Saturday, October 30, 2010

Irouléguy "Ohitza," Domaine Brana 2003

Yesterday would have been my friend Marc's 38th birthday — should have been — had he not lost his life to cancer three weeks ago. I wrote about what it meant to me then, a part of my process of mourning and a way of paying respect to a great guy who I didn't appreciate nearly enough when he was still with us. Last night I was aiming more simply, wanting to celebrate his birthday like we should have, with good food and wine. While I thought about opening something "special" for the occasion, I ended up changing my mind, instead opting for something that made me think of him, something that I can remember him selling and discussing with just as much animation as did I back in the years when we worked together on a semi-regular basis. It just felt right. Happily, the wine did too.

Irouléguy "Ohitza," Domaine Brana 2003
$15 on release. 13% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

Though arguably better known for their top-notch eaux de vie than for their wines, Domain Brana produce high-quality, traditional and expressive examples of Irouléguy in all three colors. The entry-level of their three reds, "Ohitza" is a fairly typical Irouléguy blend of Tannat (50%), Cabernet Franc (30%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (20%), all of which is manually harvested and completely destemmed before undergoing a 15-20 day fermentation followed by about a year of aging in previously used barrels.

Here's a $15 wine (a few years back at any rate) that's not merely lasted five-plus years but actually rewarded the time and patience spent in the cellaring. It's also an excellent example of wine from the oft scorned 2003 vintage. Where the heat and drought of the year brought out over-ripe, over-cooked flavor and structural tendencies in many a region, here in Irouléguy, at least in this case, the vintage conditions simply brought out a touch more roundness and generosity than in a more typical growing season. The wine is still fantastically balanced, as evidenced by a more than solid showing over the course of the last two days. When we're talking about terraced vineyards cut into 65% gradients on a meager soil base (red-hued, mica-flecked sandstone) at reasonably high-elevation, perhaps a hot year isn't such a bad thing.

That generosity of which I wrote showed most clearly when I first opened the bottle with dinner last night. Rich blackberry fruit mingled with aromas of rosemary and leather — not the dirty, brett-y side of the leather spectrum, just a resolved (and quite attractive) aspect of the inherently savage character of Tannat and Cabernet Franc grown in the Basque country. The longer it had to open up, the more aromatic and, seemingly, terroir expressive it became. Clove and cherry stones after about an hour; leafy, spicy, tree bark aromatics and red currant fruit another half-hour later. Tonight, it was still rock solid and just as, if not even more so, aromatically open, redolent of iron and drying tobacco leaves, showing less overt spice, more earth/mineral clarity.

Suffice it to say it was a damn nice bottle. And yes again, it definitely felt right.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On Bardolino Superiore: Complicating the Complication

While today's post is certainly meant for everyone's reading pleasure, I'm going to start things out with a question for my fellow bloggers. Have you ever started a new post, saved it as a draft part way through and then never gone on to finish it? I'm guessing the answer will be a near-unanimous "yes." Now, how many of you have saved that partial draft, neglected it for over a year, but then returned to and completed it? Not so many of you, I'd guess. Nonetheless, that's exactly what I'm doing today, fourteen months and change after originally starting the piece.

Somehow I always knew I'd return to the topic at hand — Bardolino Superiore and its elevation to DOCG status — as it has been in my head ever since reading the post from Alfonso Cevola that originally inspired it. Be sure to check it out, as it's a great example of what makes On the Wine Trail in Italy one of the best things going in this here vinous corner of the blogosphere.

Ace, as I and others are wont to call him, has made it a serious sideline of his to catalog all of Italy's DOCG designations and to add any changes to this ever-growing list as soon as they come to his attention. As I was reading that inspirational commentary of his on DOCG additions (both recent and not so recent) that he deemed of questionable merit, I can remember thinking, "and Bardolino Superiore.... I'm going to hit the comments with my two cents on Bardolino Superiore." Yet there it was, at the end of his post... Ace's own inclusion of Bardolino Superiore on his not-so-worthy list.

Though I've never had "a hot date with with a cute blond in a mini" (again, Alfonso's inspiration, as is the above photo), I do really enjoy Bardolino, and I do mean *really* enjoy. The Bardolino "normale" from Corte Gardoni, called "Le Fontane," has been one of my everyday Italian go-to reds for many, many moons. I like it better — that is to say, I enjoy it more — than their Bardolino Superiore.

If you're thinking this is all just a long-winded lead-in to a trashing of Bardolino Superiore, then you're in for a disappointment. Another part of the inspiration for the genesis of this post, way back in the autumn of '09, was a bottle of the 2007 Bardolino Superiore from Corte Gardoni. A good bottle. Actually, two good bottles. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself....

Let's leap forward to earlier this week. Rooting around in my wine closet for something to drink with dinner, I unburied — and proceeded to uncork — a bottle of Corte Gardoni's 2005 Bardolino Superiore. Though Bardolino Superiore was granted DOCG status way back in February 2002, with retroactive application to wines as of the 2001 harvest, it was when this '05 arrived on the market that I first remember noticing the promotion, and first remember thinking it odd. At least that's how I recall it now.

However foggy that memory may be, my experience with this week's bottle of 2005 Bardolino Superiore is still very fresh in mind. Though I'd say the wine had reached full maturity, it was very much holding its own, not yet starting the inevitable slide into the less savory realms of decay. Aside from a deeply tea-like aromatic character, which to me is a hallmark of Bardolino, I might have been hard pressed to identify the wine if its identity hadn't been staring me in the face. Though delicate in body, it had developed aromatic characteristics not at all out of line with what one might expect from a good left bank Bordeaux, produced in an off vintage and now at its mid-life point. Tannic it was not; not at all. Still lively in acidity it was. Pleasing, too, in its own way; quite pretty wine, actually.

Was it a great wine, though? I think calling it great would be a stretch. But does that matter? Should DOCG wines be, by definition, great? Consider the following point made by Tom Hyland in a piece he wrote way back in 2002, just after Bardolino Superiore was granted its DOCG status.
"For Italians, DOCG does not necessarily mean the finest wines in the country; rather the designation is thought of as a statement that these wines are the best they can be, given the grapes and locales used. No one would argue that Bardolino is among the best red wines of Italy, but if DOCG means a better Bardolino, then why not?"
Tom's point is perfectly apropos and well stated. The twist comes (though I'm sure it was not his intention) along with that concept or image of a "better" Bardolino. I'm thinking here more along the lines of Colonel Steve Austin and the opening sequence of The Six Million Dollar Man. "We have the technology. We have the capability to [make him] better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster." Which brings me back to those two bottles of 2007 Bardolino Superiore from last year.

Take a look (above) at the back labels from those two bottles; aside from slightly different lot numbers, they're essentially identical. Turn those same bottles face first, though, as seen below, and it's a different story. The first is clearly Bardolino Superiore DOCG. The second makes no mention whatsoever of the wine's denominazione; only a knowing glance up at the bottle's neck (obviously not pictured) would reveal the wine's DOCG status.

What I know, only because I know the wines and the producer that makes them, is that they're actually the same wine (bottling lot aside). Corte Gardoni simply decided to change the name of the wine, and to do so smack in the middle of a vintage. Why? Well, as I understand it via a conversation between an old coworker of mine (who speaks fluent Italian) and Corte Gardoni patriarch Gianni Piccoli, it was the Piccoli family's direct response to the trend toward Six Million Dollar Bardolino that had occurred since the institution of DOCG elevation.

The discipline for the Bardolino Superiore DOCG requires that the wine's blend be based on 35-65% Corvina Veronese, the most distinctive and important variety of the area, 10% of which can be Corvinone (once thought to be genetically related to Corvina); 10-40% Rondinella; and up to 20% of other varieties, which can include no more than 10% each from any combination of vines such as Molinara, Rossignol, Barbera, Sangiovese, Marzemino, Merlot, and/or Cabernet Sauvignon. Granted, 20% might not sound like much but if you take 10% each of dark, bold varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera and add them to the inherently pale and delicate Corvina, then you've got some serious fortification in the works. Add to that the fact that some producers were apparently making ripasso-style Bardolino Superiore and the scene just gets wrinklier.

The family Piccoli wanted none of it, so they gave their wine what some might be tempted to call a nome di fantasia — "Pràdicà" essentially means "house meadow" or "meadow by the house." To them it's a statement that their wine is, well, their wine, not a wine that's following the "superiore" fashion trend. The problem, as I mentioned before, is that one needs to know that for it to be meaningful. Complicated, no?

My point, aside from wanting to tell the story of Corte Gardoni's wine, is actually quite simple. In the big picture, I'm inclined to agree with Alfonso, who said it much more plainly than have I, "Bardolino is fine as a DOC, but no 'G', no 'G'." Sometimes simpler really is better.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Laherte Frères et Les Vignes d'Autrefois

Of the dozen or so trade events I managed to attend during the heart of the fall portfolio tasting season in New York, and of the scores of excellent wines I tasted (and the hundreds of not-so-excellent ones), there was one producer whose lineup truly stood out for me, precise and delicious from end to end. That producer is the Champagne house of Laherte Frères, whose wines were featured at the Selection Pas Mal portfolio tasting back in September.

From Laherte's Brut "Tradition," which showed broad, creamy texture and some sponti aromatic characteristics, to their Brut Rosé, a true rosé de répas made from a blend of 60% Pinot Meunier and 30% Pinot Noir with the 10% addition of red wine made from Meunier, and on to the Brut Blanc de Blancs, which displayed serious acidity and structure allied with a deep sense of aromatic grace and elegance, the wines were truly lovely. There were two other wines shown that day that also stood out. As luck would have it, I happened to have a bottle of each at home. And when the occasion called for it earlier this week, I decided it was time for a revisit.

Champagne Extra-Brut "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" (Pinot Meunier), Laherte Frères 2005
$50. 12% alcohol. DIAM. Importer: Triage Wines, Seattle, WA.
The Pas Mal crew poured both the 2004 — the first vintage ever for this wine — and the 2005 at their tasting and my notes remind me that I preferred the '04 on that day. Under more favorable circumstances, though, meaning at the table, with food, with friends, and in a relaxed setting, the 2005 was a thing of beauty. Lush, deep, vibrating with energy and purity of fruit, the wine paired fantastically with our first couple of courses, leading the bottle's contents to disappear all too soon. Made purely with Pinot Meunier from vines planted in 1947 and 1964 in clay and limestone rich soils in the villages of Chavot and Mancy in the Vallée de la Marne, the base wines for "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" are fermented entirely in barrel and do not undergo malolactic fermentation. Needless to say, I was very pleased with the results.

A reasonable memory of high school French should be enough to remind you that "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" means "vines of the past" or "vines from another time." While first and formeost I expect that is the Laherte family's more poetic way of saying "vieilles vignes," I can't help but wonder if it's not also a nod to the fact that Pinot Meunier has become an all but forgotten stepchild, at least in commercial terms, when it comes to the three primary varieties grown in the Champagne region. In any event, I borrowed upon the name for the title of today's post as I think it holds equal relevance to the second wine we drank.

Champagne Extra-Brut "Les Clos," Laherte Frères NV
$60. 12.5% alcohol. DIAM. Importer: Triage Wines, Seattle, WA.
My immediate experience with "Les Clos" on this night was converse to that which I'd had with the "Autrefois." At the Pas Mal tasting, it was the standout of a shining lineup; suffice it to say that, in addition to some more technical details, my notes read something along the lines of, "Fantastic wine... I'm drinking this one." Sandwiched between the forward beauty of the '05 "Les Vignes d'Autrefois" and much anticipated bottles of 1964 Barbaresco and Barolo from Oddero, it was, I fear, not given its proper chance to shine. Such is the danger when opening multiple great wines in one sitting. Nonetheless, I'm confident in saying that the wine was showing great promise and interest — not as immediate in its appeal as "Autrefois" but more mineral, arguably more detailed, and definitely less open-knit. I look forward to trying it again, in a light that will let it fully shine.

"Les Clos," by the way, is another newish wine from Laherte. It's not a vintage-dated wine but to my knowledge there have been only two or, at most, three bottlings of the wine since its first inception. "Les Clos" takes its name from a single, one-hectare vineyard in the town of Chavot, where Laherte Frères is based. The vineyard was planted in only 2003 to all seven of the Champagne varieties: the big three — Chardonnay (18%), Pinot Noir (14%) and Pinot Meunier (18%) — along with the four "heritage" varieties of Champagne, "les vignes d'autrefois," if you will — Fromenteau (10%), Arbanne (8%), Petit Meslier (15%), and Pinot Blanc (17%). All seven varieties are co-harvested and co-fermented.

It gets more complicated than that, though. First, as Peter Liem points out at his worth-every-penny, subscription-only site,, "Note... that this is the composition of the vineyard—the wine itself doesn’t necessarily correspond to these percentages, since the yields of the varieties are not consistently the same." Second, and bearing the same idea in mind when it comes to ratios, "Les Clos" is a solera method Champagne, a "perpetual blend" to borrow again from Peter's words. The wine will be an example of constant evolution over the years, one meant first and foremost to express terroir, as each new vintage is added to the first (2005) and all subsequent years, in the old Burgundy barrels in which "Les Clos" is aged. (For a little more information on Champagne made in the solera method, you may wish to (re)visit my post on Anselme Selosse's "Substance".) In addition to multiple bottlings, Laherte has actually released two different stylistic versions of "Les Clos," one as a zero-dosage Brut Nature and this, the Extra-Brut, which sees a modest four gram/liter dosage.

Finally, here's a little Laherte family history before I bring things to a Clos[e]. (Sorry, just had to do it.) Founded in 1889, Laherte Frères was ushered into the modern era as well as into the business of estate bottling by Michel Laherte, followed by his sons, Thierry and Christian Laherte (thus, Laherte "Frères"). While Thierry and Christian continue as heads of the estate, it is Thierry's son, Aurélien Laherte, who is now responsible for both viticulture and vinification. Representing the seventh-generation of vine growers at Laherte, Aurélien, now only 27, has brought the estate another step forward. All of the family's vineyards — 75 distinct parcels, totaling ten hectares and spread across ten different villages — are now cultivated organically, with about half of those farmed using biodynamic practices. Along with his friend and peer Raphaël Bérèche, Aurélien is also one of the founding members and organizers of Terres et Vins de Champagne.

There's little question in my mind, even less after drinking these beauties, that Aurélien is in the top rank of young Champenois vignerons producing wines worthy of both contemplation and pure, unadulterated enjoyment. You can follow Aurélien and the rest of the Laherte family in action through the seasons at their blog, Nouvelles de Chavot.

And truly finally, just in case the doubling-up of importer information (Pas Mal at the tasting, Triage at dinner) seemed confusing or contradictory, allow me to clarify. The Champagnes of Laherte Frères are imported and distributed by Selection Pas Mal in the NY/NJ market (shipped for them by USA Wine Imports) and by Triage Wines in the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

1964 Oddero for the Birthday Girl

A birthday celebration for a good friend. Birth year wine, courtesy of her husband. A meal prepared especially for the occasion and the wines by Chef Pierre Calmels at Bibou, one of my favorite restaurants in Philadelphia. Was I to turn down an invitation like that? Hell no! It was an honor and pleasure to join in for the festivities.

While the anticipated bottles of the night waited in the wings, we got things rolling with some fantastic grower Champagne from Laherte Frères (more on that at a later date).

Chef Calmels' trout gravlax — diced, ringed with cucumber, drizzled with basil vinegar, and topped with baby mustard greens — was one of the stand-out dishes of the night and a lovely match with our bubbly. After another course or two (corn soup with duck prosciutto, a terrine of sweetbreads), it was time to visit the birthday girl's wines.

All I can say is, "Thanks, Kelly, for being born in a good year." I'm a year younger (I'll leave the math to you, kind reader) and was not so lucky. In fact, I've yet to even have a wine from my own birth year, generally considered fair at best, more often bad to worse, in just about every wine growing region on the planet.

These '64s from Oddero, though, were drinking impressively well. My pal Bill had picked them up, especially for Kelly's birthday, from a shop that occasionally buys and sells wines from private collections. While the corks in both were showing their age, crumbling upon extraction, both wines were startlingly young in both appearance and structure.

The 1964 Barbaresco, I think we all agreed, was the wine of the night, still showing a dark red, only slightly going-to-garnet color in the glass; a rich, supple texture; and fruit tones that started out surprisingly primary then took on aromas of spice, roses and dried red fruits with air. The '64 Barolo, in comparison, was a touch darker, similarly evolved but much more brooding and animal in its aromas and textures, showing even greater overall youth and, as expected, more muscular structure. Both wines were a joy to experience but both, I feel, could easily have continued to develop for another couple of decades (though perhaps not without being re-corked).

Of the dishes that Pierre matched to the old Barbaresco and Barolo, my favorite was a last-minute surprise: veal ribeye and baby brussel sprouts on a bed of white bean purée and veal jus. Executed perfectly, the dish was a very fine match with the aromatic complexity and mid-life structure of our two Nebbioli.

Having been clued-in to the birthday girl's surprise, I'd brought along a much younger bottle from Oddero, their 2006 Barbaresco "Gallina." You know, simply for academic purposes. It, too, was on a good night, pure and vibrant, as surprisingly approachable in its near-sinful youth as the '64s were surprisingly youthful in their... well, like I said, you can do the math.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ari Up, RIP

If you've never heard of Arianna Forster, you'll be forgiven. Hell, if you've never heard of Ari Up I'll even let you slide. Ari was the front woman of the early British punk band The Slits. To call The Slits seminal would be missing the mark; the band was hugely individualistic, a big part of the early punk scene, but they were largely overlooked.

The Slits formed in 1976; toured with The Clash, The Jam and the Buzzcocks in 1977; but didn't release their first album until 1979. By that time, their sound had morphed from its early chaotic, spasmodic punk drive into something more unusual, a sort of poly-rhythmic mesh of punk, reggae and funk. Though they'll always be connected with the core Brit-punk explosion of 1977, I'll always most closely associate their music with the next step, what I'll call the agit-pop phase from '79 to '81 (when they broke up). And I'll always think of their music in the same way I think of Gang of Four and, particularly, The Pop Group, with whom The Slits shared a split-single (Rough Trade 039A) in 1980.

Ari Up was only 14 when she joined The Slits in 1976. She died on Wednesday, October 20, 2010, the result of a serious but unspecified illness. A more detailed obituary was published in The Guardian earlier this week.

For those that would like to get a sense of her music (or to enjoy the memories), I've included three videos below. The first is from the early years, an excerpt from Don Lett's 1977 film "The Punk Rock Movie;" you'll need to wade through about a minute worth of punk-film action before making it to their performance. Next up is The Slits only "hit," "Typical Girls" (1979), not their greatest song but a classic, old school video. And last is an audio-only clip of "In The Beginning There Was Rhythm," their track on that 1980 split-single with The Pop Group; it for me is the most indicative of The Slits sound. Enjoy. And RIP, Ari.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Le Tour 2011: It's Never Too Early to Start Planning

With all the usual fanfare and pomp, the route for the 2011 Tour de France was announced yesterday. As tradition dictates, the route will run in the opposite direction relative to last year. That counter-clockwise switch is even more convoluted than usual, as the course doubles back on itself more than once in the first few days, following the Grand Départ in the Vendée on July 2, 2011.

What that really boils down to, in simple terms, is that the riders will face the Pyrenées prior to entering the Alps this year. Rather than two climbs of the Tourmalet, as in the 2010 edition, the 2011 Tour will see the peloton ascent the Galibier on two consecutive days. The infamous switchback climb of L'Alpe d'Huez also returns after a brief omission, an appropriate return given that 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Le Tour's first passage through the high Alps.

A few structural decisions will be carried over from the 2010 edition. There will be no time bonuses at the stage finishes or at the intermediate sprints, a decision I support as it keeps the race for the yellow jersey pure — based solely on the final placing on each day's stage. As last year, there will also be only one long time trial (and not a terribly long one, at that). Again, I like that; it's just enough to sort things out among the climbers without giving an undue advantage to the TT specialists. The spectacle of the team time trial returns; always fun to watch, and a great way to focus on the fact that cycling really is, though it's not always immediately apparent, a team sport.

One big change has been announced in conjunction with the 2011 Tour, to the green jersey competition. My gut reaction to it is not favorable. Instead of the multiple intermediate sprints, with only three placings and minor point awards, which have been the standard in the contemporary era, the 2011 Tour will see only one intermediate sprint on each stage. The catch? That sprint will carry half the points available at the finish line of each day's stage, with placings going 15 riders deep rather than three — far more weight than the mid-stage primes have carried in the past. This, I fear, will make the race even more dangerous than it already has been as the pressure to tally points toward the maillot vert will lead to increased risk-taking leading up to the mid-way point of each day's racing. It may well spell doom, too, for the long standing tradition of the stage-long suicide breakaway attempt.

All of that said (and tainted beef claims aside), I'm already looking very much forward to next year's Tour. As with the 2010 edition, I have every intention of providing daily Tour highlights here at MFWT, covering not only the race but also the food and beverage culture of the regions through which the race passes. And as with last year's coverage, I have no intention of doing it all myself. So, as the title of today's post suggests, it's never too early to start planning... not even for a procrastinator like myself. Check out the route and the day-to-day details and let me know if you'd like to lay dibs on writing up any particular stage come July 2011. Hey, Stage 19 is already spoken for.... I expect the rest to go quickly, so don't delay.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday Suds: Granogue Cross Edition

What's that you say? Sunday Suds on Tuesday? Well, there's a first time for everything.

I spent the entire day in the great outdoors on Sunday, checking out the second day of competition at Granogue Cross 2010. As at any good cyclocross race there was plenty of time for beer, just no time to write about it. So here's my usual Sunday report, two days late but with all kinds of fun photos to help make up for the wait.

Granogue Cross is held on a private estate, owned by the Dupont family, in the countryside of northwestern Delaware. To my knowledge, the property is opened to the public only twice per year: once for a cyclocross race and once for a mountain bike race. The tower that dominates the high point of the property has become the de facto symbol for the annual CX event.

There's nothing de facto when it comes to beer's importance to cyclocross culture, though. Beer is unquestionably the official beverage of the sport. I'm talking worldwide, not just here in the craft brewing mecca of the Delaware and Brandywine Valleys. Spectators and racers alike could be found roaming the course with brews in hand throughout the day, though I suspect the majority of the racers waited until after their respective events before partaking.

As is so often the case at local cycling events, Victory Brewing Company was on hand to pour pints and dish out savory sustenance to the hungry and thirsty among the crowd. On top of being one of the sponsors of the Granogue event, Victory has been involved in club road racing throughout the Philadelphia area for many years. Their support of the local racing community is always appreciated.

My preferred draught for the day was Victory Prima Pils. It's one of my favorite American takes on the classic Bohemian pilsner style, perhaps just a touch hoppier than its usual Czech and German cousins. Between the plastic cups and the mobile pouring unit, the pints weren't perfect on this day but they still went down easy, especially paired, in good Oktoberfest spirit, with a grilled brat topped with caramelized onions and a squirt of French's.

Now that I've made myself hungry and thirsty (again), here's a little taste of Sunday's action. My point-and-shoot isn't the greatest when it comes to capturing high speed action but I hope you'll manage to muddle through just a few of my favorite pics from the day.

I worked the pits — the only place on the course where beer was not allowed — for a friend who was racing in the Elite Masters class. That's his spare mount, the Primus Mootry, second in from the front. On a muddy day, the pits would have been a scene of constant chaos. On Sunday, though, the course had all but completely dried out, thanks to steady sun and even steadier wind, after last week's rain storms. Only a few riders pulled in to switch bikes after suffering mechanicals on the course.

Laura Van Gilder — the Power Puff from Pocono Pines, as christened by race announcer Richard Fries — leading the Elite Women's field on the switchback run-up coming out of one of the forested portions of the course. Laura took the top spot on the podium on both Saturday and Sunday.

Swiss espoirs racer Anthony Grand (at right), riding for the Cyfac-Champion System Racing Team, was one of the few competitors who chose to ride that same hill. Not an easy task under any circumstances, even tougher in a crowd. Anthony went on to finish 11th in the Elite Men's event.

Just a little further back in the field, Cary Fridrich (at left, 22nd overall) dug in his cleats on the course's other main climb while Stephen Pierce (24th) put on a pretty fine display of the flying, downhill remount.

The real clinic was being put on at the front of the race, though, where another Swiss rider, Valentin Scherz (at right, with bike shouldered) and Jesse Anthony fought out the front positions throughout the hour long event. Scherz managed to build up a fifteen second advantage going into the last three laps but Anthony put in an impressive last-lap surge to close the gap, sit on Valentin's wheel for a few moments of recovery, and then take the sprint finish by a mere half-wheel margin. Like Van Gilder, Anthony made it a double-V for the weekend.

Vegan, Van Dessel rider, Victory drinker, post-punk, ink collector and Cycle-Smart founder Adam Myerson (4th), recovering in style. I told you beer was everywhere.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

For Marc

There's no question that I can sometimes be a real prick. Just ask anyone that's worked with me for any length of time over the last handful of years. (I take my work seriously, sometimes too much so. Let's just leave it at that....) Marc Mandeville, one such old coworker, would agree, I suspect. Problem is, Marc can no longer nod his head in knowing assent to such a confession. He died last weekend, finally succumbing to a nearly three year long battle with colorectal cancer. I attended a memorial service in his honor today, along with about 1,000 other of his friends, family members, coworkers, students.... It was not an easy day.

Marc was an occasional part-timer in the shop where I once toiled. He and I worked together intermittently for pretty darn close to ten years. Without hesitation I can say that we were never best friends but that we were definitely friends, and that we each held a deep-seated respect for the other. I can also say that Marc occasionally drove me crazy. Bad actor that I am, I'm sure I let him know it. You see, I'm a pretty quiet guy. Marc, though... I don't think anyone would ever describe him as quiet. That's not a bad thing in his case.

Marc was always full of life. He lived large in the context of whatever he was involved in, but always in a very thoughtful, meaningful way. It didn't matter whether he was helping a customer on the shop floor, working with his students at Episcopal Academy where he taught for many a year, pushing his players on the ice (he was a hockey coach at EA, too), or playing poker with his buddies (so I'm told). His heart, head and lungs were always in it, 100%.

Not long after Marc met with that scary diagnosis in early 2008, he took his motivational spirit to a larger stage, starting a blog (for lack of a better word) at CaringBridge that eventually reached far beyond his family and friends in its impact. No matter how badly he was suffering, Marc was always ready to lend support to other cancer survivors, others in need. Never, at least not in my experience, did he give any sense that the cancer might one day get the better of him.

In the summer of 2008, Marc's brother Pete put together a team for the first Livestrong Challenge held here in the Philly area, a team that would ride in honor of Marc and to benefit cancer survivorship and research all over the world. The following year, Marc, who I'd never know to be a cyclist in spite of his huge sports fanaticism, joined in for the ride. And this year, in the 2010 edition of Livestrong Philly, Marc's team, M-Power, was the top fund-raising squad in the entire event, pulling down over $250,000 in support of the work being done by the Livestrong Foundation. Marc rode along for the first 20 miles of the event, less than two months before losing his life to the disease he was fighting so bravely against. The video below was put together for the awards ceremony held following this year's event. It was motivational enough to begin with. Now that Marc's left us, its impact is all the more emotionally inspiring.

Heading to the services for Marc this morning, I really didn't know what to expect. Given that he'd been teaching at the school where the memorial was held, where he'd had the opportunity to touch so many lives, I should have known there would be a large turnout. But I wasn't prepared for what I found -- as I mentioned before, there must have been a thousand people there to pay their respects. The energy and emotion in the room were incredible. I know Marc would have been smiling, just as I know he'd be happy that I'm watching the Phillies (he was an avid -- no, make that rabid -- Red Sox fan) and sipping a glass of wine while I'm writing this.

There were many meaningful words spoken this morning, many beautiful voices raised. Three of the students at Marc's school performed a rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic, "Hallelujah," in Marc's honor. As much as I respect Mr. Cohen, I'm going to share a cover version of the song with you tonight, as performed by Jeff Buckley, another motivational artist who, like Marc, left us at far too young an age.

Marc was only 37. He leaves behind a loving wife, three children (aged six, three and three), a large extended family and many, many friends. Needless to say, he will be missed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Luna, Nebbia and Alba Over the Bricco delle Viole

Here's a second consecutive post in the déjà vu all over again department. I'm guessing that close to half of those reading this will already have seen the above photo courtesy of my pal Jeremy, who posted it this morning over at Do Bianchi. What can I say? The picture is just too beautiful not to share as widely as possible.

The image was sent to the both of us by our mutual friend, Giuseppe Vajra, scion of the G.D. Vajra estate in Barolo. You really do need to click on the photo to view it in its full glory. I don't often upload photos in unedited/uncompressed format but with this it was a must. Giuseppe snapped the shot in the wee hours of the morning, at 6:35 AM to be exact, on October 5, 2010, from the western slope of his family's plot of the Bricco delle Viole vineyard.

From A Wine Atlas of the Langhe:
"Bricco Viole belongs to the district of Vergne di Barolo and its charming name (literally, 'violet hill') is a reminder of the flowers that bloom here in springtime. And of course, violets are very much part of the aromatic profile of Barolo. This great vineyard can be clearly seen from the road that leads from the centre of Vergne to La Morra."
I love the way Giuseppe's photo gives no indication whatsoever that the terrain is one defined by vines, yet it nonetheless captures the essence of the Barolo landscape. Rugged but peacefully rolling hills and the valleys between them, the fog ("nebbia" — you'll see it in the depression between the slopes when you enlarge the photo) so omnipresent in the area, and the influence of both the sun and the moon on the land beneath... they're all there. The color of the sky, too, is simply enchanting; perhaps closer to indigo than violet on the ROYGBIV spectrum, but close enough to lend a poetic nuance to the photo's subject.

If you've any doubt of what I'm talking about, just compare Giuseppe's wee-hours photo to the mid-day shot directly above, taken by one of my traveling companions, Eric Tuverson, during a visit with Giuseppe's father, Aldo, in February 2006. The perspective is different but the flow, the hills, the essence are the same. Also, bear in mind that Alba, the name of the city central to the overall Barolo zone, literally means "dawn" in Italian. While Giuseppe and Aldo produce a single vineyard Barolo from their plot of Bricco delle Viole, their flagship Barolo, a multi-vineyard blend from parcels in Coste, Fossati and La Volta, is called Albe — "the dawns."

I truly do love Piemonte; there's something about it that just pulls me in, makes me feel rooted, at home. Thanks for sharing, Giuseppe. This is as much your post as it is mine, my friend. Un abbraccio!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

We Met in Eataly But Ate at Otto

Rain dances be damned. When I'm preparing for a trip to New York, it's the sun dance you'll find me performing. My favorite mode of locomotion 'round Manhattan, after all, is my own two feet. There really is no better way to see and truly experience New York, or any similarly concentrated city for that matter. Cycling comes close — you're still very much in touch with the feel, flow and energy — but only walking exposes you to all of the elements that make up any city's true essence.

It's not as if I'll melt in the rain — I'm not quite that wicked — but even the old school guy that I am doesn't really enjoy going on open-ended strolls through the city during a downpour, heck, not even during a steady sprinkle. So, what to do when visiting NYC and the sun dance fails? It's the perfect time to find a good spot for lunch, or any other repast, and to make a long and languorous one of it. That's just what my friends and I did on a recent rainy Monday. After a late morning stroll through the commercial glitz and food hall excess that is the recently opened Eataly, we decided to keep things Batali-esque for lunch. We headed further down Fifth Avenue, to Otto. And yes, we walked. Rain be damned.

An extremely well executed Caffè Vergnano espresso macchiato was a highlight of our Eataly walk-through; even the price (sub $2) was right. Pricing questions aside, the macelleria also looked none too shabby.

I must admit, the man, the empire that is Mario continues to mystify me. His original show, Molto Mario — you know, the one where he actually cooked — was one of my favorites of the early Food Network days. His first book, Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages, published in 1998, remains one of my go-to cookbooks for everyday use. Yet I've been consistently underwhelmed by my visits to his dining establishments, from a forced-pace march through an over-flavored meal in the early days at Pò to a largely disappointing, relatively more recent experience with a multi-course meal at Babbo. As our trip suggests, I'm still not ready to give up.

So, back to Otto.... As it turns out, a rainy Monday afternoon is a great time to go. The barroom, as the pics below attest, was all but deserted. Just a small, rotating handful of regulars and passing businessmen in to grab a quick bite at the bar itself. Not sure I'd want to be there on a busy day but, on this day, all was peaceful. Sitting at the bar was a great way to get a read on the place, or at least to get a sense of its soul, on such a quiet afternoon. There's something convivial about sharing food back and forth, interacting with the bartender and sitting within view of both the front door and the kitchen, especially when compared to the more awkward scenario of sitting at a table in a near empty dining room. Anyway, we were looking to share, linger and relax. The bar was a good call.

Hanging at the bar aside, we'd all come with one thing in mind: pizza. That said, after meat, meat and more meat (followed by deep fried pork belly) at Bar Boulud the night before, we were all kind of craving some veggies. To our relative delight, it turned out that vegetable antipasti are something of a specialty at Otto. The funghi misti, cauliflower “alla Siciliana,” and radishes with bagna cauda were all quite good, satisfying that colonic call for something fresh and crunchy.

As one of my dining companions, Joe, has already pointed out, the pizzas at Otto are made in the Roman style, with a thin, fairly stiff and relatively un-risen crust, somewhat reminiscent of a cross between matzoh and fresh-baked pita. While I tend to favor the Neopolitan style, the nice char the pies receive on the grill brings out the best possible flavor from what the Roman crust has to offer. Though I could (and will) quibble with each pie, all were in essence fairly solid and easy to like. The sauce on the margherita was too tomato-paste-y for me; we all questioned whether the egg on the pane frattau should have been cooked before being placed on the pie (at least the yolk was still runny); and there was arguably a bit too much cheese on the cacio e pepe. The latter pie was my favorite, a comforting riff on the classic Roman pasta dish, taking its flavor from the simplest of ingredients: good sheep's milk cheese and a generous application of cracked black pepper.

To wash it all down? A bottle of Giovanni Almondo's 2009 Roero Arneis "Vigna Sparse;" a ripe vintage for Giovanni and Domenico, it's pleasingly plump at the moment yet still has that classic Arneis minerality and salinity hiding under its baby fat. Look no further the next time you're wondering what to pair with roasted and/or marinated cauliflower — a simply delicious combo. And think about it — or another clean, racy white like it — the next time you're doing pizza night. I sometimes feel like vino rosso gets more than its due attention when it comes to pizza pairing. The all Italian wine list at Otto, by the way, is far deeper than one might expect of a fairly casual, pizzeria-themed spot. Even more surprisingly, the wine prices, though not always cheap, are quite fair. There's particular strength in Piemonte — especially Barolo and Barbaresco — with an equitable balance between traditionalist and modernist producers.

After three antipasti and three pizzas one might think we'd have been ready to call it quits. During the course of our meal, though, we'd spotted not one but two different gents eating some mighty fine looking pasta at the bar. Turned out they'd both ordered the spaghetti alla carbonara; we felt absolutely compelled to do the same. Again, a good call. The pasta was dialed in — rich but not overly heavy, with an excellent chew, a deft hand with the saucing and a generous though not over-the-top dose of pancetta.

Now, back to the merits of sitting at the bar.... Our bartender, Eric, had been taking great care of us all through the meal, jumping into our conversation when invited (something we all welcomed), offering up sage advice on the menu, and generally making us feel at home. When we ordered the carbonara, he went digging behind the bar and emerged with an offering — something he thought would be regionally appropriate for our dish. I think he was kind of hoping to turn us all on to something new but he seemed just as pleased to find that we all knew the wine in question: the 2008 vintage of Coenobium, produced by Sisters of the Cistercian order at a monastery in Vitorchiano (about an hour north of Rome), under the guidance of Giampiero Bea. A killer pairing with the pasta and a much appreciated gift from our fine caretaker. Again echoing "the little brother I never had" (do read Joe's post — it's scary how much we sometimes think alike), give that man a raise, Mario!

It was still raining when we left but, somehow, I think we all minded a little less.

One Fifth Avenue (at 8th Street)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 995-9559
Otto Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

200 Fifth Avenue (at 23rd Street)
New York, NY 10010
(646) 398-5100
Eataly on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cahorsing Around

I've been on a tear lately with bad puns and rather lewd innuendos, so why hit the brakes now. Likewise, I've been making a concerted effort (or at least trying to) to buy less wine and instead drink through some of the goodies already slumbering in my modest cellar. Mind you, we're not talking about ancient dust and mold collectors; I have only a handful of bottles in the over 20 age range. But there's now a decent amount of stuff spread across the K-12 age group, a lot of it, at least in theory, now hitting its prime drinking window.

Dr. Vino penned a nice piece last week on the pleasures of such drinking principles. I'll do my best to keep up with the plan and, when I feel it's worthwhile, to share some of the experiences. Here's one from earlier this week.

Cahors "La Commandery," Château La Caminade (L. Ressès et Fils) 2002
$16 on release. 13.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.
An old friend, the cuvée of Cahors known as "La Commandery" from Château la Caminade is a wine that I once sold but that I hadn't actually drunk in many a year. At eight years from harvest, it's barely — and I do mean barely — starting to show signs of evolution. Maturity would not be the word; adolescence, perhaps. Showing only the slightest hint of development in color, it was also still intensely primary on the nose, showing overt oak-driven aromas along with scents of black currants, graphite and sweet earth. If you're looking for something to throw into a mid-age Bordeaux tasting as a ringer, this would make for a good choice.

Still quite firm in its tannic structure, albeit very well balanced in that context, there's no question that this still calls out for the kind of hearty fare that's typical of the culinary traditions of SW France. My only quibble with the wine at this point — again, it's still got plenty of years to go — is its oak signature, which steps plainly into the cedar and cigar box end of the spectrum, a little too forward relative to my current preferences.

Although it cries out for rich food, even the simplest pairing helped to take the edge off both its wood profile and its tannic character, bringing out the pretty side of the wine — violets, blueberries and a cinnamon/clove spiciness that lingered on the palate as well as in the last drops in the glass.

In spite of what some might consider a borderline international personality, the more the wine opened with air, the more it showed some classic signs of the terroir of Cahors — slightly sour clay, pronounced minerality and animale character, a definite whiff of black olives and some brambly, blackberry-scented fruit. Returning to the wine 48 hours later only reinforced that perception, as the oak had plainly receded, allowing the richness of the wine's fruit and soil voices to speak through what was left in the bottle.

Speaking of the bottle, you'll see in the rather oddly cropped photo at top right as well as in the very bloggerly photo above that "La Commandery" is borne in a special package. The "La Chantrerie" bottle is used by a group of vignerons who, in 1988, along with a handful of other agricultural artisans, formed a group known as Le Collège de la Chantrerie. Their mission is one and the same as (albeit a subset of) that of La Chantrerie itself, a museum and research institute devoted to studying and promoting the traditional culinary products of the Lot department, where Cahors is located. I can't say that the specially embossed bottle is a sure sign of quality but I can say that I'll be interested in exploring the wines of other member producers.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Marcel Lapierre, RIP

Sad news is making its way around the vinosphere today. The great Beaujolais producer Marcel Lapierre died last night after a long struggle with illness. I'm afraid I have no more detail than that to share as of yet.

Marcel Lapierre pouring his 2006 rosé at the Caves-Augé Beaujolais tasting, March 24, 2007.
(Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce, Wine Terroirs.)

I never had the pleasure of meeting Monsieur Lapierre, only of drinking his wines. Here's hoping that he passed sans souffrir and that he will rest in peace. I've little doubt that many a bottle of his Morgon — including an '09, chez moi — will be drunk tonight as gestures of homage.

For those in the New York area, there will be a gathering to pay respects and share remembrances at The Ten Bells, tomorrow night, October 12, at around 7:00 PM.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Suds: Yards Extra Special Ale

There's nothing quite like a good hand pump to bring you back to an old love....

If there's one beer iconic enough to symbolize the explosion of craft brewing here in the Delaware Valley over the last dozen or so years, it would have to be Yards Extra Special Ale (ESA, for short). If you walk into any of the scores, hundreds even, of establishments with reasonably serious beer programs in the greater Philadelphia area and simply ask for "a Yards, please," this is what you'll get, whether in bottle, on draft or pulled with a hand pump.

Officially founded in 1994, Yards Brewing Company introduced their ESA in 1995 (just months before I moved to the Philly area) and production of it has grown steadily ever since. I'm not sure I can pinpoint when and where I first downed a pint of it, but if I were to hazard a reasonable shot it would very likely have been at the Dawson Street Pub, not much more than a mile, if that, down the road from Yards' then home in a small warehouse space on Umbria Street in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia.

I loved it right away — a classic English-style ale, medium-bodied with a fine balance between maltiness and bitterness, nothing shy about it but, conversely, nothing in your face. And on the hand pump, at cellar temperature, which is how I remember it being served back then at Dawson's (where Yards ESA is still a staple on the beer engine), it was spot on. Creamy, soothing and all-night-drinkable.

Over the years, that love hit some hitches, began to fade. Yards grew. Their ESA appeared at more and more places around town. Sometimes there would be a not-so-fresh keg, a dirty draft line, a batch of bottles that hadn't been cared for properly somewhere along the supply chain. Or perhaps production sometimes outpaced the capacity to ensure consistency. I'm guessing it was a combination of all of those elements, not any one culprit. Of course, there were also always other beers clamoring to distract my attentions.

Alongside a dozen oysters and a lobster roll at Oyster House last night, though, I had a glass — two, actually — that brought me right back to that first love. Hand pulled. Perfectly fresh. Firkin temperature. Lovely texture. Pretty to look at, with a cascade in the glass that would remind many of a classic pour of Guinness. And, most importantly, even at 6% ABV, a touch high by session standards, eminently drinkable. Leave it to the hand pump....

Photo, which is of a standard draft pour of Yards ESA, courtesy of iandavid.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ippudo New York

Though my stops have been relatively few and far between, I'm intent on slowly working my way through visits to what are widely considered some of the top spots in Manhattan for ramen. Rai Rai Ken came first, followed by Momofuku and Ramen Setagaya (which is now known as Ramen Kuidouraku). Earlier this week, just before crossing town and jumping the train back to Philly, I added Ippudo to the list; really, though, I should say we, as I was back in action with Joe and Nattles, the same crew from last fall's visit to Setagaya.

While I think it's fair to say that Momofuku has the most urban vibe and frenetic energy of the bunch, it's Ippudo that slots in as the least casual, most typically restaurant-like — from its menu to its service, and from the snazzy decor to the generous table sizes and spacing. That's all reflected in Ippudo's prices, the highest of the bunch when it comes to what we'd all come for: ramen.

Of the several renditions of ramen available, I opted for the Akamaru Modern: 'The original tonkotsu' soup noodle with Ippudo's special sauce, pork belly chashu, cabbage, kikurage, scallions, miso paste and fragrant garlic oil. As the picture above does a reasonable job of conveying, Ippudo's broth is opaque and fairly deeply miso-enriched. It's intensely savory, almost too much so, as I found it hard to get through the whole bowl of broth (in fact, I didn't). The noodles, though excellent in terms of flavor, flexibility and silkiness, could have used a bit more oomph in both the tooth and girth departments in order to stand up to their dark, heady bath.

Back to those prices — if you're going to fork out $13 for lunchtime ramen, you may as well throw in an extra three bucks for the "set," as that modest upcharge will net you a nice little soy-ginger dressed salad and a surprisingly substantial side. Of the four available choices, I went with the broiled eel, classically prepared and set atop a bowl full of slightly sweet sticky rice.

I'll return to Ippudo without a doubt. Overall, it was a more than satisfying experience. I'll even go for the ramen again; I liked it more than my description above may have made it seem. That said, I'll go at dinner rather than lunch, or on a day when I'm feeling the call of the bottomless pit. Perhaps on a wintry day, when that slightly out of balance richness may be brought into check by the elements. Conversely, I won't go when I'm craving that certain ramen fix, something I'm much more prone to at lunchtime, when I'm usually looking for simplicity, lightness, comfort and a sense of being left energized at the end of the meal. For me, I'm coming to learn, that means shio ramen, served in a no-nonsense setting.

Ippudo NY
65 Fourth Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 388-0088
Ippudo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Clips from a Sunday in New York

Just a quick post today.... Had a great time hanging out with friends in New York earlier this week. I didn't take very many pictures this go 'round but thought I'd share a few of the highlights from day one nonetheless.

As unshutterbuggy as I was feeling then, I'm feeling even less writerly today. I should be back in the saddle tomorrow and hope this will tide you over until then.

Trisha Brown's "Off the Wall: Part 2" at the Whitney Museum of Art.

Jacky Blot's Montlouis "Triple Zéro" — a fine prelude to a very enjoyable dinner at Bar Boulud. (I told you I wasn't taking many pictures; had to borrow this one from last time.)

Cornellisen's consistently controversial Contadino: cool, crunchy, crackling... Enough with the seven Cs. Let's just say it was provocative and enjoyable, which also happens to be a pretty good way to sum up the spot where we dug it.
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