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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.

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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.

 

 

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Wine Pros(e) and Cons

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I visited the Museum of Modern Art a few days ago to view the new Magritte exhibition and look in on some old favorites. Among the latter I was struck in particular by a single Modigliani painting of a reclining nude.

Modigliani

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It was off in a corner, virtually unlooked-at by the hordes that were parading admiringly past the Picassos. As far as I’m concerned, that single painting was worth more than all the Picasso nudes – pink, blue, or cubist – in the rooms around it.

Picasso

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For all the mannerism of Modigliani’s drawing and painting, that nude was real and alive and intensely human. She radiated sensuality, and by doing so redefined sensuality. Everything in the painting served her, presented her, celebrated her. All the Picasso nudes I looked at that morning also celebrated something, but what they celebrated was mastery – Picasso’s mastery, of his medium, his techniques, his subjects. The women in his paintings didn’t live, they served: They were Picasso’s subjects in every sense of the word. Still great paintings, mind you – but great in a way different from Modigliani’s. Many people will prefer them to Modigliani. I once might have myself, and I still respect them – but I love the Modigliani.

So, I realized, for me there are two whole different categories of esthetic response, and probably two different kinds of art that create them: admiration of the artifice itself, and a new or renewed understanding of what the artifact in a literal sense re-presents. (I’m sure the philosophers have beaten me to this apprehension: There is nothing new under the sun.)

Needless to say, it quickly occurred to me that that was true of wine too. (It’s been a long away around, but you knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?)

I realized that there are producers whose wines celebrate the grapes and their terroir, and there are producers whose wines celebrate the mastery of the winemaker. A few nights ago, Diane and I enjoyed a 1999 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo with some excellent broiled lamb chops, followed by a small plate of equally excellent cheeses. And a few nights later, we drank a lovely bottle of classic Frascati – Fontana Candida’s Terre dei Grifi – with some simple fried chicken, preceded by an even simpler shrimp cocktail. Both wines were absolutely lovely, and both perfect with the meals they accompanied; and both, on their different scales, were celebrations of the grapes they were made from.

???????????????????????????????FrascatiTasting them, I thought Langhe hills! and Roman campagna!, not who the winemaker was or what the cellar had done. That the winemaker and cellar, in both cases, must have done a lot – or refrained from doing a lot – was evident upon reflection, but it’s not what popped into my head with the first, or second, or third sip. A lot of Piedmont wine – and not much Frascati – is like that, whereas a lot of Tuscan wine seems to me to fall into the other category, where what strikes you first and foremost is what the winemaker has accomplished. Certainly some Chianti Classico is like that, and a lot of Brunello, and almost everything that comes from Bolgheri – not to mention 99% of classified-growth Bordeaux. This is not to say that these are lesser wines, but wines different in nature, and having a different impact, both on the palate and on the imagination.

All this caused me to realize that for years now I have been choosing wines for my dinners for two different reasons: one set of wines for the vivid presence of the grapes and where they came from, the other for the technical perfection of the winemaking. These are equally admirable but very different kinds of wine, and I saw too that I usually serve them in different circumstances: the first with deliberately simple foods of the best available prima materia, the second with more elaborately constructed dishes or more complex sauces. I choose the first combination because it showcases the wine without in any way detracting from the food, the second because the interplay of food and wine intensifies them both. This is not an ironclad rule, of course – I’m too much of an anarchist to believe in ironclad anything – but it has been for me a useful, if unconscious, rule of thumb.

So my little epiphany in front of Modigliani’s gloriously incarnated painting also made me aware of something I had been acting on for a long time without ever being fully conscious of it, and that realization in turn has given me a new handle on the wines I drink and serve. A long time ago I set out to tell people about Mastering Wine: clearly, I’m still in the process of doing so myself. I have no idea whether my current thinking is my final destination or just a way-station on the road, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

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Two recently published books deserve every wine lover’s attention. Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, by Tom Hyland, and The World of Sicilian Wine, by Bill Nesto, MW, and Frances Di Savino, take very different approaches to their subjects, but both offer abundant and valuable information for anyone curious beyond the most obvious level of Italian wine lore.

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hyland

Tom Hyland is a Chicago-based freelance wine writer and photographer who fell in love with Italy, its people, and its wines more than a dozen years ago and has been immersing himself in them ever since. His Beyond Barolo and Brunello organizes itself in what seems a familiar pattern, but then quickly moves off in unexpected directions. It treats all of Italy’s regions, north to south and the islands, an arrangement that will be familiar to anyone who has done a little reading in Italian wine – or in Italian travel, for that matter. But within each section, Hyland’s treatment is very different from the conventional.

He begins each regional section with a simple listing of the most important grape varieties grown there, and then presents cameos of his favorite producers of each variety. This means that each chapter offers a survey of some of the best producers of each region in particular relation to what Hyland considers their best wines. For most readers, this will create some comforting recognitions, and a few surprises. For example: Massolino’s Barolo Vigna Rionda Riserva is an expected and appropriate entry – it’s a famous wine, after all – but how delightful it is to find entries as well for less familiar appellations and makers, such as the Boca from Le Piane, or Sella’s Lessona “Omaggio a Quintino Sella” from Piemonte’s northern wine zone.

Similarly, in his treatment of Campania, all the famous varieties – Aglianico, Greco, Fiano – and all their famous makers – Mastroberardino, Terredora, Feudi di San Gregorio and so on – are handled thoroughly, but there is also respectful treatment of lesser-known varieties (the whites Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Asprinio, Fenile, Ginestra, and Biancolella; the reds Piedirosso, Tintore, and even Merlot) and their producers. So Pietracupa’s and Ciro Picariello’s Fianos are presented right alongside their more famous compatriots. In the same way among the red wines, along with the famous Taurasis and Aglianicos, you find such fine small producers as Monte di Grazia, whose Costa d’Amalfi Rosso harbors the rare Tintore grape. For the wine lover who wants to explore the spacious world of Italian wine, Beyond Barolo and Brunello opens a very wide door to a treasurehouse of wines and their producers.

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The Nesto/Di Savino book, The World of Sicilian Wine, approaches its more traditional subject in a more traditional way, starting with several quite interesting chapters about the long – and for its protagonists, too often frustrating – history of winemaking in Sicily, a process too often directed more by external events and foreign interests than by Sicilians themselves. There follow equally interesting sections on the geography, geology, and climate(s) of Sicily and how all of these affect winemaking. Three large chapters deal in detail with the contemporary wine situation in Sicily’s three main geographical sections, the Val di Mazara, Val di Noto, and Val Demone. All three chapters feature interviews, long and short, with producers, great and small, yielding a fascinating overview of the important trends in Sicilian wine right now, as well as informative perspectives on some of the principal players.

This clearly a heartfelt book: The authors’ affection for Sicily and its people – especially its devoted wine people – shines through everywhere, though it never gets in the way of their clear-eyed view of Sicilian winemaking’s possibilities and pitfalls. Of course in a book that covers as much ground as this one does, there are bound to be areas where my opinion differs from the authors’ – for example, I’m much more enthusiastic about the Carricante variety and the Etna wines made from it than they seem to be. But that’s a minor point: The key thing to remember is that this is a very carefully done, thoroughly researched production, packed with information and detail that will be very hard to find anywhere else. If you want to know about Sicilian wine, this is your book.

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I had been eagerly looking forward to this year’s New York Wine Press Champagne Gala at The Brasserie, in part because Luc Dimnet, the chef there, always prepares a fine lunch for us and in part because the featured bubblies this time would be vintage Champagnes. I expected that they would all be spectacular. Well, the lunch fully lived up to my expectations, as the menu suggests.

menu 2

But perhaps it was the memory of the very distinguished range of rosés that I had tasted at the WMG Champagne event ten days earlier, or maybe my palate was just off a bit, but for me some of this group of Champagnes seemed a little lackluster. Not that they were bad: far from it. Of the dozen bottles we tasted, all were enjoyable, and several considerably more than that. But most of them failed to offer the special magic that I look for in vintage Champagne, the combination of classic Champagne charm and the distinguishing inflection of a single, above-average vintage – that hard-to-define extra element that tells you simultaneously “Wow, this is a great Champagne” and “Wow, this is different.”

Ed McCarthy 2Here are all the wines we tasted, accompanied by the comments of the man who selected them, Ed McCarthy (for those who don’t know by now, Ed is the author of the deservedly much esteemed Champagne for Dummies).

“Vintage Champagne,” Ed said by way of preface, “is always rarer and better than non-vintage, because it is made in small quantities exclusively from the best wines of exceptional years. Probably less than 3% of all Champagne made is straight (i.e., not rosé, not blanc de blancs, not prestige cuvée) vintage Champagne.”

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Flight One
Gosset Excellence Brut NV
Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2004
Ferrari Perlé 2006 Brut

This was the aperitif flight, at least in theory the lightest and most delicate of the day’s Champagnes. They accompanied oysters and foie gras. Here’s Ed: “Gosset is a great small house. The Excellence, along with the Ferrari Perlé, is the least expensive Champagne we’ll taste today. Feuillatte always makes a lovely blanc de blancs, and 2004 is an excellent vintage.”

flight 1

I like the light aperitif style in Champagnes, so two of these wines – not vintage Champagnes at all – were among my favorite wines of the day. Gosset Excellence Brut is non-vintage, and Ferrari Perlé Brut 2006 is an Italian metodo classico sparkler, a blanc de blancs from what is probably Italy’s finest maker of champagne-style wines. Maybe price had something to do with that judgment, but I loved the classic, wheaty, toasty aroma of the Ferrari. And Gosset just makes great Champagnes, all up and down its line. Both these wines were able to stand out even among the day’s field of vintage sparklers.

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Flight Two
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Millésime 2004
Henriot Millésime 2005
G. H. Mumm Cuvée René Lalou Brut 1998

Ed again: “The Feuillate is mainly black grapes: 40% each of Pinot noir and meunier, and only 20% Chardonnay. Henriot is one of my favorite small houses. They’re known as a Chardonnay house, and this wine is 52% Chardonnay and 48% Pinot noir. The Mumm René Lalou is one of our few prestige cuvées today, as well as our oldest wine. Very approachable, very easy drinking: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir.”

I thought the Henriot showed excellent fruit. The René Lalou needed time to open in the glass and still seems to have years of life before it. All three wines, a little fuller-bodied than the first flight, matched beautifully with the moist, lightly smoked Arctic char.

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Flight Three
Laurent Perrier Millésime 2002
Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2002
Gosset Grand Millésime Brut 2000

gosset 2Ed once more: “The Laurent Perrier follows a very typical formula for vintage Champagnes: 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir. Very good price for a Champagne from a very great vintage (around $55). From the same fine 2002 vintage, the Mumm is blended of 50% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot noir, and 15% Pinot meunier. The Gosset is fuller bodied than the other two, even though it is more than half Chardonnay. The 2000 is the youngest vintage of Gosset available in the United States.”

This flight was another step up in body and authority, and the rich poached lobster and the assertive mushroom crepes elicited their best qualities. I liked best the Moet & Chandon, which was simply a lovely wine, and the Gosset 2000, which had fine body coupled with real elegance.

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Flight Four
Louis Roederer Brut 2005
Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut 2004
Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1999

pol roger 2Ed again: “Roederer is a fantastic house that makes big, full-bodied Champagnes, dominated by Pinot noir. This 2005 is 66% Pinot noir, 34% Chardonnay. Perrier-Jouet’s prestige cuvée Belle Epoque is usually placed among the lighter-bodied, more elegant styles of Champagne (P-J is known as a Chardonnay house), but in 2004 it seems to have more authority: 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot noir, 5% meunier. Finally, another great prestige cuvée, Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill. Pol Roger is thought of as a Pinot noir house – bigger, fuller-bodied wines – and it’s estimated that Sir Winston Churchill is about 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay. That’s a guess, because Pol Roger doesn’t give out that information. Probably the most expensive Champagne we have here today.”

The delicious braised veal cheeks of this course succeeded even better than the fish dishes in showing the wines to advantage – a very pleasant surprise. I liked best the Roederer, which was in a style similar to that of the preceding flight’s Gosset, and the Sir Winston Churchill, a very fine wine, although not from the top tier of vintages, and probably – Ed’s estimate – not going to be terribly long-lived.

new year bells

That brings to a conclusion not only the NYWP luncheon but also calendar year 2012. To all, best wishes for a happy, prosperous, gentle new year, and to all, a good night: Ubriaco is going to settle in for a long winter’s nap. My next post will appear around the middle of January.

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Richard Elia, founder and publisher of The Quarterly Review of Wines, has posted on its website an eloquent explanation of his magazine’s closure as a print publication late last year, after 35 years. A sad occasion, but a sign of the times, perhaps: The Wine News had preceded it into oblivion a few years before, and wine articles had disappeared from general-interest magazines before that. Newspaper circulations are down, and internet wine information (soi-disant) is proliferating. All that leaves not much room for a journal that aimed at sophisticated wine drinkers of passion and discrimination, already a seriously self-limiting audience. (Does that sound snobbish? I think of it as factual.)

The last issue of QRW

Elia’s online essay is called “Wine’s Decline: The Romance of Wine Is Spent,” and it laments the replacement of wine’s formerly colorful cast of characters – Elia cites André Tchelistcheff, Alexis Lichine, André Simon – by faceless and characterless corporate types. Even more distressingly, he deplores the submersion of the passion and drive to make great, personal wines in a flood of market research and numerical ratings. (Read his essay here. And see also the commentary of Tom Hyland.)

Elia makes a strong case, and a moving one: Much indeed has been lost. There are no more Luigi Veronellis or Giorgio Grais, no Edoardo Valentinos, and all too soon there will be no more Franco Biondi-Santis. Pioneers like Renato Ratti and Giacomo Bologna are long gone, as are retailers as passionate and devoted as the still-lamented Lou Iacucci – that is now a rare breed indeed. I could give you similar doleful litanies for France and California, but the easiest way to see what has passed is to look to Bordeaux and see how many estates are now owned by corporations or insurance companies or banks or have been conglomerated under a single ownership. What used to be proudly idiosyncratic is now the province of suits. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, So it goes.

And yet, and yet …. It ain’t all bad. I’m certain I qualify as an old fart, and I know I’m as much given as anyone to lamenting the passing of the good old days. I agree emphatically with most of what Elia says. Particularly I deplore, as he does, the noise levels in restaurants that make conversation impossible and paying attention to what you’re eating and drinking difficult at best. That’s why Diane and I seldom dine out any more (actually, that and restaurant wine markups), unless we can find a restaurant that still believes its primary purpose is to feed its clients rather than deafen them.

But for those of us who love wine, as Elia surely does, it has to be admitted that we are in fact living in a golden age of wine. There is more good wine being made today, by more people, in more places, than ever before.

Yes, there are oceans of grape swill being made as well, and they will continue to be made and marketed as long as there are people foolish enough to buy them. We’ve all encountered people who drink wine – why, I’ve never understood – that they purchase by price alone. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve met a publisher of a small newspaper who told me that he doesn’t believe in spending more than $3 for a bottle of wine.

But, but …. There is an up-side to all these downs. Because of that technology we too often complain of, because of those crass commercial incentives, because even of global warming (think of the string of great vintages in Burgundy and in Piedmont), but most of all because there still are winemakers out there who care passionately about what they’re doing, people who would probably still work their hearts out to make great wine even if they couldn’t command the kind of prices for it that the market now allows – for all those reasons, I think this is not the time to give up on the wine world.

I don’t think it will ever again be the kind of clubby little knot of connoisseurs it once (supposedly) was. But the passion that I see in winemakers in France and Italy (the areas I know best), the curiosity to explore neglected varieties and to preserve local traditions – those are things that tell me that the romance is still alive. Yes, I’ll admit that one man’s romance can be another man’s hype. I can even accept that the same thing can be both; there’s a market too for folklore and traditions. But that doesn’t alter the fundamental fact: A person willing to take the trouble to learn a little bit can easily find fine wines to reward the effort.

The rub, perhaps, is “taking the trouble to learn a little bit.” As Elia observes, nobody seems to want to do that anymore. Nothing – nothing of any sort – teaches you about wine like the drinking of it, tasting a wine by itself, with different foods, in different vintages, in comparison with other similar and dissimilar wines. But that takes time and effort and a willingness to pay attention, take notes, and remember. Apparently – and Elia is surely right about this – most people can’t be bothered to do that, when they can call up a numerical score on their iPad and place any wine exactly in its predestined place in the wine universe and be assured thereby of their own exquisite taste. If you can buy expertise and knowledge the same way you buy a pair of shoes or a new app, who needs experience?

Regard that question as rhetorical: We all need experience. There is – ask any wine professional – a huge difference between theory and practice. Just knowing the number that the Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator assigned a wine tells you exactly zero about the wine, and less than zero about how much or little you will enjoy it. Only your own experience will tell you that – and people who are now starting to foray into the world of wine are blessed beyond measure by the bounty of splendid wines available for them to learn from.

Despite that, some no doubt will settle for plonk. Some will become the kind of wine poseurs we all hate. But some surely will catch the passion and carry on the tradition of discrimination and refined enjoyment whose passing Richard Elia – prematurely, I hope – laments.

Postscript:  I received this e-mail from Burton Anderson. I’m posting it here so that I can provide a link to his book excerpt.

Dear Tom:  Just read your new post and, of course, found myself in total agreement, not only with your words but also those of Richard Elia. For what it’s worth, I’ve attached an excerpt from a chapter of a book I’m working on.

Best, Burton

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