiny, hilly, cool climate area of Galicia that's been receiving loads of attention of late from wine writers such as Eric Asimov and Gerry Dawes. I enjoyed an eye-opening bottle of Guimaro's Ribeira Sacra "B1P" at NOPA in San Francisco earlier this fall and more recently checked in with the following, a recommendation from both Old School Joe and the Spanish wine buyer at NYC's Chambers Street Wines.

Ribeira Sacra Summum "Alodio" Mencía, Enológica Témera (Bodegas Costoya) 2008
$15. 13% alcohol. Diam. Importer: A José Pastor Selection, Vinos & Gourmet, Richmond, CA.
Enológica Témera is a small estate, with five hectares of vines and an annual production of about 4,000 cases, located in the Riberas do Sil subregion of Ribeira Sacra. Winemaker Carlos Costoya's entry-level red, this cuvée of "Alodio" is a varietal expression of the local vine Mencía. (There's a white version as well, made from Godello.) Though this is true Mencía, rather than the Galician strain of Cabernet Franc that is also rather confusingly known as Mencía, there's nonetheless a familial resemblance here to cool climate Cab Franc.

Medium purplish-red in the glass, it leads with simple, direct aromas of fresh red fruit – cherries and cassis, mostly – and finishes with a very soft, round texture marked by refreshing acidity. It reminds me, as hinted at above, of a fruity, bistro-style Chinon crossed with the warmer scents of a clean, medium-bodied Côtes du Rhône. After a half-hour in the glass, its aromas reach a higher tone, giving scents of blueberry skin and violets. From there, the wine remains very consistent, practically unchanged in fact, into its second day, moving just ever so slightly into the tarter end of the red fruit spectrum.

If I've a complaint, it's that the wine seems overly polished, its edges removed to the point that its texture is slightly glossy. The lack of any overt winemaking signatures, however, lead me to think that this soft simplicity is most likely the product of young vine fruit, fruit that hasn't yet reached a deeper expression. I'll look forward to seeing where it leads in future vintages. And in the meanwhile – this is a reasonably good value at $15 or less per bottle – I'd hardly say no to "Alodio" as an added option in my ever developing rotation of no-nonsense, every day wines.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ramen Setagaya

When my friends Joe and Nattles suggested lunch at Ramen Setagaya as the initial meeting point during our recent raid on Manhattan, I could hardly decline. There's very little in the way of good ramen in Philadelphia. And besides, it would mark stop number three on my ongoing tour of East Village noodle houses.

Ramen Setagaya, which occupies the front half of a relatively tiny storefront space on the west side of 1st Avenue, is more urbane and less homey than Rai Rai Ken, far less buzzy and NY-cosmo than Momofuku Noodle Bar. Rai Rai Ken strikes me as the kind of place one might find on in a quiet residential neighborhood of Tokyo, which just happens to be exactly its setting in NYC. Momofuku? Well, that's pure NY, and while it fits in perfectly with the youthful nighttime energy of the East Village, I could easily see it being just as successful anywhere from Union Square to SoHo to TriBeCa. Setagaya, on the other hand, is exactly the type of place I'd expect to find in the most bustling, mercantile neighborhoods of Tokyo (a place I've never been but nonetheless have rather vivid ideas about). I suppose that's perfectly apropos, given that Setagaya is indeed a Japan-based chain, named for the most densely populated of Tokyo's 23 special wards. It also makes sense, then, that there's a certain fast food vibe to Setagaya, but in the vein of quick, no-nonsense street food, not of homogenized, preprocessed and branded slop shops.

The core of the shio ramen here is pure and simple – lighter, saltier and more refreshing than the somewhat richer, more darkly flavored broth at RRK and a night and day contrast to the over-the-top porkiness of the Momofuku rendition. The brightness of the shio broth at Setagaya is matched by the springy texture of the ramen itself, delicate and silky, just firm enough to retain their bite throughout the meal. Likewise, the two slices of pork – an extra-pork upgrade is available – are cooked to the point of tenderness but have just a little chew courtesy of a nice vein of fat running through the meat. It's the egg that really ties it all together, poached and halved, its yolk set enough to avoid turning the shio into egg drop soup but soft enough to absorb and meld with all of the other flavors in the bowl.

While I'm sure Setagaya hops at night when the East Village kids come out to play, lunch seems the ideal time to partake of its pleasures. Business was modest just after noon on a Friday, allowing us to relax over our bowls and build the fortitude necessary for a long day ahead. At about $10 each, including the addition of a shared plate of kimchi, the price is right as well.

Once again, I really must give a shout out to Sir Brooklynguy as if not for his thoughtful roundup of NYC ramen bars, Setagaya and Rai Rai Ken most likely would not have made it onto my radar.

Meanwhile, just around the corner....

Ramen Setagaya
141 1st Avenue (at 9th)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 529-2740
Ramen Setagaya on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo

It's been a little over a year now since I last had the chance to meet up with Giuseppe Vajra and to taste through a range of his family's wines in formal fashion.  It was great to see him, a pleasure I hope will be repeated before long.  As always, it's pleasure of a different sort to drink – not just taste – the Vajras' wines in a more relaxed setting.  I did just that over the course of two nights last week, savoring a bottle of Vajra's 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo with two very simple and drastically different midweek meals.  Giuseppe's description of the wine, not of how it tastes but rather of how it served him and his college roommates through many a communal meal, stuck with me as I savored every last drop from the bottle.  You'll forgive me, I hope, for quoting from the archives:

This was Giuseppe’s go-to “college wine” during the past year, what he poured for his roommates at University to help compensate for his lack of cooking abilities. A great food wine it is. Although in my experience this wine can age better than most “basic” Langhe Nebbiolo, G. recommends drinking it in its first three-to-four years for maximum enjoyment. This is Nebbiolo fermented and aged only in steel, produced primarily from fruit grown in a southwest-facing parcel called “Gesso” located at the foot of Bricco delle Viole and from the young vines in the Vajra’s recently acquired property in Sinio, just outside of the Barolo zone on the outskirts of Serralunga d’Alba. The wine is in a great spot right now, full of violet, rose petal and red licorice aromas. Finely detailed and long on the palate. No lack of nuance. Every bit a fine example of a “poor man’s Barolo.”
Langhe Nebbiolo, G.D. Vajra 2006
$26. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Over a year later, the 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo is still showing beautifully, even young, much as I'd suggested in my original note. When first opened and poured it was quite tight, showing firm grip and slightly chalky tannins wrapped around a core of bright red fruit with classic overtones of licorice and tar.

In the past, I've found suppler styles of Langhe Nebbiolo – such as those from Vajra, Elio Grasso and Produttori del Barbaresco, to name a few – to pair quite well with dishes that mesh sweet and savory elements.  I'm thinking in particular of pumpkin tortellini or ravioli sauced with sage brown butter.  On this night, I took that idea to another step, drinking the wine alongside a rather spontaneous "use up what's in the kitchen" hash of roasted potatoes, apples and Italian-style sausage.  On this night, the match wasn't perfect, the grippy structure and taut fruit proved a bit too stern for the food.  But that hardly kept me from enjoying the wine.

Twenty-four hours later, the wine had come into a much sweeter spot, opening to reveal more seductive aromas, more generous textures and more relaxed fruit.  Paired with an even simpler dish of penne, cheese and peas, the wine took on a whole other dimension.  It was one of those pairings that actually adds a layer of pleasure to both the wine and the food.  I know one tends to think of meat, or perhaps an end-of-meal cheese course, with Nebbiolo-based wines.  I do love this with pork.  But over the years, I've found it can work quite admirably with salmon (heresy, I know) and that it sometimes takes nothing more than a dish full of toothsome pasta to match the wine's tension – and to remove any sense of tension from those partaking of it.

Sadly, this was my last bottle of the '2006.  When the '07 finally comes ashore, I'll seriously have to consider gobbling up a case.

* * *
In closely related news:

  • I knew in the back of my mind while writing this that Giuseppe had recently traveled through the southern Mid-Atlantic on one of his seasonal US pilgrimages.  You'll find a nice write-up on the full range of Vajra's current releases courtesy of John Witherspoon at Anything Wine.

  • It's nearly impossible for me to write about one of my favorite Nebbiolo producers, Vajra, without thinking of my friend Dr. Parzen's ongoing love affair with the wines of Produttori del Barbaresco.  It's sheer coincidence, however, that not long after I wrote this morning's missive, Jeremy penned one of his usually brilliant pieces, laced with literary and historical detail, on Cavour's impact on the history of Piedmontese wine.  Read there or be square.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Morgon, Morgon, Morgon

When friends called to say I should stop by on Friday night because they'd opened a couple of interesting bottles of Morgon, I figured the least I could do was add a third to the mix. After a wee glass of the Crémant de Loire "Brut Sauvage" NV from Château des Vaults (Domaine du Closel) to whet the whistle, we started off with my contribution to the trio.

Morgon (Lot S), Marcel Lapierre 2007
$22. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.
Marcel Lapierre makes three lots of his regular Morgon each year, in roughly equal thirds: one that sees no filtration or addition of sulfur, one that is unfiltered but does get a petite dose of sulfur, and a third that is both lightly filtered and sulfured. Lapierre's US importer, Kermit Lynch, will not bring completely unsulfured wines into the States, so "Lot S," if I'm not mistaken, is the unfiltered, lightly sulfured bottling. The lot designation appears on the wine's back label, along with a date (02/05/08 or 2 May 2008, in this case) that I assume signifies the bottling date, a bit of information I'd love to see on all wine labels.

I wasn't in the mood to take photos, so I'm glad Brooklynguy had already taken care of it for this one; I've borrowed his picture of the 2006 version (thanks, Neil). I really like Lapierre's presentation; I'm not sure there's a better example out there of elegant simplicity in labeling.

Firm and tensile but delicate, very pure, direct and focused, this is pretty, pretty wine. Lithe, with an unmistakably natural aromatic and flavor profile. The nose is creamy and fresh, giving up vanilla-laced small red berry fruit. One of my partners in crime had complained of encountering bottles earlier in the year that were showing green and olive-y (and I see that B-guy has found some volatile acidity issues). No such problems here, as this bottle was just lovely. Served with a slight chill, I could drink it all day.

Morgon Côte du Py "Cuvée Spéciale Fût de Chêne," Domaine Savoye (Descombes-Savoye) 2005
$18. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Fruit of the Vines, Long Island City, NY.
The "Cuvée Spéciale Fût de Chêne" is Pierre Savoye's vin de garde, bottled after spending 6-8 months in oak foudres and capable of aging, in the producer's own words, from 8-10 years. Opened the day before, this was a little worse for wear but was nonetheless still showing remnants of its breed. Completely pinotisé, dark-fruited and subtly spicy, even a bit prune-y, with brooding, slightly briary tannins. I think this could indeed develop for a few more years in the bottle. But once opened, drink up.

Morgon "Vieilles Vignes," Daniel Bouland 2008
$22. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
In spite of having been open for a day, Bouland's Morgon, which hails from 60-90 year-old vines in the climats of Corcelette, Douby and Delys, was showing by far the most primary of our three wines. Still painfully young, which isn't surprising given the wine's youth, though I found it to be showing well relative to many other '08s I've tasted of late that are tight, lean, chalky and/or unexpressive at this point in their evolutions. Very good fruit expression, with lots of ripe red cherry and cola nuance, bolstered by a zippy, juicy mouthfeel.

* * *
And for your listening pleasure today, the Joe Zawinul classic (the correct title is Mercy x 3) as performed by the Buddy Rich Big Band in Berlin, 1970.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Another Gravel-Grown Chinon

Cabernet Franc: when it's ripe enough to overcome its weedy tendencies and left well enough alone to be able to express its true self, there are few other vines that speak to me so clearly. It's a vine, like Pinot Noir or Riesling, that when grown in the right place seems to possess an immutable capability to express not just the flavor of the grape but a clear sense of its origins.

Take Chinon as a perfect example of one such Franc-centric place of origin. The wines of Chinon – again, when they're made well enough to retain their transparency – speak differently of their overall place depending on whether they hail from the banks of the Vienne, the flat lands east of the city or the hillsides that climb up from those plains. Perhaps the clearest and easiest to understand of those expressions is the voice of the Vienne, where the sand and gravel dominated soils yield Chinons of cool, supple texture, driven more by fresh acids and delicacy than by the greater richness and sinew of their cousins to the near north. There's a certain fine-grained, dusty character to the wines' tannins and a hallmark cassis-driven fruit signature that just says gravel-grown to me when I taste it. I wrote about a few such examples earlier this year; here's another.

Chinon "Les Gravières d'Amador Abbé de Turpenay," Couly-Dutheil 2006
$17. 12.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Elite Wines Imports, Lorton, VA.
The first words written in my raw tasting notes over the course of two days spent with the above wine? "I'm betting this is riverside Chinon." Light, fresh, supple and minty, it's driven by red cassis fruit and leafy aromas, with medium-high acidity and a lightly tannic touch. A dash of cocoa and raspberry parfait emerged as the wine opened. Somewhat loose around the edges. That loose-edged sensation was more apparent on day two when the wine lost much of its structure, though it did retain its coolly textured impact in spite of the softer mouthfeel. A bit less characterful than similarly priced wines from the top producers, but nonetheless a solid if simple Chinon.

I'll admit to not knowing much about Couly-Dutheil going into this bottle. So after drinking and mostly enjoying it, a quick bit of research was in order. Couly-Dutheil is a large producer by most standards, and very large indeed by Chinon standards, farming 90 hectares of vines and overseeing an additional 30 hectares, with annual production figures in the 100,000 case ballpark. "Les Gravières" falls into a group of cuvées that Couly-Dutheil classifies as Chinons de plaisir. Sure enough, it's produced from 25-35 year-old vines planted on the gravel and sandy terraces of the Vienne, just to the east of the town of Chinon. I was – again, I'll admit it – rather pleased to find my gut reaction to the wine was correct. And it's additionally edifying to find a larger producer that, regardless of what their reputation may be, can still get it right.

* * *
Some of you may recognize today's photo, by the way, as something of an Edwardian reference. There's no real connection between Nick Cave's latest novel and the Chinon, other than that it's what I've been reading of late. Entertaining enough, I suppose, but not one of the author's better efforts, musical or literary. I'll let you know if the verdict changes once I've tested its finish.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tuesdays at Rosamunde (and Toronado)

Six days and seven nights a week, Rosamunde Sausage Grill makes it their business to grill up what I'm told are some of the best sausages available on the streets of San Francisco. I wouldn't know, though, as I've only been for lunch on a Tuesday, when the usual offerings of forced ground pork and game make way on the open-top grill at Rosamunde for hand-formed patties of ground beef.

Tuesday at Rosamunde's is "secret burger day," a weekly ritual that begins with a delivery of of fresh, Niman Ranch beef and ends as soon as the last of the day's 200 half-pound hamburgers is ordered by one of the legion of the hungry that began to line up along this otherwise relatively quiet block of the Lower Haight well before 11:00 AM.

A quick lunch break it's not, but you've got to be quick if you want in. The doors at Rosamunde open at 11:30 AM. The first order is taken shortly thereafter but it's another half-hour or so before the first burger is served. It's not too terribly much later that the last order is placed, usually sometime just after 1:00, and I'd guess you'd need to be in line a good hour ahead of that time to ensure you've got a chance. Sounds like an exercise in lunacy, I know, but it's damn well worth the wait. Read on and ye shall see.

We'd agreed to meet a friend at Rosamunde around 11:00 but made better than expected time on the crosstown train from Ferry Plaza, where we'd spent a leisurely morning working up our appetites by ogling the gustatory treasures at spots like Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread Company and Far West Fungi. At 10:45, the line had already snaked its way well down the block, tailed up when we arrived by the hat-headed guy above, who told us he never misses a week.

The sausage list looked tempting indeed, but we were there for one thing. The Tuesday burger. Three with everything, please. We decided there was no need to request a specific temperature, sensing that things would be just fine.

We were right. The guys at Rosamunde turn out what may just be the utmost example of textbook burger perfection. One generous patty, flame-grilled a perfect medium rare and set atop a toasted onion roll slathered with copious amounts of ketchup and mustard, and topped with melted cheddar, sauteed onions, lettuce and a slice of ripe tomato. A fistful of juicy, moan-and-groan-inducing goodness. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

And we were getting thirsty waiting for it. Thankfully, that half-hour plus waiting period from order to delivery can be spent right next door at Toronado, a solid, neighborhood dive bar that happens to have a seriously killer on-tap beer program. When the runner from Rosamunde finally comes over and calls your name, it's no problem to bring your burger right back to Toronado, just in time for round two (or three if you're drinkin' like you don't have to go back to work after lunch).

It's tough enough finding Russian River Brewing Company offerings on tap back east, where the brewery has a cult following and the beers are tightly allocated. And at $4/pint... forget about it. Time for a little RR Blind Pig IPA, a bright, snappy contrast to the wholesome richness of the Rosamunde burger.

The man responsible for leading us into this mid-week, mid-day hedonism: Wine & Spirits Magazine editor, Wolfgang "Spume" Weber. Wolfgang first let me in on the "secret burger" over a bottle of Poulsard in New York a few months back. When I told him I'd be SF bound in the fall, he suggested our mission and I held him to it. Killer tour guide that he is, WW even suggested a post-burger walk that led us to what's got to be one of San Francisco's most photographed sites, just a few blocks uphill from Rosamunde. We needed some way to burn off some of what we'd wolfed down, after all.

Is the Rosamunde and Toronado combo the ultimate burger and a beer experience? I'd be hard put to argue otherwise.

Rosamunde Sausage Grill
545 Haight Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 437-6851
Rosamunde Sausage Grill on Urbanspoon

547 Haight Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 863-2276
Toronado Pub on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Vincent Ricard's "Le Clos de Vauriou"

Touraine "Le Clos de Vauriou," Domaine Ricard 2008
$12. 12.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

No high-fallutin' tasting note today. Just a quick nod to what's been one of my favorite everyday vins de soif of late. After a couple of recent vintages where "Le Clos de Vauriou" was a bit hit-or-miss due to issues with bottle variation and/or acetic acid bacteria, the 2008 has been rock solid. It delivers a mouthful of joyous fruit, abounds with character and pairs admirably with a damn wide range of dishes. I said it in May and I'm sayin' it again.... Ever so slightly tart acids, energetic texture, berries, pepper and a blood orange kick make it one of my most memorable $12 bottles of the year. As young Vincent Ricard promises/predicts on his website, "Vauriou" is indeed now throwing a deposit of fine, suspended particles, giving the wine a somewhat cloudy appearance but rendering it no less delicious than when it first came ashore.

Oh yeah, just in case you were wondering, "Le Clos de Vauriou" is varietal Gamay. File it under mid-week recession busters.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pierre-Marie Chermette's "Les Deux Roches"

Pierre-Marie Chermette. His were the first wines that turned me on to not just the pleasures but also the deeper possibilities of Beaujolais. I first started drinking them in the mid-to-late nineties. It wasn't long thereafter that I found myself selling them, mostly the "Cuvée Traditionelle" but also the Crus, in fairly copious quantities. It's been a few years now since the shop where I work ended business relations with Chermette's US importer. I still terribly miss having such ready access to the wines.

Over the years, I've found that Chermette's wines are in possession of certain inimitable qualities that make them unmistakably delicious. They're so good that people of all persuasions are simply drawn to the wine, whether or not they understand why. I think part of that draw is the wines' intense concentration. In most vintages, the "Traditionelle" possesses richness far beyond most basic regional and Villages level Beaujolais, while the Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent bottlings can go beyond concentrated to downright powerful.

There's a certain gut (or perhaps knee-jerk) response to call wines such as Pierre-Marie's atypical for their richness, darkness or concentration. I suppose in a sense they are atypical, as they are richer than typical Beaujolais; however, this really brings to light not some witchcraft or chemistry that Chermette is performing in the winery to achieve "big" wines but rather just how much Beaujolais out there is not so much light and simple as it is over-cropped and dilute. If more producers followed in a path similar to Chermette's, perhaps his wines would not seem so unusual.

Pierre-Marie and his wife, Martine, farm sustainably, harvest lower yields than average in the Beaujolais, and thin their crops as necessary to ensure full ripeness on the vine. As a result, the wines never require chaptalization. Fermentation techniques are traditional, based on native yeasts only and, to complement the natural structure of the fruit, run over a longer maceration period than is the norm. The wines are aged in foudres – even barriques for some of the Cru bottlings – and are finished without fining, filtration or much if any addition of sulfur dioxide.

In more recent years, I've shifted my fancies more to the Beaujolais of other producers; to the freshness and energy of Jean-Paul Brun, the beautiful bone structure of Coudert, and the filigreed purity of Jean Foillard, to name but a few. But there's still an honored spot in my heart for the occasional bottle that crosses my path from Domaine du Vissoux.

Moulin à Vent "Les Deux Roches," Domaine du Vissoux (Pierre-Marie Chermette) 2005
$25. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.

"Les Deux Roches" takes its name from two parcels of vines owned and farmed by the Chermettes: the one-hectare "Rochegrès" and a two-hectare plot called "La Rochelle," both of which are granite-rich terroirs. The finished wine is based on an assemblage (blending) of wines from the two sites that occurs following fermentation and aging of between 4-6 months in previously used barrels. Pierre-Marie suggests keeping this cuvée anywhere from five to ten years from the vintage date; a recently enjoyed bottle gave me no reason to disagree with that prognostication.

Medium, translucent red in the glass, still hinting at its earlier purpler stage. Likewise on the nose, this is beginning to go pinotisé – morphing from primary, fruity aromas to meatier, earthier, more Burgundian characteristics – but still gives up an aromatic trace of Gamay's signature, youthful fruitiness. Great feel, both mouth-fillingly round and firmly yet gently gripping. The wine's power brings with it a flicker of heat in the upper palate, but that proves to be tamed when it's drunk with food rather than tasted without accompaniment. Medium acidity carries a wave of black cherry, damson and spiced red fruits across the palate. There's no doubt that this would be right at home in a mixed line-up of regional and even village level red Burgundies.

Thirty minutes in, the nose and fruit shut down hard, going mute and picking up a hint of musty earth. Another half-hour later the wine went into a whole other phase, richer and denser, showing the influence of a ripe vintage as well as the geographical proximity of Beaujolais to the Northern Rhône. Twenty minutes more and the wine returned to a more delicate, fresh acid-driven state but also blossomed aromatically, bursting with red raspberries on the nose. With day two came diminished vitality, but there was still plenty of pleasure to be found, particularly in the presence of food. Dead-on with roast poultry. Even more clearly pinotisé than a day earlier, this would make for a nice ringer in a flight of Marsannay or Côtes-de-Nuits-Villages.

A few more bottles would be a most welcome presence in my cellar, as I expect this will continue to develop and morph in compelling directions over the next five years.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Urban Winemaking at Dashe Cellars

Ask any hundred people what they consider the heartland of California wine country and Napa will no doubt top the list, followed closely by Sonoma. Ask the same group – and this implies the participants have at least some basic familiarity with the subject matter – about California’s new frontier and I’d hazard a guess that Santa Barbara or Paso Robles, maybe the Santa Rita Hills, would come out ahead. Yet more and more, some of the most compelling wines being produced in California today are coming from winemakers based within the urban landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The godfather of this “new school” is no doubt Steve Edmunds, who’s been producing characterful wines that buck the trend of over-saturated, Californicated fruit since 1985 and doing so right in the heart of Berkeley. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his neighbors at Edmunds St. John include the likes of Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch…. On the more freshly cut edge of the movement is the Natural Process Alliance, leading the locavore, low impact and natural wine front from its headquarters in Santa Rosa. Sandwiched between those two – both geographically and chronologically – is Dashe Cellars.

Michael and his wife Anne Dashe produced their first Dashe Cellars release, a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, in 1996. Over a dozen vintages later, they’re going strong, having slowly but surely garnered praise from the traditional wine press – they’ve made Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Top 100 Wineries list on several occasions – as well as from, more recently, natural wine cognoscenti. In 2005, Mike and Anne moved their winery to its current home in an industrial district of Oakland where, in the shadows of I-880, they share a 16,000 square foot warehouse/winemaking facility with JC Cellars. Dashe now produces approximately 10,000 cases (120,000 bottles) of wine per year, about 85% of which is Zinfandel.

During my recent trip to San Francisco, I had the chance to catch up with Mike and to visit Dashe Cellars in the full tilt of autumn harvest season. I’ll let the pictures, captions and tasting notes below tell the story. For more information, check out the Dashes’ website and be sure to (re)visit the interview I did with Mike earlier this year for 31 Days of Natural Wine.

Dashe Cellars shares a barn-red, relatively no-frills warehouse (located at 55 4th Street in Oakland, CA) about 60/40 with JC Cellars.

JC works the new barrels (look ma, no stains) to the left of Dashe’s three foudres, while Mike’s production inhabits the remainder of the warehouse, populated primarily by racks of older barriques and the ubiquitous phalanx (not pictured) of stainless steel fermentation tanks.

As mentioned above, we visited during a very busy day in late September, at the heart of NorCal harvest season. This was the second of three truckloads of grapes of the day for Dashe. The first, Petite Sirah, had arrived in the morning hours. This load of Zin arrived shortly after we did in the early afternoon, while a third truck pulled up with the day’s final delivery of Zinfandel just as we were saying our goodbyes. The Dashes, who own no vineyards themselves, source their fruit from primarily organic farms, with which they have long-term contracts, in the Dry Creek, Russian River, Alexander and Potter Valleys of California.

With freshness always foremost in mind, the fruit is moved quickly from the truck to the bin turner in half-ton crates. The process is pretty much business as usual, with Mike and his crew aiming to keep handling and manipulation of the fruit to a minimum. All fruit is hand sorted to remove leaves and any sub-par grapes, not to mention the occasional earwig. From there, it's on to the crusher/destemmer, from which the crushed juice is gently pumped into the waiting tanks inside the winery. All of Dashe's wines see a high percentage of whole berry fermentation; however, all of the Zins – and other wines at Mike's discretion – also receive a dose of press juice (that's Mike's pneumatic press in the bottom right photo) to ensure enough structure to support their ample fruit.

Back in the winery, the work is all focused on keeping the wines pure and expressive, with as little manipulation and adulteration as possible. Mike and Anne do much of the work themselves, helped by a rotating group of interns from enology schools such as UC Davis or by visiting wine makers from other regions. Mike commented that his interns are nearly always shocked to find that very nearly nothing is added to the fermenting and aging wines. Dashe ferments all of his wines, including the white and rosé, on their native yeasts. No commercial yeast, enzymes, acids or other additives/adjuncts are ever used (and Mike does not believe that cross-contamination occurs from the commercial yeast strains being used in the same warehouse space by JC Cellars). A small dose of sulfur dioxide is added at crush and again, though only if necessary and never for "L'Enfant Terrible," at bottling.

Mike is particularly happy with (and proud of) the results he's getting with the three foudres he purchased new from Tonnellerie Rousseau. The majority of Dashe's wines are still aged in older barriques but Mike plans to move more and more toward aging in larger casks as time and cash flow (those foudres are expensive) permit.

Our pals from Monterey, Steve and Stacy, had visited Dashe a few months earlier, not long after reading my interview with Mike, so they were already well acquainted with the wines. While pouring us tastes of a few of his current releases, Mike regaled us with some pretty hilarious stories of his past days writing technical user manuals for Atari. I guess a winery profile like this wouldn't be complete without at least a couple of tasting notes, so:
  • 2008 Dry Riesling, McFadden Farms, Potter Valley (13.8%). Very ripe, round aromas of yellow plums and pineapple. Firm acidity. Succulent. Not as bracingly mineral as I might like but a very fine Cali Riesling.

  • 2008 Grenache, Dry Creek Valley (13.8%). California Grenache under 14% alcohol? Yep. Very fresh, vibrant red berry fruit. Aged in old wood only. Gentle tannins and, for Grenache, good acidity. This reminded me very much of the style of Mike's "L'Enfant Terrible" Zinfandel. Lighter, brighter and fresher than more typical CA varietal expressions.

  • 2008 Zinfandel "L'Enfant Terrible," McFadden Farms, Potter Valley (13.8%). California Zinfandel under 14% alcohol. Yep. The fruit for "the wild child" is sourced from the same cool, high altitude farm from which Mike purchases his Riesling. Macerated strawberries and pepper on the nose. Brightly textured and fresh, though a bit richer than the '07 version. In 2007, 280 cases of the 600 case production of "L'Enfant" were sold at The Slanted Door. As hinted at in the Grenache note above, Mike is considering creating other "L'Enfant Terrible" bottlings in the coming years.

  • 2006 Zinfandel, Florence Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (14.5%). Produced from young vine fruit. Super ripe on the nose and palate, full of raisins, chocolate and plum pudding but balanced by crunchy tannins.

  • 2007 Zinfandel "Old Vines," Todd Brothers Ranch, Alexander Valley (14.7%). From 50 year-old vines. This was a stark contrast to the Florence Vineyard bottling; a much more elegant, structured style, showing coffee, licorice, blackberry and dark chocolate notes but on a finer, more restrained frame.

  • 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley (14.1%). Harvested at 40 brix, finished at 9% RS. Mike allows the fermentation to stop naturally then filters the wine to remove any yeast cells (and to prevent the possibility of re-fermentation) prior to bottling. Pretty damn tasty served, as the Dashes did, with a nibble of dark chocolate.

Clearly less comfortable at the computer and cash register than amongst the barrels, Mike called his wife Anne down from the winery office to meet us and help with our end of visit purchases. In case you've ever wondered about the winery's logo, I can now unequivocally confirm that Mike is the monkey and Anne is the fish.

Dashe Cellars is just a short walk from the Merrit Lake BART station, a quick drive across the Bay Bridge from downtown San Fracisco, and is also easily accessible from the greater Oakland and Berkeley areas. (We popped over to West Berkeley for pizza and beer at Lanesplitter after our visit.) Their tasting room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from noon to 6:00 PM.

Dashe Cellars
55 4th Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 452-1800

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Ate the Yankees

[The stage is set: a cloudy fall afternoon on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; it's Devil's Night Friday. In the background, faint strains of Brit Punk can be heard filtering through the street noise.]

"What exactly is a Yankees doughnut," I asked.

"Glazed with blueberry pinstripes, of course," came the answer. Ah yes, of course.... Then, “Where are you guys from?”

“My friends are from San Fran; I’m from Philly.”

They still sold me the doughnut, but only after throwing in some raspberries.

The doughnut was pretty enough but I refused to take its picture. I'm sure the bakers at the Doughnut Plant conceived it as a tribute but I was looking at it more as a voodoo-style exorcism. Eat it and, tasty or not, it would eventually end up exactly where I hoped the Yanks would be headed by the end of Game 7. Need I say more?

About that, perhaps not, but the goodies being dished up at the Doughnut Plant do bear further consideration, not to mention repeat investigation.

The PB&J in its pre- and mid-sacrificicial states.
Chompers courtesy of Old Wurld Old Skool Joe.

The basic glazed Yankees doughnut was chewier than the norm, giving it a much different, somehow more substantial feel than the typical melt-in-your-mouth sugar and shortening bomb. The real standouts though, as my sugar craving partners in crime have already reported, are the cake doughnuts, such as the coconut spiked Tres Leches with its creamy-sweet, dairy rich filling, and the decadently dark and rich Blackout, filled as the name implies with gooey, chocolate-y goodness. My pals were on an anti-pumpkin rampage all weekend but I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying the Plant’s seasonal offering. I must say, though, it paled in comparison to the PB&J, a square-shaped, heartier yeast-raised doughnut spread with peanut buttery glaze and filled with raspberry jam. Put that in a brown bag – guaranteed to send your kiddies into lunchtime sugar shock and send them careening back for more.

A dozen will set you back a pretty sum on the doughnut dollar scale but it’s definitely worth the occasional indulgence.

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 505-3700
Doughnut Plant on Urbanspoon

Postscript: It should be noted that the title of this post is meant to be sung to the following tune, hopefully leading into, “...and the Yankees lost.” The next few days will tell….

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Post-Halloween Sun Ra Triptych

I predict a few jumps in the blogland timeline over the next few days. For now, think of it as space travel à la the Sun Ra Arkestra, which continues to thrive on the universal energy of music in Mr. Ra’s memory. Under the leadership of longtime member Marshall Allen, the Sun Ra Arkestra kicked off Saturday night’s first performance of “Anti-Jazz: The New Thing Revisited,” a four-part series being cross-promoted by Ars Nova Workshop and International House Philadelphia that continues through next spring. It’s hard to think of a show more appropriate for Halloween night. Funkadelic, perhaps… or Gwar might come close. But this was the real deal.

The first video of the trio below sets the Sun Ra stage. The second comes closest to capturing some of the more anarchic, freewheeling moments of the Halloween gig, with a 28-years younger Marshall Allen blowing his alto with wild abandon. The third… well, you’ll figure that one out.

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