Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

Wine and Health, Wine and Happiness

July 27, 2017

My current physician says that the definition of an alcoholic is someone who drinks more than his doctor does. A friend of mine – a wine lover, of course – told me of his encounter with a French doctor some years ago when he lived briefly in France. At his check-up, he was asked, “Do you drink?” and he answered “Yes, wine with meals.” The French doctor impatiently brushed that answer off: “No, no,” he said; “I mean, do you drink?”

I know many American doctors who drink, and more than a few who love wine. Nevertheless, the overall attitude of our medical establishment toward drinking anything seems decidedly negative. The past few years have seen a spate of mostly contradictory news stories about the effects of wine drinking on health. I’m not sure the research behind those stories was fully understood or accurately reported in the first place, and I have serious questions about the validity of a lot of it, but the general take-away seems to be “red wine may be good for your heart, but all drinking is bad for you.” Ergo, abstinence is best.

Over 40 years ago, when I briefly belonged to an HMO, and before my activity as a wine journalist dramatically increased my everyday wine consumption, a newly minted MD told me that I had to stop drinking immediately, that alcohol was a poison, and that I was already showing signs of liver disease. Well, I’m still here, and whenever a new physician asks whether I drink, I’ve taken to answering “Yes, a lot,” because by what seem to be the standard measures I should have perished of cirrhosis long ago.

Alcohol as poison acts as an embracing category that makes no distinction between wine and spirits, or between beer and spirits, or between any of the above and pure alcohol. This, of course, fails to take into account the circumstances of consumption, and it totally disregards differences in individual capacities and reactions to alcohol: The ounces of alcohol you swallow are the only thing that matters. To that, I can only say: Piffle! – which is as scientific an answer as it deserves.

This is inescapably a very subjective topic, because I can speak with authority only about what I know first-hand, and that is largely myself, so bear with me, please.

I never drink alcohol, ever. I drink wine, the best wine I can lay my hands on, and I drink it with food, the best food I can find, and I take great, great pleasure in it. I don’t get drunk, but wine with my meals enhances my life enormously – and I personally believe quite firmly that being happy is very good for my health.

Have you ever wondered why happiness is never mentioned in medical conversations?  That absence points to a blind spot in the scientific literature, because happiness is not (at least not yet) a scientific category, not yet a subject of medical research. Let’s hope its moment will come soon, because talking about the medical implications/repercussions of wine drinking (and many other things, to be sure) is totally incomplete without it. The individual, the subjective, the idiosyncratic – everything that generalizing science dismisses as anecdotal – is crucially important in talking about drinking (especially drinking wine, I would say) and its effects.

Beyond that: Drinking wine with food is not at all the same phenomenon as consuming alcohol. We all know that cookery is a sophisticated form of chemistry – humble rice and humble beans in combination create a complete, nutritious protein – and serious winos know that wine changes food and food changes wine – but are there any scientific studies of the chemistry there and what healthful consequences it may have? Not that I know of, though I’d be happy to hear about them. But those wonders won’t be found until somebody looks for them. From a lifetime of literary and historical research, one thing I know for sure: Answers precede questions. People find what they’re looking for – and if all they’re looking for is poison, that’s all they’ll find.

Most of the medical advice that I’ve read about drinking seems to me equally blind. The US government’s current guidelines recommend a daily maximum of 10 ounces of wine for men and 5 for women. This distinction is bolstered by an array of allegedly blanket biological differences between the sexes. How valid can that possibly be, given the vast difference in individuals’ (of either sex) metabolisms and capacity for food and drink? That’s stupid on many counts: My wife is as tall as I am, and loves wine as much, so I should give her half a glass of wine for every one I take? That’s the road to divorce for sure. Ten ounces/five ounces is a gross generalization, a one-size-fits-all formula that ignores everything about wine drinking except its possible harm.

In my opinion, the happiness that wine can create should at very least be weighed against any harm it may cause, and individuals have to decide for themselves where their balance lies. I know that if I had to choose between a possible extra year or two of life with no wine and boring food (please pass the fiber, dear) and, on the other hand, a possibly sooner death, with wine and food pleasures and all that flows from them intact, I have no doubt what I would choose, and I think I would have so chosen any time these past 40 years. Until medicine can factor the happiness quotient in its diagnoses, I will remain a skeptic and what dour old St. Paul (“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake”) called a winebibber. Long live (I hope) the winebibbers!

Cartoons from Le Vin, © HA ! Humoristes Associés, 1980

 

Cork Dorks and Big Lunchers: Wine and Words

May 29, 2017

It’s fascinating how things converge. I’m reading two very different books, written by people who couldn’t be more different, with very different aims and styles, and yet both arrive at a point of agreement – that of the inability of language to express what exactly it is we taste and experience when we drink wine. Needless to say, for me as a wine writer this subject is endlessly fascinating, but I’d guess it’s also of serious interest to anyone who enjoys wine and has ever tried to explain to civilians what it’s all about.

One book is Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, her account of how wanting to find out if there was any real content behind wine pros’ descriptions of wines led her from an established career in journalism to one as a sommelier at Paul Grieco’s Terroir, a New York City wine bar/bistro/restaurant.

The other book is Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch, the poet and novelist’s posthumously collected writings on eating, drinking, excess, his love of hunting and fishing, his dislike of Dubya, his dislike of book tours, his fondness for Bandol, and just about anything else that occurred to him.

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Both are well written – Bosker’s straightforward, rigorous, disciplined, Harrison’s the opposite: like his novels often lyrical and moving but equally often unorganized and self-indulgent. The style really is the man, and apparently in this case the woman too. (Disclosure: I knew Harrison very briefly, decades ago, when he was a young poet who had not yet published a novel. I liked him. I have never met Bosker, but I suspect I’d like her too.)

Bosker’s book is top-flight journalism, an almost-relentless investigation – by way of her rigorous preparation for the Master Sommelier’s Exam – of the folklore and science of wine knowledge and wine tasting. She trains herself to discern different scents (yes, you can do it, with sufficient devotion) and tastes. She travels to UC Davis to find out what is known scientifically of the different chemicals that contribute to wine aromas and tastes and how we perceive them. She even has a brain scan to find out how a professional’s brain responds to a wine as opposed to the way a civilian’s does.

And all the time she’s doing these things, she’s tasting wines – which doesn’t mean just drinking them. It means paying attention to what is in one’s mouth. Just as any athlete’s training of his or her set of necessary skills makes them better, stronger, and surer, attentive tasting makes one taste more – more elements, more complexly, more intensely. As she puts it at the close of her book, “Feeling something for wine and unleashing your senses begins by just paying attention. And applying yourself with gusto.”

I felt a great personal vindication in reading Cork Dork, because that is exactly what I (and not just I, to be sure) have been preaching for lo! these many decades. You taste only with your own mouth, so pay attention to what’s going on in it. And certainly do so with gusto.

Harrison arrives at that knowledge intuitively, not through methodical training or rigorous investigation but by immersion, by diving into the sheer pleasure of the moment and relishing every scent and taste that a meal and its wines allow. He is as suspicious of wine criticism as he is of art criticism, and very sensitive to the way wine is written about.

There are marvelous semi-comic aspects to the problem. Wine magazines and the wine press in general offer tip sheets like those you buy when entering the grounds of Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita. . . . The furthest thing from my own aesthetic judgments is the world of numbers, let alone price. I am admittedly an outsider, a mere consumer, but wine simply can’t be graded like a teacher grades term papers.

Need I say, Amen!

Harrison’s treatment of wine is anything but systematic. Most of his comments occur in the course of accounts of meals that range from wonderful to awesomely gluttonous. Probably the best way to give the flavor of his remarks is simply to quote a few:

We drink wine with our entire beings, not just our mouths and gullets. Temperaments vary…. I have it on good authority that both Dionysius and Beethoven drank only red wine while Bill Gates and a hundred thousand proctologists stick to the white.

I’m fairly sure that the numerical system of rating wines was not devised as a marketing tool but that’s what it has become. The truly great Russian writer Dostoevsky insisted, ‘Two plus two is the beginning of death.’ Aesthetic values are decidedly non-digital and can no more be fairly applied to wines than to a thousand or so ‘top’ books a year.

How can humble grapes produce something so delicious with the cooperation of human alchemy? Drinking wine is beyond the vagaries of language and numbers and finds its essence, like sex, totally within the realm of the senses.

Those last two sentences, intellectual and at the same time repudiating the intellect, are pure Harrison, apparently miles away from Bosker’s rigorous intellectual pursuit of the what-ness of wine, but that too led her past the mind and into the intense sensuality of the wine experience. Fascinating, isn’t it?

I think I’ll give Harrison the last word here, because he has a single sentence that sums up a lot of what all we winos feel: “Wine crawls in the window of your life and never leaves.” It’s a good idea to always leave a window open.

 

 

 

 

 

MMMM! More Magnificent Masnaghetti Maps

April 27, 2017

Alessandro Masnaghetti is rapidly becoming the Mercator of the wine world, crafting maps that in their detail and precision have reset the standards for that whole segment of wine lore. The almost incidental fact that his maps all have a good share of abstract beauty makes them even more estimable: Not just wine lovers, but map fanciers too have noticed. He has now released what are – to my mind – his most impressive printings to date: two large maps of all the geographical and cru sites of Barolo and Barbaresco.
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These maps are almost Audubon-elephant-folio size, roughly 24 by 34 inches each, printed on heavier than usual paper. They are, as the cliché has it, suitable for framing – especially for double-sided framing, if you can get it, since the data on the back of each is abundant and important. Each map is rich in detail, presenting all the appellation information Masnaghetti has accumulated in his years of charting the evolution of those two zones as they gradually granted official approval to an abundance of geographical and cru designations. Anyone familiar with Masnaghetti’s earlier maps knows how precise – and how very useful – is the information he provides.

Here I can only give a hint of that wealth of data and the maps’ richness of detail. The image above is the whole of his new Barolo map, and here is a small section of it, showing the town of Barolo and some of its great sites – Bussia and Cannubi:
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This is the whole of the Barbaresco map:
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And this a small section of it, showing the closeness of several of Barbaresco’s great crus, Asili, Martinenga, Montestefano, Muncagota (formerly Moccagotta), Paje, and Rabaja.
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The back of each map lists all the sites depicted and names the wines vinified from it, and their producers. More of my words are superfluous: Masnaghetti’s maps say everything there is to say. They are available in this country through The Rare Wine Company, in Europe directly from Masnaghetti’s publication, Enogea.

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Postscript: Just after I had written all the above, I found out that Masnaghetti has also just released a three-dimensional map of the Chianti Classico zone. I am not even going to attempt to describe it – especially since I have thus far seen only a photo of it and not the map itself – except to say that it seems to show all of his usual accuracy and detail.
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I confess I’m very impressed. As my mother used to say, Will wonders never cease?

A New Book About the Italian Piedmont

October 24, 2016

tom-hylandBack during the summer, my colleague and friend Tom Hyland published an important and useful new book, The Wines and Foods of Piemonte.  It covers just about everything a wine lover could want to know about this blessed region, but of course – since the subject is the Piedmont – it gives pride of place to red wines.  For that reason, I thought I’d wait to say anything about it until the weather cooled down, and an oenophile’s fancy lightly turns to vino rosso.

Well, the moment has come: There is a nip in the air and an uptick in the appetite and a little more time being spent in the kitchen; some of the more organized among us are probably already thinking ahead to holiday feasts and even shopping for Christmas presents. When better to introduce you to a book that lays out all the palatal pleasures of the Piedmont?

hyland

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The Wines and Foods of Piemonte
crams a huge amount of content into the space of a relatively small book.  Its less-than-200 pages cover not just Barolo and Barbaresco, but the other Nebbiolo-based wines of the northern Piedmont, as well as the region’s other important red varieties, Barbera and Dolcetto, and even beyond them the less familiar but very, very interesting Ruché, Grignolino, Freisa, and – a particular favorite of mine – the delightful Pelaverga.

And that’s just the reds: Hyland also treats sparkling wines, white wines, and sweet wines. Granted, Piedmont is not famous for its whites, but it does possess several very tasty indigenous varieties, to all of which Hyland does justice: Arneis, Gavi, Erbaluce di Caluso, Timorasso, Favorita, and Nascetta.  These wines deserve to be better known, and some of them – I’m thinking particularly of Nascetta and Timorasso – are capable of great nuance (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).

The book provides useful lists of the best Barolo and Barbaresco crus and their producers, as well as recommendations for the best makers of other wines. It features very informative interviews with winemakers in all the Piedmont zones and also with some of the region’s most interesting chefs.  In fact, for anyone planning travel in Piedmont, the book’s most useful feature may be its several-pages-long list of recommended restaurants – many of which I can personally and happily vouch for.

Piedmont is a gustatory promised land, flowing with wine and truffles, and in Tom Hyland it has found an enthusiastic chronicler.

To order The Wines and Foods of Piemonte, contact the author at thomas2022@comcast.net.

A Wino’s Torture: One More Lament About Restaurant Dining

August 22, 2016

Diane and I don’t dine much in restaurants any more, for a variety of reasons. They’re too noisy for conversation; by and large, they’re overpriced for what you get – at least if you know how to boil water; and the wine lists are usually an affront, with wines both too young and vastly overpriced. I hate to pay more in a restaurant for a three-year-old bottle than I paid for the now-almost-twenty-year-old bottle of the same estate that I have at home. Shameless markups of 200% and 300% (and often even more) are restaurateurs’ way of making winelovers subsidize everybody else’s dinner, and I hate it.

Stressfully Seeking an Affordable Wine

We and two good friends ate at a really fine Manhattan restaurant about a month ago. The food was wonderful – as flavorful and authentic Neapolitan cuisine as I can remember eating anywhere – but the noise level was abominable. Even without the usual “background” music, we couldn’t hear each other, and what should have been pleasant dinner conversation became a very forced shouting and hearing match: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” “Did you say…?” “What?”

It reminded us all too painfully of our last sustained restaurant excursion. A few months back we spent a weekend in New Orleans visiting a dear friend. This of course necessitated dining out, which we had in fact looked forward to: This was New Orleans after all, where food and drink are a way of life. So we walked energetically all day so as to be able to dine generously each night: Compère Lapin, Cochon, and our old favorite, Galatoire’s – this should be pure pleasure. What could possibly hurt?

Cochon dining room

A lot, it turned out. Start with noise. If you think New York restaurants are noisy (I live there, so it’s my standard of comparison), New Orleans restaurants are off the charts. Loud background music – make that foreground music – and hordes of tourists, freed from the restrictions of their home turf, who shriek and bellow their entire evening’s conversation, as loudly in the dining room as on the street. We were six at table: If we wanted to talk to our companions, we all had to lean our faces in toward the center of the table and shout – and we still couldn’t reliably hear each other.

The food at both Compère Lapin and Cochon was good, but we’ll never go back. The noise level was intolerable. Even our beloved Galatoire’s was much more noisy than we remembered it: In that temple of New Orleans cuisine, many patrons seemed to feel compelled to talk over the ambient noise, not under it, and the room itself is very bright. In the past, conversations at Galatoire’s took place at a subdued pitch – but these days the backward-baseball-cap crowd has invaded even there.

galatoires

Since seafood is expensive everywhere, and Gulf fish and shellfish are New Orleans staples, the food prices didn’t seem excessive – though dining out every night quickly turns into a fairly costly proposition. But the wine prices were the cruelest part. As the appointed one-man Consorzio del Vino for our group, I had the task of finding wines that would (a) partner with four to six different dishes per course, and (b) not break anyone’s budget. Forget about anything under $100: There were very few of those on any list I saw, and the ones there were did not impress.

Galatoire’s was the greatest shocker. It has always had an extensive and very fine list, unsurprisingly strong in great French wines. But there has always in the past been a decent sprinkling of reasonably priced fine bottles interlaced with the expense-account budget-busters. Well, not so much anymore. Over half the bottles on Galatoire’s multipage wine list now have a comma in their price, and in over half of those, the number before the comma isn’t one. After assiduous study I did find a few items we could all drink with pleasure and without financial ruin, but I pity the non-wine-professional trying to navigate that list without taking out a second mortgage. Below is one page from the 27-page list. Prices removed to prevent apoplexy.

Galatoire wines

It just shouldn’t be that hard – or that financially painful – to drink a decent bottle of wine in a restaurant. But until restaurants dramatically change their pricing policy – and their noise levels – Diane and I will mostly continue to dine at home, thank you.

Riders of the Purple Prose

October 15, 2015

I plead guilty to terminal naiveté. I keep thinking that wine writing is getting better, that the now decades-old campaign to de-mystify wine drinking and de-snobbify wine writing is actually taking hold. And then I read something like what follows, appearing originally in a prestigious wine review publication and forwarded to me by an appalled colleague and friend:

Featured New Arrival
Jacques Lassaigne Millesime Brut Nature 2006 750ML ($119.95) $99 special
Wine Advocate 93 points. “Sourced from Le Cotet, La Grande Cote and Les Paluets – which last-named is southeast-facing and arguably the top site in Montgueux, opines Lassaigne – his 2006 Brut Nature is intriguingly and alluringly scented with fresh lemon and apricot, peony and narcissus, rowan and pistachio, along with sea breeze intimations and a pungency of struck flint. Startlingly silken and creamy, yet focused and vibrantly juicy, this adds a sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness to an almost kaleidoscopically interactive finish. It ought to merit following for 6-8 years. Incidentally, Lassaigne believes that a purer expression of vintage character will always be achieved by maturing this cuvee in tank.” DS

There’s more: It goes on from here, but I already don’t know where to start on this stylistic and logical atrocity. Any teacher of Freshman English would cut it to ribbons for verbosity, pomposity, and redundancy, not to mention near-fatal infatuation with adverbs. “Intriguingly and alluringly”? What’s the difference, pray tell? Startlingly, vibrantly, kaleidoscopically? A light show for sure. This Champagne is credited with smelling of six not particularly compatible floral and vegetal scents, plus sea breeze (“intimations” thereof) and “struck flint” – struck, mind you, not merely inert – (“a pungency” thereof). Those last two amount to Manzanilla plus Chablis, while the former six are a whole farmer’s market. And we haven’t even gotten to what the wine tastes like. Can anyone tell me what a “kaleidoscopically interactive finish” means, much less tastes like? And what, please, is the “this” that adds the “sort of shimmering, crystalline sense of stoniness” to that finish?

You see why I inveigh so often about the uselessness of tasting notes? The only thing a farrago like this wants to accomplish is establish the exquisite sensitivity of the writer’s palate – that, and make every reader who has never perceived any of those components in a wine feel hopelessly inadequate and desperately in need of expert guidance. Members of the jury, we seem to have made no progress at all from the days when gentlemen reviewers (there were all gentlemen back then) would solemnly tell us that wine A reminded them of Mozart, while wine B suggested Beethoven.

Until consumers work up their gumption to denounce such purple prose for the impressionistic twaddle it is, we seem to be fated to endure it. I don’t think what Truman Capote said — “That’s not writing, it’s typing” — was true of Jack Kerouac’s prose, but I sure think it fits here. It appalls me to think that subscribers to any publication shell out good money to be so swanked, but apparently the con works. As one of P.T. Barnum’s critics remarked, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

And, by the way, this inconceivably fabulous bottle is available elsewhere for $20 less than the “special” price quoted above.

 

 

Wine Pros(e) and Cons

March 9, 2015

There is probably more writing about wine available to consumers now than ever before. That is due, of course, to the great democracy of the internet and its multiple channels for conveying opinions and information: blogs, social media, tweets, comments, consumer evaluation forums, and so on. The problem is, who checks the accuracy of the information? How do you judge the value of Person X’s opinion? The great democracy of the internet really culminates in a grand indeterminacy, in which – all too often – the more you can find written about a subject, the less you confidently know about it.

Just a few examples:

blog collage

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The blogosphere is enormously heterogeneous. It contains many serious wine writers who post useful information that could otherwise not easily be dug out – about, for instance, wineries in the American Midwest, unusual grape varieties, distribution patterns and consumption patterns – but it also hosts naïve enthusiasts and egoists who present their momentary reactions and crackpot theories as eternal truths. Nobody fact-checks the internet the way editors – a dying breed – used to check articles submitted for publication, and no one verifies authors’ credibility. I know this sounds like an old geezer’s lament, but it is true: Nowadays, having an opinion is sufficient warrant to publish it.

Well, I taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for several decades, and I can assure you of one great undemocratic truth: Not all opinions are equal. Your opinion is only as good as the data you can gather to support it and the intelligence and insight you can bring to understanding both the subject and the data. Beyond that, there are valid and invalid ways of using both, and knowing which is which takes experience: You have to learn it over time, and exercise it until you’re comfortable with it. Think of good judgment – or a good palate, if you prefer – as a muscle that can be developed by use and atrophied by idleness. So – speaking again as one who’s been doing this for a long while – writing about wine should involve a lot more than simply voicing your likes and dislikes as if they were fundamental truths.

I can understand why many people might not think so. Lots of terms that wine writers use generate confusion in readers. It’s hard, after all, to find objective language for what are largely subjective reactions. Moreover, since drinking wine is a greatly pleasurable activity, it’s understandable why many consumers assume that learning about it and writing about it must be equally subjective and enjoyable. While nobody in his/her right mind would undertake wine writing – or winemaking, for that matter – without a passion for it, the nasty little secret of professional wine tasting and writing is that they are rarely fun: They are work – hard, plodding work.

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hard plodding work

Is this the fun part?

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The civilian world – wine consumers – by and large think of tastings as enjoyable occasions, where they’ll sample six or eight wines, usually with some food, often with a full dinner, and with a professional – perhaps the winemaker – leading them through the tasting, essentially telling them what they’re experiencing and how excellent it is. There are various degrees of intensity and seriousness to these events, but they are rarely analytic or evaluative exercises. Essentially, their purpose is publicity or sales.

That may be a bit harsh. Some commentators at such events do try to convey real information – but I’ve got to say, at the risk of offending some of my colleagues, that most presenters at tastings designed for consumers try much harder to entertain than to inform. It’s not a choice I can fully respect: I think it sells at least some of the paying customers short and underestimates their intelligence and seriousness. (Perhaps I’m being naïve; perhaps the entertainers are right. If so, so much the worse – for me, I guess.)

Obviously, many consumers are quite content to enjoy wines without needing to know all about them – and who can fault that?  Many, many wine blog posts – the kind I think of as “What I Drank with Dinner Last Night” (a type I have been guilty of myself ) – deal almost exclusively with enjoyment, not analysis – and, unless they’re offered as analysis or eternal verity, who can fault that?

Nevertheless, there remains a gulf between the writing that results from serious wine tasting and the writing of even the most acute uninformed opinions. An occurrence a few years ago at Nebbiolo Prima (the annual week-long, for-professionals-only tasting of newly released Barolo and Barbaresco in Alba) summed that up for me.

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many bottles

Yes, you have to taste them all

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The organizers of the event, in a laudable attempt to “get with it,” had not invited many of the print journalists who had been their customary clientele and instead had asked a large number of bloggers to attend. So at the start of the week, bloggers of every stripe and several languages were present in force in Alba.

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tasting room

At work in the lab

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On the first day of the event, every place in the three tasting rooms was filled, and the tastings began in silence, just as austerely and rigorously as ever, with somewhere between 65 and 80 young Nebbiolo wines to be gotten through before lunch.

The next morning, there were conspicuous empty spaces. By the third morning, the tasting rooms were half empty. I don’t think a single blogger made it to the end of the week. Who can fault that?  There’s no question that it was brutally hard work, both physically and intellectually: Staying focused through repeated flights of young, tannic wines day after day requires real effort, and not everybody is capable of it. More than one winemaker I visited that week said “I couldn’t do what you do” – meaning not me personally but the whole cadre of tasters.

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tom tasting

Focus, focus, focus!

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But the point is that those who abandoned the tastings after a day or two thereby lost the whole point of the event: gaining knowledge of the character and quality of a whole vintage for an entire major wine zone. That’s knowledge and experience that can never be made up in any other way, and no amount of enthusiasm or personal certainty can equal it. How many of those disappearing bloggers, I wonder, went on to write “authoritatively” about that Barolo vintage?

In a later post, I may return to the differences between professional tastings and consumer tastings, because I think it’s an important topic and an all-too-often misunderstood one.

A New Book on Barolo & Barbaresco … plus a Related Item

October 17, 2014

The University of California Press has just published Kerin O’Keefe’s Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wines (346 pp, maps, photos, index: $39.95). I’ve been wanting to announce this ever since, over a year ago, I read the manuscript for the Press and enthusiastically recommended publication: To my mind, this is the most important book on these two great wines yet published.

O'Keefe

O’Keefe is a wine colleague and friend. I’ve tasted with her on many occasions, not least of which have been the Nebbiolo Prima sessions in Alba, during which we and a small army of other wine journalists have each year worked our way through several hundred new releases of Barolo and Barbaresco. I have great respect for her palate and even more for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of her research. She and her husband Paolo Tenti (who did the photographs for her book) have spent innumerable weekends in the Alba area over many years, visiting vineyards and talking to producers large and small. (She lives within easy driving distance of Alba.)

O'KeefeThe depth of her knowledge of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones is unequalled by any other English-language journalist, and perhaps matched by only a small handful of native Italians. Despite the fact that I’ve been covering the great Nebbiolos for various publications for about 30 years (thoroughly, I thought), she has still managed to introduce me to some fine producers that I had simply never encountered. To put it briefly: The lady knows what she’s talking about.

What she’s talking about is all of Barolo and Barbaresco, its history, its development, its soils and varieties and makers. Barolo and Barbaresco has more complete information – and very accurate, revisionist information it is – about the mid-19th century creation of a dry Nebbiolo wine than any other source. The presentation of the soil variations throughout the two zones is equally complete.

What will probably be most pertinent for Nebbiolo aficionados, however, are her profiles of producers of both denominations. She does these village by village, detailing vineyards, field and cellar workings, house styles and their different bottlings. She doesn’t list every single producer, which would be almost impossible. But the wealth of information in her book is unmatched anywhere else – which is exactly why I was so enthusiastic in recommending it to the University of California Press. Now that it has been published, all I can add is this: If you love Barolo and Barbaresco, this book is indispensible.

And now for something completely – well, slightly – different.

Ceretto is one of the great Nebbiolo houses, and I have long admired its wines. Originally classic Piedmontese producers who bought grapes from all over both zones to make traditional Barolo and Barbaresco, brothers Bruno and Marcello Ceretto gradually acquired top-flight vineyards in some of the best crus of both appellations and used them to make some superb wines, in both the traditional mixed-communes style and in single-cru bottlings.

Bruno and Marcello Ceretto

Marcello and Bruno Ceretto

Since roughly the turn of the century, Bruno and Marcello have turned the operation over to their children, and initially at least the results were not, for my palate, completely happy. It was an almost stereotypical story in Alba: The younger generation turned to using a forest of new French oak (just how many oak trees, one wonders, does France have left?) to make their wines modern and stylish (and different from their parents’?) and for my palate not really either enjoyable or true to the region.

Then came vintage 2008. I will quote O’Keefe here, because we are in total agreement: “I was surprised by the graceful, pure Nebbiolo aromas and elegance of the firm’s 2008 Barbaresco Asij.” She goes on to explain this wine’s “graceful style, unfettered by obvious oak” as due to winemaker Alessandro Ceretto’s decision to turn away from new oak “to make wines,” she quotes him as saying, “that express terroir, that taste like they could only be from here.”  For me, this is wonderful news: it’s great to have an estimable house like Ceretto rediscovering the true distinction of its region.

I also had one other reassurance about Ceretto recently. I had been tasting a lot of old Barolo over the past year, and I’d had a few bottles of Ceretto that troubled me. They weren’t bad – far from it – but they tasted older than they should have, a little tired and fading when I thought that, given the fine vintages they were from, they should have been a lot more vigorous. I know that with older wines, bottle variation is inescapable, but even so, they worried me.

brunate 4My reassurance came a few weeks ago from a very unlikely source – a bottle of Ceretto’s Barolo Brunate, a lovely cru but a very unpromising vintage: 1993. O’Keefe rates 1993 as two stars (out of five) and describes it as “a middling and variable vintage . . . to drink early while waiting for the 1989s and 1990s to come round.” I remember the vintage as pretty much below average across the board. So my expectations were low when I discovered that I’d somehow stored away a bottle of ’93 – maybe by accident, maybe with some thought of discovering just how well off-year Barolo could age.

Well, if I had been disappointed by bottle variation with those other older Ceretto wines, in this case it seemed to work to my advantage. Either that, or the Cerettos really made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with the 1993 vintage, because my now 21-year-old bottle of Brunate was just lovely. Light-bodied for a Barolo, to be sure, and I’d never call it vigorous – but elegant it certainly was, and smelling and tasting classically if lightly of the truffle, tar, and dried roses for which the Nebbiolo of the Alba area is renowned. Diane and I enjoyed it thoroughly, and gave mental tribute to the good work of Marcello and Bruno.

Gloria in Excelsis

September 8, 2014

Château Gloria and I go back a long way together. It was one of the first serious Bordeaux I tasted when I was just learning wine, somewhere back in the early Cretaceous, and it is still a favorite of mine and Diane’s.

The way I went about learning wine was by going to a knowledgeable, friendly wine shop and asking the owner to put together a case of wines that would show me the kinds of wines that were available. The Cretaceous-era giveaway is that when he asked how much I wanted to pay, he didn’t bat an eye when I said my ceiling was a hundred dollars for the whole case. No problem: He just selected a dozen wines– almost all French, because that’s what wine was back then – that included, from Burgundy, a Corton Charlemagne and a Nuits St. Georges (Les Boudots, from Henri Gouges: I can still taste that amazing elixir), and from Bordeaux a Château Brane Cantenac and a Château Gloria.

Once hooked on Gloria (which was from the first sip), we drank a lot of it – most of it too young, but I was still learning. In those days, the great 1966 vintage of Gloria was available for $3 a bottle in Macy’s excellent wine shop (yes, Macy’s had a wine shop back then, and a butcher shop too, and both were fine) with a 10% case discount, which made it affordable even on a meager academic salary. How I wish now I still had some of those ‘66s, or could get a young Gloria at those prices!  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Chateau Gloria

Ave atque vale

A few nights ago, to match some succulent braised short ribs that Diane had made, I pulled our last bottle of Château Gloria out of my wine closet – which is what started this nostalgic riff. It was the last bottle not because we’ve lost our taste for it – far from it – but because it no longer costs $3 a bottle, or even 10 times that amount. More like 20 times, and Gloria has never been a price leader in Bordeaux. Our incomes, like most people’s, have not increased anything near 20 times since our youth, so Château Gloria along with the rest of Bordeaux has just sailed out of sight for us. Which is sad, since there are still some lovely wines there, even though I don’t like a lot of the changes that have taken place in Bordeaux over the years. But that’s a subject for another post, another time.

What I want to do here is not lament but celebrate, and particularly I want to celebrate the persistence and consistency of Gloria’s identity and character. When we first made its acquaintance, Château Gloria was a new kid on the block in Bordeaux, an estate only a little more than 20 years old, an unclassified growth of St. Julien that had been cobbled together out of bits and pieces of other estates (including some illustrious ones – Gruaud Larose, the Leovilles, Ducru-Beaucaillou). All those were classified growths, but that didn’t help Gloria’s status, and without the luster of history or high ranking, all it could rely on was its quality.

Fortunately it had that in abundance. Its creator, Henri Martin, the long-time mayor of St. Julien, wanted to make a wine that could stand with the Médoc’s greatest. He fought all his life to have the 1855 classification redone, and everyone in the wine world agreed that if it were redone his Gloria would be at very least a Fourth Growth, if not a Third – but of course that never happened, and Gloria continued to bump along, much beloved by many, but selling always at prices, compared to other Médoc wines, well below its standing. Which, of course, was fine for impecunious me, if not for M. Martin.

Which brings me to that final bottle, a 1990. Gloria has always been for me a classic St. Julien, elegant rather than big, suave and persistent rather than powerful. When I pulled the cork – carefully, because at 24 years old it was a little fragile – and poured our first glasses, many years (a few decades, to be honest) just evaporated. The aroma was exactly the same as those long-gone but fondly remembered ‘66s, and so was the taste and the mouth feel, the latter satiny and the former a rush of cedar and cassis edged with tobacco. It stayed that way through the whole meal, from a starter of cream of celery soup, through the unctuous braised short ribs, to the end of three very different cheeses (a nutty Brebis, a fine Wisconsin blue, and an assertive Grayson). Finished alone, even the last of the wine remained true to itself – poised, vital, elegant.

A lot of British wine wankers, including several who should know better, claim that Gloria isn’t the wine it used to be; that the house style changed in the 70s to a lighter, sweeter wine that wouldn’t age as well as the wines of the 50s and 60s. Somewhere between 10 and 15 years is often given as its life span. Well, my lovely final bottle, kept for years in my less-than-optimum storage conditions, just flat out gave the lie to that. Gloria remains what it always was – glorious.

“The Boar’s Head, as I Understand, Is the Rarest Dish in all the Land”

December 30, 2013

Equally repulsed as Diane and I are by super-sentimental and hyper-commercial Christmases, we usually opt for a quiet dinner with a few close friends and a few choice wines, with a menu more or less traditional and background music eclectic. This year was typical in all respects, and especially pleasing to me because the match between wine and food worked out very well for each course.

[The music wasn’t shabby either: It started with a CD called Une Fête Chez Rabelais (you will see why that was chosen) to set the mood, and followed for the rest of the evening with discs featuring the late, great guitarist Jim Hall playing with musicians like Bill Evans, Ron Carter, and Jimmy Giuffre. Jim – as I thought of him, though I always addressed him as Mr. Hall – lived just down the block from us, and Diane and I always used to see him walking his dog, J.J. He died earlier this month, and we miss him; so I privately thought of this not just as a Christmas dinner but as a personal Jim Hall memorial. I admire elegance in music as much as in wine, and Hall’s playing was always a model of elegance.]

pol rogerWe strove for some elegance in the meal too. We began with Champagne, of course: It’s almost obligatory at this time of year, and Pol Roger never lets us down.

That bubbly accompanied hors d’oeuvre of a mousseline of smoked sturgeon, a mousseline of asparagus, and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, the latter served hot out of the oven, all three playing nicely with the effervescence and acidity of the Champagne.

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???????????????????????????????Aloxe-CortonAt table, our first course was morilles à la crème en croûte. The morels were fresh, not dried. We had bought them during their brief season, sautéed them in butter, and, after eating as many as we could hold at the time, froze the rest for just such a festive occasion as this.

They were delicious in their indescribably earthy, woodsy way. Swaddled in crème fraiche and cushioned on the world’s richest short pastry crust, they partnered beautifully with a medium-bodied, suave 2005 Aloxe Corton Premier Cru Les Vercots from Antonin Guyon.

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???????????????????????????????The pièce de résistance – this was definitely a French-accented dinner – was not a boar’s head (we’re not that traditional) but a long-cooked braised shoulder of wild boar, accompanied by French green beans and a puree of potato and celery root.

Lafon RochetThose in turn accompanied a very well-structured and deeply flavored 1998 Lafon Rochet in magnum. Maybe because it was in magnum, maybe because of the vintage, and certainly because of what the Tesseron family has been doing with this property for a few decades now, this wine could have easily been cellared for another decade.

Lafon Rochet is a fourth growth St Estèphe estate that the Tesserons have transformed as thoroughly as they have their more famous Pauillac fifth growth, Pontet Canet. This Lafon drank most enjoyably, to be sure, but it still showed so much in reserve that it was almost a shame to have it now. But it was a fine wine with the boar. It had the strength and intensity to match the richness of the meat, and the polish and complexity to play intriguingly with the sauce.

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Then came the cheese course.

???????????????????????????????At this point in the meal, I always rejoice in living just a ten-minute walk from Murray’s. We had:

  • a Colston-Bassett Stilton (Great Britain), which is as fine a blue cheese as exists anywhere,
  • a lovely, ash-grey-outside-chalk-white-inside Valençay (France),
  • a slightly pungent and very rich Grayson (Virginia),
  • a creamy and even richer Fromage d’Affinois (France),
  • and a great slab of Roomano (Holland), a sort of aged Gouda that simply loved the wine.

CornasThe wine was my very final bottle of Auguste Clape’s 1988 Cornas, which I served with equal parts of hope and trepidation – the hope because some previous bottles of this wine had been glorious, the trepidation because the last one I had opened had been dead.

Hope triumphed, I am happy to say: This was one of the glorious ones. In fact, it still showed some youth and vigor, and in addition its classic Cornas robustness made it a wonderful match for all the cheeses.

I am deeply sorry now for all the bottles of this now-priced-out-of-my-league Rhône beauty that I drank before what-I-now-understand-to-be their peak. Of such simultaneous heights and depths is the wino’s life made.

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???????????????????????????????Riesling VTMichele Scicolone had brought dessert, so we next consumed (yes, we could still eat!) her luscious pine-nut-and-apricot-jam tart. I matched that with a 2001 Trimbach Riesling Vendange Tardive, a wine with some sweetness of its own but plenty of acidity and real heft.

This was a shot in the dark, but it worked out well. The sweetness and savoriness of the tart meshed nicely with the lesser sweetness, acidity, and steely body of the Alsace wine. Of course, either would have been completely enjoyable on its own, but together they created one more dimension of pleasure and provided the final touch to what was for Diane and myself – and we certainly hope for our guests – a classic and only slightly Rabelaisian holiday feast.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hall.