Monday, January 25, 2010

Great Moments in Retail 1.02

A customer comes walking down the cabernet aisle pushing a cart. He already has several bottles of wine and is perusing our selection.  Always looking to be friendly and helpful, I address the customer.

"Sir, can I help you with a wine selection, or is there anything I can help you find?"

"No, thanks I'll just look around, I think I'm doing a pretty good job."

"All right, thanks for coming in today, let me know if I can be of assistance..."

I glance in his basket. Well, he thinks he's doing a pretty good job. I see nothing but nationally advertised brands of the standard Franco-Californian varietals. Not that there's anything wrong with that... BUT the customer could be doing so much better. Generic canned chicken noodle soup will sustain, but does it have the soul to cure a cold?

Good wine shops are chock full of regional wines from around the world that bring soul to the table, many times for less money than the generics.

And good wine guys and gals, aka 'Flavor Junkies' are in the good wine shops to share those wines which can help to cure the soul!

DIATOM: Extreme Chardonnay in Attack Mode

Travis' good friends Sam and Lilli spent a few days with us over the holidays and we found some time where we could just have an evening at the house with a good meal and some good wines. I was in a wine-biz post-holiday slump and planning dinner seemed insurmountable, when Travis reminded me, "Well, what are we going to drink? Once we know that we'll know what we want to eat!" Duh!!!

I knew what I wanted! I'd been saving the Diatom 2008 Huber Vineyard Chardonnay for just such an occasion! That would be a start, anyway.

Diatom is the personal project of winemaker Greg Brewer. Greg is one of THE cutting edge winemakers working in the Santa Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara. He is winemaker for the Melville Winery and with Steve Clifton, makes the stunning Brewer-Clifton wines.
All of the Chardonnay's from both Melville and Brewer-Clifton are what I would term extreme Chardonnay's.

What makes them extreme are extraordinary high levels of BOTH acid and alcohol, which means that the fruit is able to produce BOTH high acid and sugar levels. Which never happens. Conventional wisdom dictates that when sugar levels spike, acid levels drop and the juice is sweet. Conversely, when the acids are high, the sugars are low and the juice is tart. The unique micro-climates of the Santa Rita Hills provides super long growing seasons with early bud-break and no fall rains to rush the harvest allowing the super-ripe sugars. The East/West valleys connect the cold Pacific with the hot Central Valley to pull the fogs in early every day to cool the valleys and leave the acids.

But the DIATOM chardonnay's go beyond the mere extreme as does the INOX Chardonnay Greg produces for Melville. All involve meticulous care of the fruit in the vineyard. The surgical approach to wine-making discards any processes which detract from the purity of the fruit. Fermentation is long and very cold in stainless steel. Aging is in steel, on the lees, but with no stirring. Malolactic is inhibited. Needless to say, NO OAK! The wines all have tremendous explosion of flavor. The vivid acids give sensations of effervesence. Finishes are long and complex, but above all, clean and crisp. There is variation, but that is of course, totally driven by the vineyard. The Huber was made from vines planted 23 years ago in almost pure sand.

But, back to dinner, and what to have with the wine? I knew I wanted a meaty white fish, so I bought a piece of halibut, and sliced into small single serving slices about 1/2" thick. I made a down and dirty quick aioili with Hellman's Mayo, some olive oil, and  generous amounts of crushed garlic and lemon juice. It was pretty assertive. I threw some fresh flour tortillas (cut in thirds) on a hot grill until they were crusty on one side, soft on the other. While I threw the fish on the grill, Travis spread aioli on the tortillas. I turned the fish quickly and took them off equally quickly and put the fish on top of the aioli.

And a perfect match with the wine! The wine's citrusy attack was led by crisp, clean lemons and limes which dissolved into a lengthy melange of citrus oil, sea salts and minerals. The texture was rich, but the wine was crisp and very precise and focused.
The powerful flavors of the wine matched the aioli stride for stride and the fish melted with the creaminess from the mayo and toasty grilled notes from the tortilla.

I was pretty pleased if I say so myself!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bandol: A Note for Richard

Richard, good friend, former colleague and coffee-roaster supreme purchased some bottles of an older Bandol at a close-out sale, opened one of the bottles with friends and evidently, it caused some discussion. He gave me a bottle to see what I thought.

Well, last week I finally got around to opening the wine. It was late when Susan, Travis and I finally started thinking about supper. We'd been eying the bacon, ham, eggs and long spaghetti they'd bought at Lovera's in Krebs, Oklahoma and Spaghetti Carbonara was on the collective brain. I used young Mr. Barsotti's recipe fron Nonna which called for sauteing  onion and then the cooked spaghetti in the bacon grease before adding the eggs and cheese and finishing the dish. (OK, he called for pancetta, but we had all this smoky bacon and country ham thanks to the Ham-Santa...) It worked! The bacon grease made for a rich, smoky carbonara that definitely called for a glass of red wine. And yes, the Bandol was an inspired selection!

For those not in the know, Bandol is a small appellation perched on sundrenched cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean just kilometers east of Marseille. The climate is moderated by the proximity to the sea. The primary grape is the smoky brambly Mourvedre,  blended with Grenache and Cinsault.  The soils are rocky and yields are naturally low, producing wines with good concentration of flavor and structure. The long sunny growing season combined with the moderate climate allows the Mourvedre to develop its characteristic flavors of black fruits, licorice, leather and smoke.

The bottle of the evening was the 2000 vintage from Domaine de l'Olivette. The wine threw massive sediment and would have benefited from standing for a day or two to let the wine settle. But we just had to make due with a cloudy, silty wine. Opening the bottle revealed musty aromas of leather, smoke and wood which yielded to smoky black fruits as the wine sat in the glass.

The wine followed the same pattern on the palate, opening up to musty dried black fruits and adding notes of oily black olives as it sat it the glass. It was very complex and seemed to change constantly through the meal. While the wine was dark, complex and full-bodied, there was a lightness to the wine and it never overpowered the Carbonara. The cheese and smokiness of the ham and bacon kept the flavors working together.

Of course the sediment kept getting more and more evident as we crept closer to the bottom of the bottle. A week later, the empty bottle is sitting on my desk with a 2 inch diameter stain in the shoulder of the bottle and trail of detritus leading to the bottom.

Altogether a very pleasant evening.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Brewdog Paradox: Beer/Whisky Fusion Creates Confusion

It was late in the evening on a cold winter night in Santa Fe, fire blazing, with delicious tacos and burritos. We'd spent a disappointing evening watching a courageous kid try to lead Texas to a comeback win over the hated Crimson Tide. Everyone was tired and thinking about bed.

BUT we had these beers.... 

1st Brewdog Spotting:  I heard about Brewdog last spring from the Springbank rep who mentioned they were sending barrels to the brewery to brew cask conditioned beer. Alarms went off at the thought of the fusion of bitter hops, chocolate stouts and smoked peat! Research ensued.

Brewdog was started in 2007 by two 24 year old Scottish lads who were  "bored of the industrially brewed lagers and stuffy ales that dominate the UK." They were determined to make beers that "bite" and are currently the largest independent brewery in Scotland. Paradox is their line of stouts aged in used Single Malt casks. Although I have found references to other distilleries, their website currently indicates they are using casks from The Arran Malt, Springbank, and Smokehead. 

2nd Brewdog Spotting:  I had the opportunity to taste some of their production brews at a trade show last summer and was quite impressed. The Punk "Post Modern" IPA and Riptide "Twisted Merciless Stout" were the only products left to sample. The samples of the cask conditioned ales were long gone. 

3rd Brewdog Spotting:  Vincent Henderson, a former colleague, shows up on Facebook drinking the Paradox IPA. Massive jealousy ensues. When asked where the brew was procured, he said San Francisco, but that as far as he knew the cask ales were only available in New York and California. I knew otherwise, Michael carried them in Santa Fe.

4th Brewdog Spotting:  Travis and I drove out to Santa Fe and our first stop was Susan's Fine Wines where Michael works. SPOTTING!!! There, in the cold box! I bought 3.

The current release was aged in Smokehead Islay casks. Smokehead is a mystery malt. It's intensely peaty, and the on-line consensus is that it's an independent bottling of young whisky. The mystery is which distillery.

Which brings us to the 5th Brewdog Spotting, in Michael and Laura's living room, by the fire, in a glass, notebook in hand.

Initial Notes:  Porter-like toastiness with sweet, dark, Belgian undertones; piney, hoppy, citrus highlights; smoky and salty, images of a campfire on a beach; dark, bitter chocolate. 

Random Impressions:

"An initial attack of treble bitterness."
"It has an intense bitter salty thing at the front."
"The aroma is lean and dry, you expect sweetness and you just don't get it."
"Intense smokiness fading to seaweed with chocolaty malt."
"It never gets as heavy as you think it's going to get. It always stays on the light side." 

A Brilliant Idea: Travis pours glasses of Ardbeg Uigeadail and a glass of Laphroaig 10 year old and then gets a wild hair and adds dashes of Oaxacan Chocolate Bitters to the Laphoaig.

Initially, the whiskies cancel out all the darker elements of the Paradox, rendering it rich and creamy, full of butter fat and white chocolate, with hints of milk chocolate bubbling underneath. As the whisky fades, the stout's identity returns, first tasting of smoky peat, then growing into rich, toasty chocolates which melts to reveal a smoky salty nuttiness. To my palate, the flavor was identical to the smoky, salty kernels of malted peat I chewed several weeks ago at a Laphroaig tasting.

Michael doesn't say a thing. He just keeps nosing the whisky, nosing the beer, nosing the whisky. Maybe takes a sip. Turning his head. Nosing the whisky, nosing the beer.

In Conclusion:  Throughout the tasting discussion rages on the dominating question of the evening: "Is the smokiness and perfume from the hops or from peat and smoke from the barrel?" Michael thinks and we agree, the peaty phenolics have to come from the barrel.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wine Aerators: More Flavor Through Bubbles!

A big seller over the holidays was the Vinturi Wine Aerator. They sold just as fast as we could get them in. Why? They work.

We were conducting an in-store tasting of a couple of Bordeaux's on a Saturday afternoon. One was Chateau Clarke 2005, from Listrac. Good vintage, good value producer, the wine was scored 90-92 from the barrel by Robert Parker.

Poured straight from the bottle after opening, the wine showed classic black fruit and floral aromas with upfront black fruits, a slightly hollow mid-palate with good tannic grip on the finish. Exactly what you want!

We then poured the wine through the Vinturi. The noise is hilarious as the wine is accelerated through the aerator pulling in air which is injected into the wine.  The design utilizes the Bernoulli principle and mixes the wine and air, just like gasoline and air are combined in the carburetor of an internal combustion engine.

The aromas were richer and more intense. Where the mid-palate was hollow there was now rich velvety fruit which overlapped and the diminished perception of the tannins. Randy, our 'wine guy emeritus' tasted the samples and thought they were two different wines! We had to repeat the experiment to convince him otherwise.

The other wine we poured was the 2006 Chateau Caronne Ste. Gemme, which is much more a ready-to-drink wine than the Clarke, featuring smoky cranberries on a dark, medium bodied frame. While the Vinturi brought slightly more texture and flavor, the effect was nowhere near as dramatic as on the more complex age worthy wine.

In subsequent weeks, we used the Vinturi during our Saturday tastings, selling both wines and Vinturi's. I have used it several times at home with my son, Travis, taking detailed tasting notes tasting wines ranging from Sean Thackrey's Pleiades to a 2005 Premier Cru Burgundy from Gevrey Chambertin. Results are consistent.

So what's happening to the wine? I suspect a couple of things.

The first and most significant is the infusion of air into the wine in the form of many tiny bubbles. A few months ago a French Scientific Journal posting made the cyber rounds about a study of Champagne bubbles and their relation to flavor. Two interesting facts:  There are 5L of CO2 in a 750ml bottle of champagne compressed in around 100 million bubbles. The surface area of the bubbles is around 80 square meters.

Aromatic molecules attach both to the liquid and the bubbles. The infusion of air is similar, but much more effective than 'splash' decanting. As the bubbles break, the flavors are released. Infusion of air into the wine in the form of tiny bubbles allows the flavors to be released at a much faster rate. The accelerated rate emphasizes perception of fruits and air bubbles give the wine a richer texture.

The surface area of the bubbles also acts as an "exchange surface" through which gases can pass, allowing oxygen to mingle with the wine and perform the oxidative changes which, over time, bring out the full flavor profile of the wine. By increasing the size of the "exchange surface" with the greater number of bubbles, the Vinturi accelerates the oxidative flavor changes.

So the Vinturi Aerator definitely enhances the immediate perception of flavors, especially fruits in a newly opened wine. But the development and maturation of a wine is a very complex process, involving many aspects of flavor. Questions remain. Is the change similar to the effect of steroids on a body builder? Does the Vinturi emphasize on aspect of the flavor profile and leave other aspects in the dust?

And if it does, so what?

Most customers take their big bad-boy wines home to drink, not to hold, why shouldn't they enjoy them more!