Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

The Case of Cases

September 20, 2018

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

A Cabernet Franc Face-off

August 30, 2018

When it comes to scenery, Long Island is no match for the Loire Valley. The flat former potato fields of the North Fork bear no resemblance to the steep vineyards and castellated towns that punctuate the shores of the Loire and its tributaries. Moreover, the soils of Long Island’s vineyards differ greatly from those of the middle Loire, home territory of Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc: If anything, the North Fork soils come closest to the low-lying, sandy gravels and clays of Bordeaux, where Cabernet sauvignon is king..

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Loire Vineyard

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Paumanok Vineyard

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But despite all those differences, Loire grapes do very well on the North Fork. White varieties particularly thrive: Almost every grower on Long Island cultivates Sauvignon blanc, the star of the upper Loire, and Paumanok Vineyards particularly has had startling success with Chenin blanc, the prized white grape of the middle Loire.

Given that, I wondered how well Cabernet franc, the chief red grape of the middle Loire, which makes such charming dinner wines as Chinon and Bourgueil, would fare on the North Fork. To find out, I decided to taste a representative Loire Cab franc from a classic appellation against Paumanok’s Cab franc – Paumanok because of its achievement with the middle Loire’s Chenin – and check out the similarities and differences. Easy and fun: my ideal combination for all chores. And made all the more fun when Beloved Spouse opted to make a classic Loire dish for us to taste the wines with: the perfect way to spend a rainy Sunday, eating and drinking our own personal sunshine.

For this experiment I had on hand a 2016 Domaine de la Haute Olive Chinon and a 2014 Paumanok. It turned out to be just as interesting and enjoyable as I had hoped. Both wines smelled and tasted authentically of the variety – light fruit aromas, perhaps a little raspberry, with earthy, herbaceous notes and even a hint of smoke, soft on the palate, with moderate acidity and subdued black fruit: not powerhouses but charmers. Those are classic Cabernet franc characteristics.

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Tasted by themselves, in the sort of isolation that so often marks professional tastings and judgings, they seemed unexciting, but sound and well made. A hint of what they were capable of as dinner wines showed in the way both got the digestive juices flowing. They wanted food, and made the tasters want it too.

As a textbook illustration of everything that’s wrong with formal wine tastings and their resulting scores, these wines changed dramatically when dinner appeared: Both just blossomed, opening complex, soft flavors that interplayed differently and beautifully with each dish. Their differences from each other, almost invisible in the formal tasting, showed more clearly with food, the Chinon slightly lighter bodied and more elegant, the Paumanok fuller, earthier – but both interacted splendidly with the dinner. (You can read about our dinner dishes on Diane’s blog, here.) It’s no wonder Rabelais loved the wines of Chinon: They played his game.
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It was abundantly clear from this little experiment that Paumanok Vineyards has gotten Cabernet franc right, verifying in my mind that it has a vocation for Loire grapes. The question it raises for me is, how much of the North Fork shares that vocation? The predominant red grapes planted there are, unsurprisingly, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot, just as in California. The prestige of Bordeaux wines has largely straightjacketed American winemaking since the 1960s, and the small amount of Cabernet franc grown here is almost always used only in Meritage wines and other replications of the orthodox Médoc blend – so Paumanok deserves praise for having the courage to bottle a monovarietal Cab franc, and even more praise for getting it so right.

The Cabernet franc red wines of the middle Loire make wonderful drinking, without being overly expensive: Sunday dinner wines you could call them, if families still made Sunday dinner a weekly special occasion. They don’t demand long aging, though they can take it, and they don’t require reverence or ceremony in their consumption. Though, come to think of it, they can probably take that too: I am just remembering that humble Cabernet franc constitutes about two-thirds of the blend of the fabled Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines. I do hope some Long Island grape growers will also remember that.

Caparone Wines Among Friends

August 9, 2018

People who really love wine enjoy sharing their best bottles with others who understand and appreciate them. I’m certainly one of those: I hate opening a good bottle for people who would prefer a white Zinfandel or a cola, but I relish the chance to pour some of my best stuff for knowledgeable friends. So when I had the chance recently to introduce some fellow winos to the Caparone family’s Italian varietal wines, I jumped at it...

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Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone, and Michele Scicolone are in my opinion among the small handful of “experts” in this country who truly understand Italian wine, both in what it does well and why, and what it doesn’t succeed at and why. I thought a Caparone tasting would be as interesting and enjoyable for them as it would be for me.

Mary is an MW and head of a wine school here in New York, and she and Ed are co-authors of the Wines for Dummies series of books. Michele and Charles are experts on Italian wines and foods. A few years back Ed had tasted and liked Caparone’s Sangiovese, which impressed him at the time as the only moderately successful California version of an Italian variety, but that was all he knew of the wines. Charles and Michele had never had the opportunity to taste the Caparone wines at all, and Charles was deeply skeptical about what California does to Italian grapes – as indeed I had been until I tasted Caparone’s.
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We all convened at the restaurant La Pizza Fresca, which provides a very welcoming space for such an event, with excellent service, fine and appropriate glassware, and good food to sustain the hungry winebibber. Ed brought a lovely bottle of Clouet’s Pinot noir-heavy NV Champagne and a bottle of Benanti’s 2010 Pietra Marina, probably Sicily’s finest white wine, to start us off.

The we got down to the business of the day: Caparone Italian varietal wines.

2014 Sangiovese
2014 Nebbiolo
2014 Aglianico
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1996 Sangiovese
1996 Aglianico

That was the service order, the Sangiovese being the lightest-bodied and the Aglianico the fullest. We talked a lot about freshness and varietal character, and we agreed that all the wines showed the unique qualities of each variety very well. There was also universal agreement that these were the most successful California versions of Italian grapes that any of us was aware of. The disagreements concerned nuances and precise comparisons: Charles, for instance, thought the young Sangiovese slightly over-oaked, like a Super Tuscan, while I wasn’t bothered by oak flavors at all.
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I’ve written about my admiration of these three 2014s before, and both Charles and Ed have published admiring accounts of the whole tasting, so I’ll spare you most of the details – except to emphasize that both 96s, at 22 years old, still tasted fresh, with mature and developed flavors playing side by side with still-young fruit flavors. Both seemingly have years of life ahead of them – and that would be no mean accomplishment for any of those grapes in their home territory.
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An informal vote for the wine of the day ended in a toss-up between the young Nebbiolo and the old Aglianico. I could see the reasons for both, but when push comes to shove I am a person of mature years, and I like my wines the same way.


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Postscript:

A few days after this tasting, I opened at home a bottle of Caparone’s 2012 Zinfandel, the first of Caparone’s non-Italian varietal wines I’ve tried. It was lovely, full of classic Zinfandel brambly, berry-ish flavors, but restrained and polished rather than exuberant and in-your-face. The bottle’s back label describes it accurately as a “rich, complex Zinfandel,” “aged for 24 months in small oak barrels” and “racked rather than fined or filtered.”  It further claims that the wine “will continue to develop in the bottle for 25 years or more” – and I believe every word of that.

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The Caparones, father and son, are clearly New World producers with a wonderfully Old World technique and style. The comparisons that spring to my mind are masterful family producers like the Chave family in Hermitage, or the Clape family of Cornas. If Paso Robles had the prestige of the northern Rhone, a lot more attention would be being paid to what’s happening at Caparone.

One Fine Wine: Ridge Geyserville 2010

May 10, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t enjoy much California wine. I’m not crazy about many New World wines, for that matter, but I’ve always made an exception for Zinfandel, a grape that has acclimatized itself so thoroughly as to be legitimately considered a native variety, especially in California. And for my money, nobody in California makes it better than Ridge.

All that being so, when, a little while back, two successive days of sunshine and no rain prompted hopes of spring in me and thoughts of an American spring-ish dinner in Diane, the idea of drinking a Ridge Zinfandel followed hard on their heels. Of the several Zinfandels Ridge makes, Geyserville has always been one of my favorites.

It’s an old-fashioned field mix of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro – the kind of mixed grapes from all over Europe that used to be the staple of many small California vineyards before the homogenizing blight of Cabernet hit. In fact, since there is only 64% Zinfandel in this bottle (that’s roughly normal for Ridge’s Geyserville), it can’t be labelled Zinfandel, so it’s just Geyserville. For those of us who love it, ‘nuff said.

Our American-ish, spring-ish dinner started with a few crackers topped with fresh cream cheese and wasabi-infused flying fish roe. The main course was a thick, bloody-rare NY strip steak,  fried shoestring potatoes, asparagus (still not local, alas) and – especially – the first morels of the year. After that, two cheeses with which to finish the wine: Podda and Boucheron.

We were very, very happy. The Geyserville enjoyed everything, even the wasabi fish roe; and with the steak and morels, it opened wide and tasted like a berry-filled forest, all brushy and dark-fruited with over- and undertones of leather and tobacco and even a little juniper.

This is where I have to stress the vintage, 2010. This is not a newly released wine, but a seven-year-old. Not ancient, by any means, but anyone who thinks that Zinfandel is all about big, in-your-face, youthful fruit would have been surprised/shocked/distressed/bowled over by what Ridge made of it. Even though this Geyserville is still in the process of maturing, its fruit has evolved into a complex blend of restrained flavors. It’s an intensely civilized wine, very claret-y (does anyone still remember claret?) in style and texture, flavors and attack. On the bottle’s back label, the winemaker says “Rich, elegant, and structured, this fine zinfandel will provide enjoyment over the next decade.” That’s not hype: That’s understatement.

All Ridge Zins evolve roughly this same way, and I think they’re at their best around 10 years old, if you can hide them from yourself for that long. They just keep getting more and more elegant, demonstrating just how much power and fruit they have by the grace with which they rein it in.

Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes

March 28, 2018

I’ve marveled here before about Dave and Marc Caparone’s unmatched success with the three great Italian red grape varieties – Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – in California. It made me wonder what they know and do that other California growers seemingly don’t. Dave Caparone is essentially publicity-shy. He is passionately committed to his craft, however, and when his son Marc suggested he write down some of what he has learned about growing those grapes, he complied.

Marc gave me a preview of Dave’s remarks, which are now available on the winery’s website.

Aglianico *

I was bowled over by the simplicity and directness of Dave’s approach to the three varieties, all which have a reputation, even in Italy, for being difficult to cultivate. He doesn’t go into the arcana of soil analysis and root stocks – though obviously he paid attention to those issues, since he was scrupulously careful about choosing his vineyard sites and about the sources and origins of the vines he chose to plant. (See his earlier-written remarks about his winemaking history.)

Rather, he cuts through the whole thicket of issues the concept of terroir has become entangled with. His working premise starts with the most critical element of microclimate: the amount of heat each geographical area provides for vines – which determines whether a particular variety will mature properly or not.

Some varieties such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon seem to work well over a wider range of microclimates. Others, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico do not. In the Paso Robles region, Zinfandel will mature properly in places where Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo do. Zinfandel will also mature properly where there is not enough heat for Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo…. Heat requirements are inherent in the grape and are the same whether the grape is grown in California or Europe.

It’s difficult for me to make clear the radical directness of those seemingly simple statements. The Caparones’ experience in Paso Robles has shown them that many different varieties will do well in their soils and climates. If the soil and exposures are suitable for growing grapes, the microclimate seems to them to be the key determinant of what varieties will do well there. The Caparones’ remarkable several decades of success with Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese amply demonstrate that their position in one of the warmest stretches of the Paso Robles appellation provides the proper microclimate for all three varieties.

Nebbiolo *

Not entirely by the way: That accomplishment – that a single locus could succeed with all three of those great red grapes – would, in Italy, be a priori deemed impossible, and I think in most of California it would be judged improbable.

Quoting Dave again, “If a grape variety is grown in an area that is too warm for it, the wines produced will lack balance and proper varietal character. If the area is too cool, it may not reach full maturity at all.” This seems to him to be the major source of difficulty in growing and vinifying grapes of almost any variety in California – or almost anywhere else, for that matter.

In California with its lack of rain during a long growing season, there is very little annual variation. In all my years of winemaking I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature. In Europe, the situation is much more variable and grape maturity is an ongoing problem. No grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky, although weather and climate often are. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico are as easy to grow in our vineyard as Zinfandel.

Let me underline that. Dave’s saying “no grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky” amounts to a major heresy in terms of wine-growing orthodoxy. I can’t count the number of times, over my journalistic career, that I’ve been told this or that variety is very difficult and requires lots of special attention. What Dave is saying is that the problem isn’t the variety but where you’ve planted it. If he’s right about that – and he certainly has the field experience to back up that contention – then a lot of professional enologists have been talking through their hats for the last 50 years.

Sangiovese *

The other thing that strikes me about Dave’s words is his saying “I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature.” First, that’s amazing in itself, and second, look at the alcohol levels of Caparone wines in that light. They almost never exceed 13.5 degrees, and often fall as low as 13 – this at a time when alcohol levels of red wines all over the world, but especially in California, are soaring. So full ripeness doesn’t have to mean huge sugar levels and consequently huge alcohol levels?  This ought to be big, big news to a lot of people – growers, winemakers, and consumers alike. It means that balance and restraint are intrinsically compatible with the fullest expression of fruit. The runaway train that was rushing all red wines in the direction of Port just got derailed, and I for one am dancing with joy on top of the wreckage.

Dave Caparone’s conclusions about his experience growing Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese for 40 years in Paso Robles are among the most important reflections on the cultivation of those varieties that I have ever encountered. His experience ought to be a wake-up call for winemakers everywhere. His remarks deserve further publication in a journal of note – which my blog certainly isn’t – and the widest possible circulation. I hope they may receive that, and soon.

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* Grape images: Aglianico from Jancis Robinson et al., Wine Grapes, Ecco, 2012; Nebbiolo from Atlante delle grandi vigne di Langa, Arcigola 1990; Sangiovese from Il Chianti Classico, Vianello Libre e Fulvio Roiter, 1987.

More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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Caparone Vineyards: Great Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – from California!

August 28, 2017

This is a post I never thought I’d write: I’m about to go bananas over a California winery that isn’t Ridge, and over wines other than Zinfandel. Surely the Rapture is upon us, and we are entering the end of days.

I’ve known about Caparone Vineyards for a long time, and I’ve always thought that it made the most successful versions I’d ever tasted of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo from California, which many of my readers will probably identify as pretty qualified praise. I visited the vineyards in Paso Robles back in the late ’80s, when Dave Caparone was not only a pioneer in the Paso Robles area but a voice crying in the wilderness about the potential of Italy’s great red grapes there.
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I was impressed both by what he had already accomplished and by what the future might bring, but Dave Caparone wasn’t in it for fame or fortune (neither of which I could have provided, in any case) but for the love of the land, the grapes, and the wines. So when he asked me not to write about him or his wines, I complied – reluctantly. One more item entered my already bulging files, and I shamefacedly confess I then forgot about Caparone.

Somewhere in the early years of this century, a friend put me back in touch with Caparone, and Dave’s son Marc, now active in the company, sent me a batch of samples. I tasted, liked, remembered how I had been impressed by my visit, and resolved this time to write up the winery. No such luck: I couldn’t rouse any editorial interest anywhere. Antinori was then conspicuously failing in its attempt to produce Sangiovese-based wine at Atlas Peak, and the feeling seemed to be that if Antinori couldn’t do it, then Italian grapes probably had no future in California – so once again the data went back into the files and out of my memory.

Until this month. I was scrabbling through my wines, looking for something for dinner, when, in a remote bin, I found three Caparone bottles that I had totally forgotten I had: an Aglianico, a Nebbiolo, and a Sangiovese, all of the 2002 vintage. I more than half suspected that at 15 years old they would be over the hill, but I had to try them – and I assure you, I am very, very happy I did.

All three are superb examples of their variety, although not Tuscan, not Piedmontese, not Campanian, and not what I normally think of as the brash California style either. But richly fruited, balanced, restrained, and elegant wines they emphatically were. They remained extraordinarily fresh despite their almost 15 years of very mediocre storage with me. These were thoroughly enjoyable wines of a kind and quality I could happily drink every day, if California would make more of it. There is gold in them there hills, and Caparone is vinifying it.

Wine making in Paso Robles has exploded since I long ago visited Dave Caparone. There are now several named American Viticultural Area subdivisions within the Paso Robles appellation, and – I believe – upwards of 200 producers working there. The zone has become a homeland for what are by Napa standards maverick varieties: More than 40 different wine grapes are grown there. Only a few growers are trying the three great Italian red varieties, and that’s because, even in Paso Robles’ highly varied soils, they are difficult. Think about it: They thrive in Italy in three very different parts of the country, with widely different soils and microclimates, and even within their home turfs these are cantankerous varieties. The challenge to grow all three within the confines of a single California AVA is impressive, to say the least. Think how much more so in a single small estate!

I remember that in my long-ago visit, Dave Caparone stressed how crucial it was to site each variety appropriately, to fit the grape to the soil and the microclimate as perfectly as possible. No one who knows how cranky Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese can be will be surprised to hear that, and from what I’ve tasted, it seems he’s done that job spectacularly well.

I tasted the Sangiovese first, with a simple dinner of good grilled meat and fresh Greenmarket vegetables.
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From my first sniff, the wine had my attention: a rich, complex aroma of sottobosco and mint, raspberry and red currants. The color showed as lovely pale garnet, looking properly but not excessively aged. In the mouth, it was delightful – light, balanced, and round, tasting of berries and red fruits, still fresh and vigorous, but well-bred and restrained. It loved food, all sorts of food. What struck me above all was that it showed excellent Sangiovese character without being in the slightest respect Tuscan. That fruit was pure California in its vitality, but without any of the bold, jammy style that I dislike in so many California wines.

A few days later I tried the Aglianico.
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If anything, this wine was even better than the Sangiovese. It sported a lovely deep garnet color, very live looking. The nose was powerful, deeply vinous, slightly acetone, but mostly black fruit. On the palate, deep dry plum, leather, tobacco, and more fresh fruit – all very live. It finished long and complex – licorice, plum, and leather. This was a big, mouth-filling wine, very elegant and extremely persistent: The flavor went on and on. It loved food: It just sang alongside a soft, young Gorgonzola dolce – in fact, at that point, it tasted a lot like a great Piedmont Nebbiolo. I have noticed before that Taurasi and Barolo grow to resemble each other as they mature, so that didn’t completely surprise me – but it is a great testimony to how completely the Caparones have captured the essence of this great, tricky variety.

Finally, a day or so later, I tried the Nebbiolo.
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I was not disappointed of my by now-high hopes. A properly orangey-garnet color, slightly paler than the preceding two wines. A huge nose of blackberry, cherry, and roses. In the mouth, big, round, and soft, with elegant tannins and fruit following through on the promise of the aroma. Raspberry and leather in the long finish. All in all, an elegant and restrained wine of lovely, pure varietal character.

These three wines to me represent the best sort of winemaking, where nothing has intervened to alter or disguise what the grapes have to say. Wines like this give me great hope for the future of California winemaking: They set what I consider a benchmark for other California wines to aspire to.

And, as far as I can tell, they are very reasonably priced – at last look, under $20 for new releases. You’ll just have to be patient and let them mature. Believe me, it’s worth it.

 

Paumanok Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc

April 12, 2016

Every now and again, a wine comes out of left field and just bowls me over. This happened last week when I opened a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards’ Minimalist Chenin Blanc. To say the wine impressed me understates the case: I thought it was gorgeous. The dry and sweet white wines of the middle Loire are pretty much the gold standard for Chenin. This Long Island wine tasted fuller and richer than most dry Vouvray, less austere and almost as structured as Savennieres – which, god knows, is about as good as Old World Chenin gets. An eye-opener, an attention-getter of a wine. So I decided to look further into it.

paumonok sign

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Paumanok Vineyards got started in 1983, which makes it an old-timer among Long Island wineries. There were only a few of them then, pioneers excited by the possibilities of the North Fork’s long growing season and well-drained soils, as well as a loose similarity to the climate and terroir of France’s prized Médoc. The basic agriculture that had sustained the region – acres and acres of potatoes, cabbages, and corn – was fading, and land was available. If wine-growing did nothing else for the region, it scored a major triumph in saving the North Fork from developers and their battalions of boxes.

Kareem Massoud

Kareem Massoud

The Massoud family, owners of Paumanok, has roots in Lebanon and Germany, but from the start they planted French varieties: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, even Petit verdot. Kareem Massoud, son of the founder and now winemaker, says that there is nothing distinctive about the terroir of the Chenin vineyards, but that all the Loire varieties – especially Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc – seem to do well on Long Island. Chenin blanc, he says, they found growing on a plot they acquired in the late Eighties – and they almost ripped it out, until they realized how well it was doing.

I lived on Long Island way back when, and find it hard to imagine how Chenin blanc had ever found its way there among the potatoes and pumpkins, but a wonderfully serendipitous find it was. Paumanok’s Chenin blanc every year ranks among the best in the US – and yet it remains the only one made on Long Island. Hello? How can that happen?  Do all the other producers hate Vouvray?

minimalist cheninPaumanok’s Minimalist Chenin blanc stands a whole level higher, in my estimation, than the very fine “ordinary” Chenin, which wins the prizes. The back label of my 2014 bottle tells its story concisely:

This wine was produced using minimalist winemaking techniques. The fruit comes from our vineyard planted in 1982. Select clusters of unblemished Chenin Blanc that had attained total ripeness were carefully hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The juice was transferred into stainless steel barrels where alcoholic fermentation spontaneously occurred. Only 84 cases were bottled.

As Kareem pointed out to me, this is a purely variety- and terroir-powered wine: Nothing intervenes to modify the expression of the grape and the soil. That purity comes through on the palate with lovely intensity.

Diane and I drank this Minimalist Chenin with some Scotch smoked salmon, followed by simply sauteed filets of John Dory, and it made a wonderful match with both. Its fruit was rich and dry, but hard to pin down: The closest I can come to an accurate descriptor would be half-ripe white figs with an amazing underlayer of minerality and structured by vivid acidity. I would guess that, like many Loire Chenins, this wine could age very well – but I can honestly say that I would be hard put not to drink it all before it had any chance to mature. For me, this is a masterly American wine. I wish there were more of it, and I hope there will be, eventually.

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

Confessions of a Heresiarch

March 10, 2014

It’s time to ‘fess up and face the shame. Brace yourself: I just don’t like California Cabernet. I’ve never really liked California Cabernet. Oh sure, there have been a few exceptions over the years – Ridge, Trefethen, Montelena – but for the most part, I just don’t get it. Cabernet sauvignon, from almost anywhere in California, leaves me cold.

It’s not that I actively dislike most California Cabs: I just don’t find them exciting. For my palate, they rarely – very, very rarely – taste of any place at all, and their expression of varietal character is always for me obscured and over-ridden by their one truly California characteristic, an aggressive, abrasive, sandpapery set of tannins. To be sure, these are not as powerful as they were a few decades back, when I really believed that whenever people spoke of “Cabs” they were using an acronym for California After-Burn – but for me those harsh tannins are still there. Consequently, 99 times out of 100, I will drink anything in preference to a California Cabernet. So stoke the fires: here’s your heretic.

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heretic burning

What spurred this confession wasn’t any sort of an Inquisition, but an honest attempt to try to understand California Cabernet better. The Wine Media Guild, in its ongoing efforts to illuminate the dark recesses of its member wine journalists’ minds, staged a tasting of Napa and Sonoma mountain wineries, largely featuring Cabernet sauvignons. This, I thought, is my chance to learn something about wines that have so long put me off. The wines selected for the tasting represented a varied set of winemakers and estates of different scales from two key Cabernet-producing valleys of California. All the winemakers were serious, knowledgeable professionals who worked hard at their craft and thought seriously about what they’re doing. If ever I’m going to come to appreciate California Cabernet, I thought, this is my chance to start.

Alas, it was not to be: I continue not to get it. All around me my colleagues – people whose palates and opinions I respect – were tasting with pleasure and even enthusiasm, while I made notes like “blah,” “characterless,” “harsh tannins,” “how much?!” I don’t claim to have an infallible palate – nobody does, whatever the PR might suggest – but I do have a fairly decent one. And I’m a habitual Barolo drinker, so I know about tannins. So I have to ask myself, What is the disconnect here? What is keeping me from enjoying these wines?

It isn’t the grape, that’s for sure: I learned wines on Bordeaux, and I still love it. But it is true that over the years I have encountered increasing instances of over-aggressive Cabernet, and not just from California. It is certainly a possibility that what’s putting me off is what California soils and climates – and maybe California winemaking techniques – do to and with Cabernet. Certainly the kind of ripenesses that California vineyards routinely achieve were farfetched dreams in Bordeaux in pre-global warming days, when I formed my ideas of what a wine should be. Perhaps I’m stuck with an outmoded notion of wine in general and Cabernet in particular – but what I’ve observed of Cabernet in Italy (and increasingly in Bordeaux) leads me to think that warmer is emphatically not better for this variety.

Which leads me to my major heresy, which will probably end up getting me drummed out of the corps and sent into outer darkness, where I will be forced to drink Sterno strained through an old gym sock: I have long thought that, though California’s wine-producing potential is fantastic, its growers are by and large working with the wrong grapes. I don’t think they have yet found the right grapes for the right places, and they won’t as long as they continue pooh-poohing the idea of terroir. They probably need a few centuries of Cistercians working the land in silence and keeping meticulous records before they discover what varieties will actually work best – and that, of course, is not going to happen.

In the meanwhile, I don’t really believe that Cabernet sauvignon ought to be the variety that California growers count on. I don’t think it does its best there, and I think many other varieties can and will give much better results – especially now, with the climate changing in the ways it is. I don’t believe, however, that the vineyard situation is going to change any time soon, because winemaking has become almost totally market-driven, and the market wants Cabernet – or thinks it wants Cabernet, or is told it wants Cabernet. Unfortunately, for me, I only drink and taste with my own mouth – and I don’t want Cabernet.

Turn me over: I’m done on this side.

heretic burning 2