Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On The Abalone Farm: Partaking of the Ocean Rose

Up and over a short but steep stretch of hard-packed dirt road, just beyond the hills separating California Pacific Coast Highway 1 from the Pacific itself, somewhere along the relatively untouched stretch of coastline between San Simeon and Cayucos, lies a most unusual farm. There are no grazing animals in sight, no furrowed fields of lettuces or crucifers, no orchards or berry bushes. There's nary a vine, for here we're too close to the ocean for the practice of viticulture. And no, (I know what you're thinking), there's not even a camo-netting system hiding a grove of what might just be California's largest cash crop from the prying eyes of fly-by DEA agents.

What you would find, were you to be an accidental trespasser on the site, are a handful of relatively nondescript, weathered outbuildings along with what might easily be mistaken for some sort of water processing plant. A pumping station sits at the highest point on the property, below which lies, in a stair-stepped line to the sea, a series of concrete tanks, water bubbling from one to the next in serial fashion.

Remember now, this is a farm. What's passing through those tanks is nothing other than unfiltered sea water, pumped directly from the Pacific and fed by gravity from one level of the farm to the next. It's all for the sake of the crop being raised in that poured concrete network: abalone, red abalone to be exact, what they call the "Ocean Rose" here on the farm. And in spite of relatively humble appearances, this happens to be the largest abalone farm, albeit one of only a few, in the United States, lending credence to its simple name: The Abalone Farm.

Brad Buckley, Sales Manager at The Abalone Farm, led our group on an informative, hands-on tour of the farm. You'll see plenty of his hand(s) in the pictures to come.... Brad's a bit of a jack-of-all-trades around the farm, overseeing production and distribution in addition to sales and marketing.

The concept of sustainability, in many and sundry of its nebulous manifestations, was bandied about throughout our trip. But one thing that struck me over the course of our tour was the thoroughly self-sustaining nature of the operations at the abalone farm. It's occasionally necessary to head to Bodega Bay in Northern California to dive for and harvest wild abalone for breeding stock, as it's currently illegal to harvest wild abalone along the Central Coast. Otherwise, just about all of the needs of the farm, from breeding to feeding, rearing to harvesting, are handled right on the farm or provided for from the farm's immediate surroundings.

The farming cycle begins with breeding stock selection: a combination of the best he and she studs from among the specimens on the farm along with wild abalone, brought in from up north to foster genetic strength and biodiversity. Abalone are broadcast spawners, meaning the females release their eggs, males release their sperm and fertilization ensues in the water. For control purposes, the sexes are kept separate in the farm's spawning tanks — which look very much like smaller, shallower versions of the tanks shown below — and the eggs and sperm are then introduced. This is the only point in the process at which the sea water is filtered in any way; the filtration being necessary at this stage to reduce the incidence of bacteria-induced mortality during the abalone's larval stage of growth. Spawning is conducted, as it would occur in the wild, at full moon in the lunar cycle.

What came first: the abalone or the egg? I should make it clear that I have no pretensions to being particularly well versed in marine biology. The descriptions that you'll find here are simply based on my understanding of what we learned during our visit. Please feel free to elucidate if you see fit....

Once larval stage is reached and the brood stabilized, the crop is moved to the hatchery, a simple structure housing row upon row of circular, open-top tanks (shown above). The orange/brown matter in the tanks is the mixture of algae and seaweed upon which the infant abalone feed. At this point in their development, the abalone themselves are not much larger than coarse grinds of black pepper. The strip around the top of the tanks is AstroTurf, which, after some experimenting with various materials, proved to be the ideal texture to deter the little critters from crawling up and out of their tanks.

Sheba the guard cat, who apparently doesn't enjoy eating abalone nearly so much as she does keeping an eye on them.

Once the infant abalone reach a certain size and vitality, it's outside they go.... The juvenile abalone cling to sections of PVC tubing, which serve primarily to increase the surface area within the submerged baskets.

As the abalone approach adolescence, the PVC pipes are removed and the creatures are free to roam within the confines of their submerged baskets.

Finally, as adulthood approaches, the baskets are removed, giving the abalone free range within their respective concrete tanks.

As the abalone grows, its shell grows with it. The holes along the top of the shell allow oxygen to flow through to the animal's respiratory organs. With age, the oldest holes will close while new ones grow. The notch at the front of the shell in the picture above, just over the abalone's head, is the beginning of what will eventually become a new hole.

Abalone, by the way, are one-shelled, one-footed marine snails. Though they fall within the phylum of mollusks, they are generally not considered to be shellfish. It takes four-to-six years for a farmed abalone to reach harvestable size. During that time frame, the abalone are constantly sorted for size, as some will mature and grow more rapidly than others, shutting out their smaller counterparts if left together.

At any given time, there are approximately five million abalone on the farm, with an annual harvest of about one million. Those five million snails go through a combined average of 60 tons of kelp, dulse and algae per week.

Dulse (above) is grown in seawater tanks on the farm. It makes for a pretty tasty snack if I do say so myself.... Algae forms naturally in the abalones' tanks. And kelp, the primary constituent of the abalone's diet, is harvested (if I understood correctly) just off shore; a very sustainable model given that the kelp grows back just as quickly as the abalone eat it.

When The Abalone Farm was established in the 1960s, the majority of its produce went to export markets in China and Japan. In more recent decades, however, the US has become the farm's largest single market, no doubt helped along by the explosion in popularity of sushi and other styles of Asian cuisine that most often utilize the abalone.

When dining on the farm, it's tough to divorce one's association between food and from whence that food comes.... Most abalone is sold in two forms: whole, live abalone and abalone "steaks."

Fresh abalone is crunchy and just a little flexible and fleshy to the bite. If you've been served rubbery abalone at a sushi restaurant, it had either been frozen or kept around for too long. It doesn't get much fresher than this....

For his sashimi preparation, Brad simply shucked the abalone from its shell, trimmed off the fringe and the majority of its black pigmentation, gave it a quick polish to remove a little more of that pigmentation, and then sliced away. Just a spritz of fresh lemon juice can be used for flavor, never enough to acid-cook the flesh.

The steaks are simply whole, fresh abalone that have been cleaned, pounded/tenderized into flat portions and then vacuum packed for shipping. They're available in two styles: polished and rustic. After first sprinkling them with salt to draw out moisture, Brad grilled up a few of each for us to taste, adding nothing else other than a light brushing of olive oil.

The polished abalone steaks, above, have literally been polished — lightly buffed on a grinding wheel to remove the black, pigmented portion of the flesh. They're mild in flavor, very tender, and reminiscent of fresh grilled squid but with a slightly richer and more mineral flavor.
The "rustic" steaks, pictured above, are left with some of their pigmentation still in place, rendering a more pungent, full-flavored result. I definitely preferred this version. Texturally, the rustic steaks were no different from the polished, but their flavor was more intensely of the sea. Think of the brininess of an oyster crossed with the earthy, umami flavor of squid ink and you'll be on the right track.

The Abalone Farm is not regularly open to visitors but private tours can sometimes be arranged upon request. You may find it worth the effort to contact them (especially if you've read this far...) when next you plan to be in the area.

The Abalone Farm, Inc.
PO Box 136
Cayucos, CA 93430

Monday, March 29, 2010

Templeton Gap at Dusk

Clouds dominate the skyline at the onset of dusk, as seen from a high point in the Templeton Gap, Paso Robles, CA, March 24, 2010.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

DoBianchi On Vajra, and Two Long Lost Friends

Synchronicity implies accident, so on this occasion we'll just have to settle for mutual admiration and timely agreement...

I've known for a while now that my friend Dr. Jeremy Parzen, scribe responsible for the wonderful blog Do Bianchi, availed himself of the opportunity to visit Aldo Vajra during one of his recent trips to Piemonte. I've been waiting for details of Jeremy's visit ever since and, finally, he's unleashed them, along with some terrific photos of his tasting session with Signor Vajra.

Jeremy and I seem to be on an ever coincidental path of like circumstances. He's in California now, a state from which I returned just days ago. And he's at last written about Vajra just a few days more after I had the chance to revisit – just before my trip west – two of Aldo and his son Giuseppe's wines that I hadn't had the opportunity to try since I was last in situ in Piemonte, a little over four years ago.

Sadly, neither Vajra's Langhe Bianco Riesling nor his Langhe Freisa "Kyè" have historically been available in my local markets. It was thanks to the good graces of another great friend, one that does a little shopping south of the Mason-Dixon Line, that I finally got to taste these two long lost friends.

Vajra's expression of Freisa is unlike any other Freisa I've ever tasted: totally still, dark, brooding and almost savagely tannic, yet loaded with beautiful, rustic fruit that has no problem handling the wine's deep, spicy wood-tones. The 2006 is a baby but is already oh-so delicious.

And the Langhe Bianco Riesling? When last I tasted it, over lunch with Aldo at the wonderful Ristorante Le Torri in Castiglione Falletto, the wine hadn't yet resolved its primary fruitiness and yeastiness (it was the 2004 vintage) but was nonetheless already showing its underlying intense minerality. The 2008 vintage, at roughly the same point in its evolution, is even more promising, more mouthwatering, simply brimming with white fruit and vibrant stoniness.

I found myself tempted to proclaim it the best Riesling I've tasted from anywhere outside Germany or Austria... but forget about that. It's just great Riesling, plain and simple. Jeremy would seem to agree. Don't miss his observations.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Taste You Later, Paso

It's 3:30 AM Paso time and I'm packing up to head for the airport, back to Philly. Just thought I'd leave you with a little something to set the tastebuds tingling: fresh bacon headed into the wood smoker at Thomas Hill Organics.

More to come in the days ahead....

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring in Paso Robles

March 24, 2010:
Bud break on a head-trained zinfandel vine in the Dante Dusi Vineyard, just off Highway 101 on the West Side of Paso Robles.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just in Case You Weren't Sure...

I guess you know you're in wine country when the turndown service at your hotel leaves an enormous cork on your pillow....

Chardonnay Vines in San Luis Obispo

It's been a long day today, what with a pre-dawn start, travel across multiple time zones, flight transfers, and multiple meet and greets. So I'll bid you a quick goodnight and leave you with a photo from our first stop of the day: reasonably old Chardonnay vines owned by Sextant Wines, located adjacent to their tasting room in the township of Old Edna, on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Look Out Paso Town

By the time you're reading this, I'll already be on a jet plane, Paso Robles bound for a whirlwind three-day press junket. Yep, you read me right: a press junket. This is treading new ground for me. Not just the trip — I've never been to Paso (don't know if anyone calls it that but I've decided to) — but especially the idea of accepting an expenses paid, tourism-board-sponsored visit.

The offers have been coming fast and furious (at least relative to a previously absolute dearth...), this one landing hard on the heels of the invitation I was unable to accept to attend the Barbera 2010 meeting in Asti. The ringleader of that trip, Jeremy Parzen, along with my fellow band of brother (and sister) bloggers faced similar concerns when deciding to undertake that trip as I do now. And it all comes at a time when the s**t is apparently flying fast and furious around the Internet and Blogosphere regarding questions about the merits of wine blogs, the seeming futility of writing them, and the worthiness and credibility of their authors.

At least as much if not more so than my friend Jeremy, I've been trying to keep my nose above those waters, to avoid getting sucked into the fray. Instead, I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing. Enjoying wine, eating food, drinking an occasional beer, traveling, riding my bike, listening to tunes, working an honest day job in the wine biz and — when the mood strikes and I have something to say — writing about it all. Unlike fellow wine writers on the payroll of "brick and mortar" publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, etc., I'm not accountable to any editorial board or corporate parent. But I do hold myself accountable. Accountable to me. Myself. I. And you. And I can say with my head held high and an unflinching stare that that's enough for me. I hope you feel the same.

I'm going on the trip to see what there is to see, to find what there is to learn. I know there will be some destinations that I may not have normally chosen to visit, a winery or two that might veer more toward the market-driven norms than I'm usually prone to seeking out. I'm looking at that as a good thing, an opportunity to push my own envelope. If you only ever look at one side of a coin, you'll never know what's on the other... and that's no way to live a life.

Obviously, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (sponsors of the trip) and the various wineries, restaurants and farms we'll visit are hoping I'll write about them. Obviously, I most likely will. But like my other Asti-trippin' friend Cory, whose coverage of Barbera 2010 was not only extremely well done but also highly personal and sometimes stridently opinionated, I'll write only when I have something personally meaningful to say.

I'm looking forward to the trip and hope you'll look forward to reading about the experiences that come of it.

* * *
Oh yeah, when this was all bouncing around in my head, along came a tune that wouldn't let go. Just replace "Jackson" with "Paso" and you'll hear it too.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Throwing a Changeup

Sometimes I wish I didn't know.

Tasting Vincent Ricard's most recent release (summer/fall 2009) of "Le Vinsans Ricard" a few days back, I would have guessed — and it took me a while to put my finger on the flavor and aroma signatures — that it was produced from Romorantin. I wasn't tasting blind, so that guess would have been made in full knowledge that the wine comes from the Loire, from Thésée in particular, not far from Cour-Cheverny. Romorantin country. The Monaco of Loire vine footprints.

What I do know is that this batch of naturally pétillant "Vinsans" was produced from Sauvignon Blanc. I sell the wine (when it's available) in the course of my day job, where it's part and parcel of my work to know such things. Anyone could find out that it's Sauvignon, as Ricard tells us so in succinct fashion on his website. But Vincent chooses to make no mention of the vine on the wine's label. He easily could, as it is not an AOC-designated wine, just a humble "Vin de Table Mousseux;" but again, he doesn't. I kind of like it that way. It keeps the focus on the wine, not the grape. It lets what's in the bottle speak for itself.

The previous release of "Vinsans," circa summer 2008.

If you rewind to a year earlier, you'll find that notion reinforced by the fact that the previous couple of releases of "Vinsans" — the first two ever if I'm not mistaken — were produced from Gamay. Gamay with traditional maceration on the skins, so we're talking about what was previously a sparkling red wine. Again, there was no mention of variety on the label. In fact, the only labeling changes from batch-to-batch were minor typographical and layout adjustments.

The change proved tricky from a retailer's perspective, as shoppers who'd fallen in love with the red, Gamay-based version and were excited to see the wine back on the shelves had to be alerted to the fact that the wine was now white, was now Sauvignon. Without holding the bottle up to the light, there would have been no way for them to see the difference. Why warn them? Why does it matter? Expectation. I can only imagine how many of the bottles would have been returned, along with an "I thought this was supposed to be red...."

As a consumer in my own right, albeit one who spends a good deal more time than normal thinking about things like this, I like the unheralded shift. The surprise. The fact that it keeps the focus on what is in the bottle, not on what is supposed to be in the bottle.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Return to Terroir

Ever since my last trip to Terroir, I've felt a certain illogical but unavoidable sense of guilt by association. I actually visited twice, on successive days in October 2009, and smack in between those two stops, the place was flooded. What seemed at first to be relatively minor damage turned out to be much more serious, enough in fact to shut down Terroir for long enough that myself and no doubt others began to wonder if the anointed king of San Franciscan natural wine destinations would ever re-emerge from under the wreckage. Luckily, current owners Luc Ertoran and Dagan Ministero persevered, reopening their doors earlier this winter. And happily, I managed a return last week, during a day's trip up to San Fran from our post in Monterey. The guys didn't seem to have held anything against me....

I always seem to end up with at least one photo that I really like when shooting at Terroir. Something about the place must inspire creativity.

In fact, they even had something special open for me (at least that's the way I liked to think about it). Actually, it seems there's always at least one option by the glass at Terroir that's out on the bleeding edge of the establishment's already devout focus on site-expressive wines. Last time 'round it was something orange. This time, it was the 2005 "Savagnin de Voile" from Evelyne and Pascal Clairet's Domaine de la Tournelle, an expression of Jura Savagnin aged under a veil (sous voile) of flor-like, surface dwelling yeasts. Dagan called it a "baby vin jaune." Nearly all of my companions on a mid-Thursday afternoon found it a little too bizarre for their tastes. I called it compellingly delicious, with its intense nose of fino-like oxidative characteristics, oily yellow flowers and crushed, blanched almonds followed up by a penetrating, long-lasting presence on the palate. Very cool juice that, if I understood Dagan correctly, is brought in especially for (and perhaps available only at?) Terroir by Tournelle's importers, Jenny & François.

Yes, that does read "2 x 75cl," what former Terroir partner Guilhaume (not to mention the guys at The Ten Bells in NYC) likes to call a full bottle. Check out Guilhaume's photo-profile of Derain at The Wine Digger. (No more photos, I'm afraid. The Wine Digger has since gone into hiding.)

My friend Joe, he of the Old School, met up with us just as we were finishing our first pours. Knowing that we were there as part of the celebratory preparations leading up to our friends Steve and Stacy's wedding, Joe treated us all to a magnum of "Chut... Derain," a sparkling Aligoté produced by Dominique Derain at his estate in St. Aubin. It went down way too easy. And yes, it's no coincidence that the swoosh on the bottle label resembles the natural curvature of the feminine posterior form. Luc explained the etymology and wordplay involved in the cuvée's name but I can't for the life of me remember the details. You'll have to stop by and ask him for yourselves.

As afternoon all too quickly bled into night and appetites started to flare, I was jazzed to see Spencer on the Go set up their french bistro food truck. I'd missed them on my last Sunday/Monday visits — the Chez Spencer mobile unit feeds Terroir customers and other passersby Wednesday through Saturday from their parking spot in the lot at 7th & Folsom, directly across the street from Terroir. A braised lamb cheek sandwich to go and I was back at the Terroir bar, enjoying my meal with a little taste of Derain's Mercurey rouge, poured for us by Luc as counterpoint to the bottle I'd ordered to close out our visit....

Luc warned me. "Pigeage... barriques... 2005... extracted... tannic... young." Joe just kind of sneered. But I was unstoppable. I'd enjoyed some of the white Burgundies of François Mikulski in the past but had never encountered any of the producer's reds. When I spotted Mikulski's '05 Pommard on the list at Terroir, it stuck in my head. The price was fair, it was an opportunity to explore Burgundy. I had to go for it. But I should have listened. One tough customer, very dark and closed, even a little volatile. Natalie and I, in fact, debated the finer points of the Pommard's aromatic profile, I calling it reminiscent of paint thinner, she in her painterly ways correcting my description with a comparison to the subtler scents of "odorless" mineral spirits. Guess I need to spend a little more time sniffing solvents. I took half the bottle back to Monterey with me and, honestly, it never opened or markedly improved over the course of the next two days. Makes me wonder what its future will bring.

Hey, you can't win 'em all. But you can sure enjoy the trying. I'm ready to go back....

1116 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 558-9946
Terroir on Urbanspoon
Spencer on the Go
7th & Folsom
(across the street from Terroir)
San Francisco, CA 94103
Chez Spencer on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Double RIP

I'm going to do a rare thing tonight (for myself, that is) and be a man of few words.

Two people who had subtle but lasting impacts on my life passed away today. One was a man, confoundingly young beyond his years yet long legend in his own field, who will most likely (and sadly) always be remembered more for how he influenced others than for what he did himself. The other was in today's world probably most often associated with something — wine — that I write about here more than anything else. Yet for me, he'll always be indelibly stamped in my memory as the protagonist of one of the most memorable syndicated television series of my childhood years.

Tonight, I say rest in peace Alex Chilton (1950-2010).

And rest in peace Fess Parker (1924-2010).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


We weren't in the Mission (though we weren't far from it), just on a mission. The object: lunch. Requirements included good food and good beverages, but not too all-consuming a focus on either. Large party accommodation and kid friendliness were also musts. The recommendation from a local friend — we're talking about San Francisco here, just in case my silly intro didn't make that clear — was Starbelly. We went for it, arrived as happy campers and left even happier campers.

Starbelly's space is inviting from the get-go: high ceilings, open duct work, loads of natural light from the large windows at either end of the long space. A bar immediately to the right of the entrance flows into the communal table (really a double-sided bar) shown in the picture above; the room then opens into the main dining area, followed by, weather permitting, a really inviting looking outdoor dining patio.

The first four to arrive, myself included, landed at the equally inviting if smallish frpmt bar area, where we found much needed relief to a certain collective thirst. The beverage program at Starbelly is compact and eclectic, featuring an international wine list that, though not incredibly exciting, offers a thoughtful array of bottles with most options in the under $40 range. There's a creative list of signature and traditional cocktails, as well. The Diablito, a beer-based concoction blended with tomato and lime juices, served in a spice-rimmed tumbler, was bright and refreshing.

The real strength, though, is in their beer program. Again, it's compact, but the beer list offers a well-balanced mixture of local and global selections, ranging from the light and crisp to the heady and intense. Drake's Blonde, a kolsch style ale brewed in nearby San Leandro, CA, was a great lead-off, so good in fact that I stuck with it for the duration. Crisp, clean, thirst quenching; golden and spry in its flavor and oh-so-easy going down. Between myself and the rest of the group clamoring for sips, the first pint disappeared in a flash.

As tempted as I was to make this an episode of A Burger and a Beer, it was pizza that I craved. From a lunch menu offering small plates, salads, sandwiches, a few more elaborate dishes and, yes, pizza, I went for the house-made chorizo pie, topped with over-easy eggs and whole-leaf cilantro. The herbs and chorizo put a southwestern spin on an otherwise northern Italian classic (think cotechino in place of the chorizo and scratch the green stuff), while the light, cracker-y crust kept the amply sized pie light enough to be tackled by a single if hungry eater. (I'm told the Prather Ranch burger was quite tasty too, by the way.)

No one claimed to want dessert yet nobody seemed ready to leave without it. Two orders for the table then... a slice of warm toffee cake with mascarpone and medjool dates, and a dish of caramel pot de crème (pictured above), accompanied by rosemary cornmeal cookies. I focused primarily on the latter — it was at my end of the table, after all — and have to say it was hard not to horde it all for myself. To top it all of, a couple of large pots of french press coffee, brewed with beans from Oakland-based roaster Mr. Espresso. I can't drink much of the black stuff after noon but what I did sip was rich, comforting and deeply balanced.

Is Starbelly the destination restaurant I'm given to understand the Castro has been craving? That I can't answer, at least not until a further visit or two at dinner time. For lunch, though, it's a destination worthy of your visit, whether it be local or from far afield.

3583 16th Street (at Market)
San Francisco, CA 94114
Starbelly on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mazel Tov, My Friends!

We're back from California — five days of whirlwind action leading up to a beautiful finale. While there's no lack of fun posts waiting in the wings to chronicle our stops along the way, first and foremost I want to give an emphatic shout out and a huge, bloggy hug to my good friends, Steve and Stacy.

That's the happy couple below, under the chuppah at the old whaling station in the historic district of Monterey, midway into their exchange of marital vows on Sunday, the be-all and end-all inspiration for the trip. I've known them both about as long as they've known each other. I've watched them grow together, shared some great times with them and was really and truly jazzed to be there to share in their big day, to see them finally taking the plunge after all these years.

The rabbi had a great sense of humor, the groom a constant, just barely held back tear of happiness in his eyes, and the bride an unbeatable smile throughout. It was a really beautiful service.

The reception was a great time, too. I owe a big thank you to my pals Mike and Joe for getting the wines to the party in fine time and in great shape; both were big hits with the friends and family gathered for the day's celebration.

Something old world, something new, something hoppy and some hipster brew....

The bride walked to The Pixies' "La La Love You," an inspired choice, perfect for the day and for the couple. No do-overs needed (you'll know what I mean when you watch the video below). Mazel tov, my friends! Like the guys in the band say, I love you.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Going Sans Soufre in Monterey

Please pardon the dead air of the last few days. I've been in California since Wednesday, here to celebrate (and help with as much as possible) the pending nuptials of my great friends Steve and Stacy. They welcomed our arrival on Wednesday night with a simple meal Chez S&S, which we all enjoyed along with a fantastic bottle of Marcel Lapierre's 2008 Morgon.

While the bottle above may look no different than usual (Meyer lemons aside) to the American-based imbibers of Lapierre's wines, let me tell you that this wine was different from what you're likely to have enjoyed before. The secret's all on the back label....

You may remember me mentioning here before that Lapierre actually produces three different "batches" of his Morgon: one with no sulfur and no filtration; one with no filtration but with a light dose of sulfur; and one with both light filtration and a little sulfur. Importer Kermit Lynch had never brought the unsulfured version into the States, as he prefers the more stable nature of that with a light sulfur dose for the rigors of national distribution.

Notice that I wrote "had" rather than "has," as Kermit has now brought a small lot of the unsulfured version -- "Lot n," as you can see in the photo at right -- specifically at request of the crew at San Francisco's natural wine bar extraordinaire, Terroir. Though I've had several bottles recently of Lappierre's regular 2007 Morgon, I've yet to drink the regularly sulfured version of his 2008 release, so this is a bit of a McIntosh to Gala comparison. Taking the liberty of tasting across vintages, though, I found the unsulfured version to be a little darker-fruited and earthier in aroma, crunchier in texture and ever so slightly more rustic than the regular cuvée. It was also really delicious. Which begs the question: when, where and how will I get to drink it again???

Thanks for the treat, guys! Lookin' forward to all the great things to come.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Art Ensemble 40, Ars Nova 10

Saturday night's performance by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the fourth and final show in the Ars Nova Workshop's Anti-Jazz Series, proved to be fittingly climactic. Once through the first couple of minutes of tuning in and finding their rhythm, the band was on — and in a seriously powerful groove — for the duration of their gig, putting on what was for me by far the most completely enjoyable show of the series. Even though my photo (above) sucks from a technical perspective, I kind of like the way it captures the energy of the show — very circular and vibrational, with a hum that you could feel all the way through your body if you just closed your eyes and let it take you.

The show was a fitting finale to the series from a benchmark perspective, as well. As the Art Ensemble, founded in 1969, has just entered its fifth decade of active musical artistry, Philadelphia's Ars Nova Workshop is poised to celebrate its own ten-year anniversary. Ars Nova's official 10th anniversary show is coming up in just a little over a week. Whether or not you make it to that performance is a moot point. Ars Nova promotes an amazing array of shows, with a nearly non-stop schedule. I won't go so far as to say there's something there for everyone; however, if you live in the Philadelphia area (or plan to visit) and are into creative music and cutting-edge jazz, you need to keep a regular watch on the Ars Nova event schedule.

As for last Saturday's show, I wasn't quite sure what to expect but was obviously pleased. It had been the better part of 30 years since I'd last seen the Art Ensemble — an early '80s show at the Wax Museum in Washington, DC, just a year or two at most after the video you can watch and hear below. Though founding members Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors are no longer with us, Roscoe Mitchell, Famoudou Don Moyé and the newer additions to the group are still bringing it. If presented with the chance, catch them while you still can.

Friday, March 5, 2010

On the Barbera Trail

As promised a few days ago, and at the kind request of the estimable Dr. P., I've contributed a guest blog post, written from my perspective as a wine retailer, for the Barbera 2010 project. Here's an excerpt to whet your collective whistles:

"It's the wines that capture Barbera's innate rusticity and display its ease at the table that I find myself leading people to time and time again.

Take the wines of Roberto Ferraris, a grower of Barbera d'Asti whose nine-hectare farm is nestled in the hills of Agliano Terme. Ferraris is not a producer on many people's radar but I kind of like it that way. It removes any pretense of selling his wines based on a name. The focus instead is entirely on quality, and Roberto delivers just that, from his entry-level Barbera d'Asti through his vineyard designated wines...."

To read the whole story, head on over to my post at the Barbera 2010 blog. Thanks for having me, y'all. Buon viaggio!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

MFWT Turns Three

MFWT has its third birthday today. It's been a quick three years yet somehow it also seems like I've been at it much longer than that.

On the eve of my bloggiversary, I considered celebrating by opening something above and beyond my usual Wednesday night selection but, given that I was dining alone, I decided against it. In the spirit of ascetic relativism, I opted to save that "special" bottle to share with friends and loved ones and instead popped open an everyday value from, you guessed it, the Loire.

I've been meaning to write-up this wine ever since Jim Budd of Jim's Loire mentioned to me that he'd never seen or heard of it, in spite of having visited with Vincent Ricard at Domaine Ricard on multiple occasions. So, this one's for you, Jim....

Touraine Sauvignon, Domaine de la Potine (Vincent Ricard) 2008
$12. 12.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.
Domaine de la Potine is an eight-hectare property situated on hillsides overlooking the Cher, not far from the village of Thésée yet separate and distinct from the main property at Domaine Ricard. This is the only wine produced from la Potine, 100% Sauvignon from 20-25 year-old vines planted in clay and limestone (argilo-calcaire) dominated soils, farmed to yields of about 55 hl/ha. Unlike at Domaine Ricard, where everything is harvested by hand, about 30% of the vines at Potine are machine harvested. To prepare for what the machines can't see, Vincent and his team pass through the portions of the property destined for machine picking about two weeks prior to harvest to remove any rotted or otherwise less than perfect fruit.

The grapes are crushed in a pneumatic press, the must racked off the skins and moved into steel tanks for a three-week fermentation at controlled, relatively cool temperatures, followed by four-to-five months of aging on the fine lees before the wine is bottled. As with all of Vincent's wines, the farming at Potine is organic with the addition of selected biodynamic principles, fermentation is conducted on the ambient yeasts and sulfur use is kept to a bare minimum.

Year in and year out, Potine is a solid value, delivering simple pleasure via direct citrus fruit and fresh-mowed flavors and crisp, refreshing acidity. For those that love their Sauvignons to burst with primary fruit or to serve as an easy-drinking aperitif, the '08 may have been at its peak during the summer and autumn months. It has now grown leaner and shed some of its sweeter-fruited flavors, bending more to a firmer mouthfeel and an herbal, slightly bitter, more table-oriented flavor profile. Last night's bottle was showing grapefruit pith and jalapeno, in particular. Though not quite as ripe or mineral as "Le Petiot," the entry-level Sauvignon from Domaine Ricard proper, at $12 a bottle, "La Potine" delivers a pretty solid expression of Touraine Sauvignon.

So, what would you have opened?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Marcel Lapierre Vin de Pays des Gaules

Given the comic nature of the artwork by Siné coupled with the good-spirited script on the label at right, one could be forgiven for thinking that Marcel Lapierre was indulging in a bit of Gallic wordplay with the release of his "country wine of the Gaules." That was my initial reaction upon first seeing Lapierre's new wine hit the US market earlier this year.

In actuality, though, Vin de Pays des Gaules is indeed a relatively new (about three years-old now), official (yet not widely approved of) addition to the INAO's short-list of large, regional VdP designations. The area covers Beaujolais in its entirety, plus, if I'm interpreting the map correctly, fringe portions of the Mâconnais and the Northern Rhône. Like most other VdP designations, it's much more forgiving/inclusive of grape varieties than the AOC system. Vin de Pays des Gaules allows for as many as 19 varieties, Syrah and Viognier among them, along with the more obvious Chardonnay and, of course, Gamay, which alone constitutes upward of 95% of the plantings in question.

The primary objectives of the new Vin de Pays des Gaules designation, as with the similar and simultaneous creation of Vin de Pays de l'Atlantique for the greater Bordeaux region, are two-fold: to reduce the overall quantity (theoretically thereby raising the overall quality) of AOC wines being produced in the region and to create a category of simpler, easier to drink, less expensive wines. In two regions where the market is already awash in inexpensive, innocuous and often sub-par quality wines, though, I'm not sure the creation of these new VdPs does anything more than further muddy the already murky waters for those faced with marketing largely unwanted wines to an ever-increasingly competitive world market.

In the case of Lapierre's wine, though, I'm not going to argue with the results.

Vin de Pays des Gaules, Marcel Lapierre 2008
$15. 12.5% alcohol. Stelvin. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.
I've already seen retailers succumb to the temptation of referring to Lapierre's Vin de Pays des Gaules, which is varietal Gamay by the way, as "Morgon Junior." Who could blame them, I suppose. But in practice, Lapierre has actually captured the spirit of simplicity that's idealistically intended by the new VdP. While I've never had any problem drinking (as opposed to "tasting") Lapierre's Morgon, this is even more eminently easy-drinking wine. Vin de Pays de Gulpable, if you will. Crisp, light and snappy, it lacks the depth of the Morgon but is still full of flavor, with early season raspberry fruit laced with bright, refreshing citrus zest and herbal nuances.

It's unmistakably the product of carbonic maceration and fermentation, yet, as with all of Lapierre's wines, the grapes are fermented on their native yeasts, so there's no trace of the telltale banana aromas so oft associated with carbonic wines. It's hard to imagine a more uncomplicated pour that's still wine-y rather than grape-y. Great served with a stiff chill, this would make for a great summertime BBQ and/or porch wine. For now, it goes down just as easy with a good old Monday night pizza.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Follow the Barbera Boys (and Girls!)

Oh, to be in Piemonte. The magical region in NW Italy has been beckoning me back since my first and last trip there... amazing to think it's already been four years.

Though it won't exactly make up for my disappointment in not being able to join the group that's headed there next week, I'm looking forward to following the exploits of my friends and wine writing cohorts on the Barbera 2010 trail. Jeremy "Doctor DoBi" Parzen has gathered a select group of North American wine writers, bloggers and restaurateurs to travel to the prime growing zones of Alba, Asti and Monferrato for a concentrated blitz on the world of Barbera from March 8 through March 11. You can follow along with them, just as I will, at the official Barbera 2010 site as well as at the various blogs and websites of those that are, unlike myself (sob...), able to make the trip.

A token shot from the MFWT archives.... Giacomo Conterno's 2005 Barbera d'Alba "Cascina Francia" was among the more compelling examples of Barbera I've enjoyed over the last couple of years. One of the great things about Barbera, though, is that it need not be profound to be eminently versatile and enjoyable.

Even though I won't be there for the main event, I'm due to do a little warm-up guest blogging at the Barbera 2010 site in the next couple of days, so check it out, bookmark it or subscribe, and stay tuned. I'll post a reminder here when my contribution is alive and kicking.
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