Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wine on a Tuesday Afternoon

Spent a lazy afternoon at a neighborhood pizza and pasta place with a few friends and some bottles of wine. Nothing was tasted blind, nobody was trying to wow anyone. The wines were the excuse for conversations that started with the wines and as food and wine will do, they shrank the world to the space around us as our thoughts and ideas expanded.

The wines were all interesting. The Freeman Pinot Noir 2007 is a Russian River Pinot Noir new to the market. It is another terrific 07 Pinot in the big rich Russian River style. Big aromas with unmistakable perfumes of  Pinot Noir, mouth-filling flavors with rich plums and berries covering the hints of forest floor that linger on the spicy finish. A big wine for a big price and a big meal.

Everyone's first thought was that the next wine should have been opened first. The Fire Road Pinot Noir 2008 (another nice New Zealand Pinot under $20) was a clear pale ruby color and looked like a dark rose'. Complex aromas of fresh strawberries led to flavors of creamy raspberries, strawberries and blueberries all dancing with a vibrant acidity. I know the description sounds like a rose', but there was way too much going on both in the glass and on the palate. Conversation drifted to bacon wrapped shrimp and paella, chorizo and smoked paprika.

While the Freeman was as big, luxurious and delicious as it should have been and certainly lived up to what $50 should deliver in the current Pinot market, somehow, the Fire Road, with its pale color and big flavor managed to capture our fancy. Maybe it was just the pizza!

We then jumped to Italy for the 2007 Tre from Brancaia. A blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot that sees time in barrel, the Tre comes in around $20, definitely on the high end its category. The wine was very tight at first, but its heritage began to show more and more as the afternoon passed. The black fruit of the Bordeaux grapes came out first and eventually the Sangio' woke up and the wine showed its true Italian heritage with flying colors.

And last there was a Brunello. 2004 Casanova di Neri. When we really started to tuck into the wine it had been about 4 hours since the wine had been double decanted and the wine was flat out singing with dark aromas of soy and cherry leading to a fruity core of black cherries and cranberries mingled with earth, brush, spices and integrated tannins. Priced in the mid $50's, the wine is a veritable steal in the pricey world of Brunello's.

At this point, the pizza was gone, the wine was gone. Other customers had long since left the restaurant and there was maybe time to get something done before the afternoon was over. Or not. There was talk of espresso. There was more talk of grappa.....

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Great Moments in Retail 1.03

Cell phones. They drive me nuts.

I understand when I'm helping customers who get an important call, business or personal. I step aside and give them space to conduct their business. They apologize and we resume. Sometimes customers get calls and say they're busy and ask if they can call back. Sometimes.

Usually they just wander around and it goes like this:

A customer walks in the store talking on the phone, looks around and heads for the wines. Still talking. Wanders down the Chardonnay aisle, looks around. Walks toward the wall of Cabernet. Stops, still talking, looks to right and glances to the left. Turns around and walks through South America, talking all the while. And frequently, just keeps on walking and talking, right on out of the store.
"Goodbye!" I think. "Maybe, just maybe I could  have helped you find something? Oh, thanks for coming in!"
Sometimes you overhear snippets of conversation and you know the customer is talking to a friend about wine. They look at this and they look at that. Their friend is telling them to look for a certain wine, who knows what? Who knows if the customer is even in the right aisle? I hover nearby, waiting for an opportunity to penetrate this cone of technological isolation. PEOPLE, WAKE UP! I know my inventory, I can satisfy your oenological need!

Last Friday a customer was standing in the middle of the Southern Rhone and looking from label to label all the while talking on his phone. I was watching, waiting, feeling like a vulture when I was interrupted by a phone call. It was a J***, a longtime customer who is an avid devotee of Rhone wines.
"A friend of mine is back in your Rhone section and I was trying to help him find Domaine Fondreche, could you go back and help him."

"Of course. I was watching him look at the wines, but I couldn't help him because he was talking on his cell phone!"
The irony was devastating. I walked back with a smile on my face and interrupted with confidence. "I can help you!" He was looking for something rich, dark and velvety for a Valentine's Day dinner. Fondreche is an amazing producer of intense wines from Cotes du Ventoux. J*** knows his wines and has bought many a case. 

The customer bought a couple bottles of the Domaine Fondreche 2007 Cuvee Persia which is 90% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre, all barrel aged. The wine offers dark floral aromas followed by intense black and red berries with notions of darkness swirling beneath the fruit. The finish is long with integrated tannins and hints of minerality. (Yes, it got the requisite 93 points the in The Wine Advocate for them that don't believe...) He also bought a bottle of the 2007 Cuvee Nadal which is half Grenache and tends toward brighter red fruits. The Nadal is a more traditional Rhone red and while it doesn't offer the hedonistic decadence of the Persia, it's an outstanding wine (91 points). Both wines are great values and sell in the mid -twenties.

Cell phones, though are just the beginning of retail technology. 

Smart phones can read barcodes and tell you about the products. For example, sells an app that can read the barcode on a bottle of beer and not only tell you about the brewery, and the style, flavor and bitterness of the beer, but can tell you the nearest store or pub that sells the beer. I saw their logo on bars and deli's all over New York City a couple of weeks ago.

Ole Imports, a new innovative importer of Spanish wines puts a telephone number with a code on each bottle so you can call the number and hear information about the wine. That's in addition to the unusual amount of information about the variety and growing region they put on the back label. Which is  an extremely useful alternative to the usual  drivel about the romanticism of the wine and the vineyard.

But these information aids are what you need to shop in a grocery or discount store.

Surely the best alternative is a well-stocked  wine store staffed with customer oriented 'flavor junkies' who know their stuff and are filled with evangelical fervor to fill the world with great wine.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Watching the Detectives: Who Can You Believe?

It's a huge world of wine out there. There's some 2500 or so labels in my store alone. I try to count them sometimes, but hell, I'm a wine guy. If I could count I'd be making real money doing a real job, not just tasting fermented grape juice and telling those who listen what's good and what's not.

But I  can't taste it all and who's breaking open all those expensive wines just for me to try anyway? 

So we all read Robert Parker, James Laube, Stephen Tanzer, James Suckling and a host of wine writers writing for various publications and how tied are they to the advertising dollars anyway? It was ten years ago and I hadn't been in the business more than a few weeks when I heard my first customer tell me he doesn't drink anything that doesn't get 90 points. It was about a year later when I head James Clendenen, the mind behind Au Bon Climat tell us that 89 points from The Wine Spectator was just a "big f--- you." And stories like that go on forever.

So we were celebrating a certain family member's birthday last night (the age is only slightly beyond comprehension.) Take out Chinese and Stein's chocolate cake with white butter cream.

La Cuvee Ancienne from Domaine Boumard was fabulous with shrimp rolls with peanut sauce. The wine, a blend of several vintages ranging from sort of old to very old Chenin Blanc was a golden amber with dried fruits, rich honeyed notes and a complex nutty minerally finish. The sweeter notes of the orange beef focused the acids and made it shine. What would critics think of this, much less consumers? I shudder to think. Sadly I know what Texas buyers thought of this gorgeous stuff. The wine was purchased on a close-out sale.

The 2006 Espirit de Beaucastel from Tablas Creek was its ususual silky smooth California expression of Rhone varietals. It's hard to think of food that wouldn't pair with this wine. The 2007 in current release is maybe a little more intense, but sweet, spicy, meaty, fishy; all were incorporated by the wine in stride. The critics love the wine, it gets great press as it should. But it's pricey. Rhone customers don't buy it because it's from California and it's priced like Chateauneuf-du-pape. California customers dont' buy it because it's not Cabernet or Pinot Noir.

At the end of the meal we opened a 2002 Chateau Pontet Canet and things hit the wall. It offered a blank slate with suggestions that floral cassis might be found somewhere on the other side of the austere tannins. And it was onto candles and birthday cake. And two-thirds of an opened bottle went home to see another day.

Valentine's Day saw another wave of cold air as the wind picked up from the Northwest and the hints of blue sky disappeared under waves of slate-grey clouds. A grocery list with ingredients for a beef stew went unfulfilled on the kitchen table. Blogs went unwritten. Solitaire was way easier. Finally a trip to the store yielded a porterhouse steak on sale, mushrooms and a potato or two. 

Yes, and a couple of full glasses of the Pontet Canet. And as even Bordeaux from an off vintage can do, the wine had finally come to life. Aromas suggesting the perfume of violets and purple flowers came from the opaque purple wine. Gentle notions of cassis and black fruit intensified as the wine swirled around the mouth with a silky smooth finish that finished with a gentle yet firm grip of fine tannin. Subtle, elegant and ultimately powerful. 

It was then I looked up what Mr. Parker had to say.
"This wine has seemingly gone to sleep and is in a dormant, ungracious stage, exhibiting notes of green tea leaves intermixed with red and black currants in its dusty nose. A medium-bodied wine with moderately high tannin and a certain austerity, it seems to be a much less impressive effort than I thought from barrel or is it just impossibly closed? There is still substantial size and tannic clout to the wine, but the fruit seems to have gone into hiding. Anticipated maturity: 2011-2020+. 88 points."
How much wine is that review going to sell?

Surprise, Mr. Parker, surprise!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Manhattans in Manhattan

In New York for a few day's to taste and learn about Italian wines, thanks to the Italian Trade Commission. Came up a few days early to throw out a sleeping bag in my son's apartment in Brooklyn and live like a graduate student for a few days. Damn, it's exhausting!

So it was Saturday evening, we were sitting in a noisy bar, drinking a beer and watching bad basketball while we pondered our next move. I was exhausted and tempted to head back to the Apt, but that meant back to the cold streets and endless subway steps, and I think that's what we were doing when Travis mentioned an energetic Sake bar. Then the  notion of a cocktail emerged, T's eyes lit up, he said "I know just the place!" And we wound up at the Pegu Club, a quiet 2nd floor lounge dedicated to administrations of classic and classically inspired cocktails. "A bit of the restorative" as Bertie Wooster would say.

The temptation here is to write a review, but there are plenty to be read online. I ordered a "The Little Italy", a variant of the Manhattan, with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, a delicious true maraschino cherry, but the kicker was Averna, the dark bitter Sicilian digestif. One sip and the world changed before my eyes. The sweetness of the cherry and the vermouth darkened by the various earthy chocolate bitters took all edges from the whiskey. The drink glowed on the table, a source of new life.

So, last night, after a relaxed dinner at the Apt, Travis broke out the Sazerac 18 year rye, a bottle of Averna and instead of the vermouth, a bottle of Chinato. Chinato is an herbal infused, fortified wine made in the Piedmonte, typically from Barolo. The leading flavors are quinine, clove and cardamom among many others. We had a bottle of Vergano Chinato made from Grignolino which has a brighter cherry component than richer, darker Chinato's made from Nebbiolo.

The first try was the classic Manhattan ratio of 2:1. On the first sip, it didn't seem that the Chinato had disrupted the massive flavor of the Sazerac 18, but on reflection the cherry was shining with a glowing brilliance all around the edges. Quite nice. But Travis wanted more. He cut back on the Chinato and added a good splash of Averna and a couple of drops of Angostura bitters for good measure, stirred on ice and poured.

Wow! The cherries were still glowing around the edges both from the whisky and the Chinato, but the rich vanillas and toastiness of the whisky were now dragged into undertones of bitter chocolate by the dark and bitter Averna. Delicious.

Damn, we just didn't have a cherry. And to paraphrase Trapper John, "A Manhattan just isn't a Manhattan without a cherry."