Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Mikulski in Burgundy - and it ain't Barbara on vacation

The Guelbenzu 2006 Evo was one of the fall's great successes. Mr. Marathon wanted a high-end California cabernet sauvignon taste at a modest price, a balance quite ably struck by the Guelbenzu, a blend of 70% cab, 15% Merlot and 15% Tempranillo from Ribera del Queiles, which is near Zaragoza in northeastern Spain. The chief liked the wine so much that he ordered several bottles when he heard that the store had reduced the price to $20 a bottle.

I ran into another Guelbenzu on Monday when I was wandering the shelves at Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore in search of a red to accompany some prime rib left over from Christmas. Lying in the Spanish section was the Guelbenzu Vierlas 2007, a blend of 70% syrah, 20% merlot, and 10% graciano, a blending grape grown in northern Spain, the south of France, Australia and California. Aged in oak for six months, this was a very respectable Rhone-style syrah for $16, with the requisite spice and pepper and a little barnyard to keep you honest. MFWC's mother - Madame Chardonnay du Chene - shies away from reds, but she had no problem downing half a bottle of this one and reported no headache the next morning. 

MFWC also couldn't resist a 2009 white burgundy from Francois Mikulski. Presumably, Francois is not closely related to Barbara Mikulski, the longtime Congresswoman and U.S. Senator from Baltimore whose classic Crabtown accent and brawler's attitude are legendary. Francois will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Meursault winerey in 2012. His father fled Poland in 1939, joined the British army, and eventually married a French woman who gave birth to Francois in Dijon in 1963. Francois's uncle, a Meursault winemaker, introduced him to the craft, and after a stint in California the nephew came home, where he has become a highly respected producer of whites:

One of the staffers at Wells said the Mikulski entry-level white burgundy was tasty and classic if a tad overpriced at $25, and he was right. It had oak, a touch of honey, a touch of citrus and would work with traditional Maryland seafood about as well as a bottle of Natty Boh. (Not crabcakes with too much Old Bay, though.) You East Village people can try the Mikulski out for $11 a glass at Prune, whose very solid wine blog praised the wine a few weeks ago:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holiday shopping

Pernil. Feste dei sette pesci. Latkes with applesauce. The winter holidays are inseparable from the foods with which people celebrate them, and MFWC received a number of requests last week for wines to pair with specific celebratory dishes.

MFWC has a weakness for the pernil with rice and beans at Sophie's, a Cuban place around the corner from the office, and he could scarcely refrain from inviting himself for Christmas Eve lunch when a colleague mentioned that she needed a $15 red to go with her grandmother's pernil, pork slow roasted with garlic, pepper, oregano and salt. That called for the Bernabeleva 2010 grenache (or, to use the Spanish, garancha), that Big Green had last week with his Korean barbeque. Big Green recommended letting the wine breathe for a half-hour to let the alcohol settle down. A zinfandel would also work, and those who prefer less fruit might opt for a wine like the red from the south of France that MFWC spied in a Paris wine store, the L'Engoulevent of Yannick Pelletier, a blend of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Cinsault. Crush Wines on 59th St. recommended the '06 a few years ago to pair with the insanely good squab served over rice flavored with squab liver and sofrito that Wes Genovart served at Degustation on the Lower East Side. Wes opened up his own place in Vermont earlier this year, and MFWC needs to head up there in 2012.         

The feste dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes, is a southern Italian and Sicilian Christmas Eve tradition that includes some combination of baccala or dried salt cod, mussels, clams, eel, sardines, squid and octopus. One MFWC member - call him Dr. Database - opted for the Ambra Blanco 2010 from Ischia, an island off of Naples. MFWC usually fills requests for pinot grigio with the Ambra Blanco, a blend of Biancolella, a white grape from Campania, and Forastera, which comes from the Canary Islands and was once used to make fortified wines including sherry. Another member lamented his uncles' inability to plan a menu for the sette pesci, a sentiment MFWC shared because of the opportunity for interesting pairings the meal offers. There's the realm of Sicilian whites, of course, and the Forastera points more adventurous drinkers toward sherry. Maybe 2G Sales will try Arianna Occhipinti's whites to see if they're up to the task, since 2G Sales so enjoyed the Occhipinti SP68 Nero d'Avola/Frappato blend. Why not start with some Txakoli, the sparkling white served with mussels, fried octopus and patatas bravas at tapas bars all over Basque country? Clearly, further research on the sette pesci will be required.

The son of an Alabama graduate who sits next to MFWC - call him Bama - couldn't bring himself to serve a dry German with latkes and applesauce at Passover, so he too went for the Ambra Bianco given his wife's preference for pinot grigio. The Bamas welcomed a new baby boy into the family last month, an occasion they marked with a prosecco that would also have gone with the latkes, or they could have lived it up with the Francois Pinon sparkling Vouvray that MWFC discussed in September. Maybe 'Bama can buy a bottle in anticipation of the BCS championship game on Jan. 9, when the Crimson Tide plays LSU.         

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The world's greatest griller

One of my friends - call him the man of many employers (MOME) - likes to conclude a dinner prepared on the grill by bisecting some peaches, removing the pits, drizzling honey on them, and putting them on the flames for a few minutes. He removes them when he thinks they're sufficiently soft and warm and serves them two to a bowl with Breyer's vanilla ice cream. It's not a bad use of a peach from Key Foods, assuming you can find one softer than a lacrosse ball.

Now imagine MOME went to a farm in upstate New York to pick peaches that were at the ideal state of ripeness for grilling. MOME seasons the fruit not by squeezing honey out of the clear plastic container that's been in his kitchen for a year but by searching out the perfect honey, stuff produced by obsessive beekeepers who make sure their swarms pollinate plants that will impart some delicate flavor to the honey. MOME removes the skin from the peaches and grills them for a precise amount of time not over Kingsford charcoal ignited with lighter fluid but over charcoal he's made himself. MOME serves these delicacies with ice cream that has a slight hint of the grill because that's where he's heated the custard before freezing it. No pretension would be added in transformation; the plating of the dessert would be similar in both cases.

Imagine all this, then put MOME in a tiny village in the Basque mountains, and you'd have Extebarri, where Victor Arguinzoniz is such a master of the grill that chefs come from all over the world to eat his food and send their proteges to learn from him. His red mullet was perfect, the skin crisp and with just a touch of char and the flesh moist and delicious. I would say the same thing about his t-bone steak, but I have no recollection of how it tasted. I was full enough when the steak arrived toward the end of a tasting menu last month that I offered half of it to the table next to me. Thanks, they said, but we've already ordered one. I figured I could work my way through a few of the twelve pieces into which the kitchen had sliced the meat, but I didn't even want a glass of red wine to accompany the piece de resistance of the meal. Perhaps five minutes later the steak was gone and my appetite miraculously restored.

But the greatest marvel of the meal came earlier.  Two langoustines cooked modestly with no discernible salt or taste of the grill, just a perfect balance of sweet and rich that demanded a return trip.    

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A fresh palate

When M was in college, many years before the FWC, he stumbled his way into writing a long paper about early Shang dynasty landscape scrolls. M presented himself to Wen Fong, a special curator of the Chinese collections at the Metropolitan and a professor at M's college, and Fong gave him a list of books to read before heading to the Met on a Monday afternoon to join Fong's graduate seminar in the museum's Asian art hold room. Fong lectured on one side of a table on which he unrolled painted scrolls that stretched on for yards and yards but were meant to be viewed only a foot or two at t atime. As the students were marveling at the gorgeous, millennium-old works, Fong asked M what he thought of the paintings. M with his respect for academic authority did a double-take. Fong told the Met how it should spend Brooke Astor's money; M had only the haziest understanding of Chinese art and culture. But Fong advocated for the value of a "fresh eye," one unfettered by years of study that have conditioned it to see a painting in certain ways. (Thomas Hoving makes a similar point in John McPhee's essay "A Roomful of Hovings.")

MFWC thought of Fong's fresh eye in reviewing the purchases of the last few weeks. The boss bought two more Cabernet Francs from the Loire, the Olga Raffault 2005 Chinon Les Picasses and the 2009 Breton Nuits d'Ivresse from Bourgueil. 2B Sales bought a Bucklin Cabernet Sauvignon for the chief, a big fan of cabs. The coffee connoisseur treated himself to another 2007 Pedrolonga. You get the picture. Sure, I pulled out the Oxford Companion to Wine and learned that reds from Bourgueil generally have "a more powerful aroma and slightly more noticeable tannins" than those from Chinon, but that's pretty interstitial data, helpful though it may be for relating to the boss. There was a Broadside Cab for PG Branch and another one for Johnny Bronx, who was gifting it to the woman who makes his sandwiches every day at Potbelly. (JB has street smarts, no doubt.)

A second look revealed more interesting material in members' exposure to new wines - fresh palates, as Fong might say. Last week, a new MFWC member, call her TBNL, (for to be named later) wanted a bottle of the Coenobium, an Italian white that was all the rage in the office last month. One of MFWC's friends, HF (hedge fund) said the Coenobium reminded him of a Belgian beer without the sweetness. TBNL loves beer. Did she have the same response? Why would the tastes be similar? Would all whites wines whose maceration includes some contact with skins have that quality? Or is HF delusional?

Big Green wanted something to go with Korean barbecue and Brussels sprouts, and the salesperson suggested the Bernabeleva Grenache from the region near Madrid that Mr. Marathon liked. I assumed the BBQ was more spicy than sweet, but Big Green told me when I gave him the bottle that the opposite was true. He said he could kick up the spice; I wondered if a cab franc with some acidity or a fresh Beaujolais might have been a better bet for the sweeter BBQ. Big Green is on a BBQ roll, so perhaps we'll get an answer. The Coffee Connoisseur tried and liked one of the Boss's cab francs, a possible gateway wine to the Rauffault or, more generally, lighter reds than those CC has preferred up to now. At the very least, CC has another reference point as he tastes the heavier reds he likes. His palate, his perspective, will be just a little fresher.   



Monday, December 12, 2011

Fashion in La Rioja II, or Bargain-hunting on the Ebro

Los Agostinos is, as the name suggests, in a former Augustinian convent, and it's a bargain. Hotel rooms in Beaune can run well into the hundreds of euro; the most expensive room at Los Agostinos, which is probably the best hotel in Haro, is €116. The hotel restaurant, Las Duelas, is just as affordable. Its €20 lunch menu was a steal, with a delicious filet mignon-like piece of Galician beef following a tapas-size portion of Waldorf salad (you use good apples and walnuts, you get a good salad) and a cod croqueta that was easily the best of the trip.

Lunch came with a carafe of the house red, but I also perused the list, which featured even lower mark-ups than the one at Echaurren. With the exception of a bottle from Lopez de Heredia, the whites were young and under €25. The reds, mostly from La Rioja, are split into two categories - the traditional and the more robust, higher-alcohol wines made in the style rewarded by Robert Parker, the American wine critic who's generated immense controversy in the wine world for his effect on the prices of his favorite wines and therefore, on how wine is made around the world.

The sommelier had a very strong preference for the traditional wines of his region. "It's grapes, not gold," he said, shaking his head at a youngish Contador that went for €220, up from €80 after Parker gave it a high score a few years ago. Instead, the somm raved about a Vina Ardanza reserva from the 1990s for about €40 (I did not take detailed notes on years and prices). The somm had a very detailed knowledge of La Rioja wines and also loved, among others, Abel Mendoza's 2010 Malvasia and the 2005 Valenciso reserve. Neither is available in the U.S., as far as I can tell. He brightened when I mentioned the '93 Lopez and mentioned the hint of banana in the wine.

The somm said that those in search of robust Spanish reds should look to Ribera del Duero, whose most famous wine, Vega Sicilia's Unico, commands hundreds of dollars a bottle and has been made since the estate was founded in the 1864. Its intensity is often attributed to the dramatic spread in intra-day temperatures in Ribera del Duero, from the mid-90s Farenheit in the day to the low 40s at night in the summer. Climate may explain more than tradition here; aside from Vega Sicilia, most of the wine industry in Ribera del Duero dates from the early 1980s. But that's another region, another story, another blog post. When I return to Los Agostinos in November, I'll have to try one of the somm's favorite reds with the restaurant's roast pigeon with wild mushrooms.          


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fashion in La Rioja, Part I

Haro, the capital of the wine-making industry in La Rioja in north-central Spain, does not seem like a place whose residents would be obsessed with fashion. This isn't the California wine country with its Internet billionaires trying to start wineries; nor is it Beaune, the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, which effortlessly oozes a sophisticated if rustic wealth. Haro is a small town in the mountains with a grittiness to it. Its oldest wine producers - Lopez de Heredia, Muga, CVNE (the initial stand for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) - are near the train station even though it's across a tributary of the Ebro from the town because in the 19th century they shipped much of their product to France and wanted to be as close as possible to the railroad. They've never bothered moving.  

Lopez de Heredia's affect furthers this impression of being oblivious, or impervious, to wine world trends. Now in its fifth generation of family ownership, the winery has retained the same methods and packaging for decades. The men who now make the oak barrels in which the wine is aged come from families that have supplied the winery with coopers for several generations. The oak comes as it always has from Kentucky and Missouri. The underground facility in which much of the production takes place was made more than a century ago and still contains no cooling or humidifying equipment; instead, thick layers of mold on the ceiling insure the 75% humidity at which the wines age best. The cellar smells a little like the wines.    

But the guide, an affable woman of about 30, is exceptionally conscious of the effect changing trends have on winemaking. Lopez de Heredia is most famous for its whites (the guide says the 1964 grand reserve is the best she's tasted), and the Habsburgs brought a taste for whites with them when they came to Spain in the 16th century. Into the late 19th century, the Rioja wineries produced mostly whites, which stimulated demand from Alsace when phylloxera devastated the French wine-making industry. Demand from France for red wine helped spur that segment of the La Rioja wine trade.

Tastes continue to change, of course. The guide said that most of her friends prefer beer to wine and wouldn't appreciate a wine like LdH's 1993 grand reserve or its roses, which its makes only in certain years and, sadly, won't be offering for several more years. LdH also faces an international wine market that leans heavily toward robust reads and largely disdains whites, which even respected producers from Bordeaux have a comparatively hard time selling despite the region's prestige and long history of wine-making. Demand for the reds is significantly greater. (Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion are the primary grapes in Bordeaux whites.) But taste is fickle, and LdH intends to keep making its wines the same way it's always done, the guide said. She strongly recommended I have lunch at the restaurant attached to Los Agostinos, the best hotel in Haro, which has a 20€ lunch special and a sommelier with strong opinions about wine.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A golden wine in La Rioja

You know you´re in the sticks when you ask someone at the hotel desk where the nearest Internet cafe is, and she suggests going to the local library, which is on the second floor of the building containing the local tourist office and is only open in the afternoon, which in this case means from 5PM to 9PM. Such is life in Ezcaray, a small town in mountainous La Rioja that´s home to Echaurren, a hotel and restaurant run by the same family for five generations. I´m writing from one of the five computers in the library.

The wine list at Echaurren suggests the region´s isolation and its unaffected approach to wine. Most of the entries are local products that go for under €30, and there were several older reserve reds from CVNE, a respected producer in Haro, the center of the region´s wine trade, for €60. Virtually all of the whites are young with the notable exception of three from Lopez de Heredia, including the 1993 Vina Tondonia that I ordered to go with a salad of raw mushroom (in season now), arugala, and a few raw shrimp followed by hake with clams and a few mushrooms.

Lopez makes all of its wines to age, even its roses, which it generally releases about a decade after the grapes are harvested. The Tondonia blanco is a blend of 90% viura, also known as Macabeo, a grape grown primarily in La Rioja, the area near Barcelona where it´s used to make Cava, and Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, as well as 10% Malvasia. The producer aged the wine in oak for six years, and the result after more than a decade in the bottle is delicious. Lopez´s whites have a sherry-like nose and taste that can be quite strong in the younger wines, which are still ten years old, but in this bottle had mellowed and receded to blend with honey and even floral smells on the nose. The wine was perfect with the mushrooms and shrimp, whose sweetness accentuated that trait in the wine, and went very well with the hake, where the clams brought out the acidic backbone in the wine which the mild fish smoothed over. MFWC drank only half of the bottle at dinner on Saturday, and the restaurant graciously saved the rest for Sunday lunch, a soup of chickpeas, clams and hake in a fish broth. The wine lost a fraction of its subtlety, but the nose was still entrancing and the soup accentuated the wine´s sherry-like elements - again, though, in an understated way, not like, say, the 2000 Lopez de Heredia Gravonia blanco, which was majestic when I had it last year, or, to be less affected, the Harvey´s Bristol Cream that your grandparents drank before dinner and you could smell three rooms away.

I´m headed to Lopez´s Haro winery tomorrow and will post on that later this week, but I should give a final shout-out to the folks at Echaurren, who run a fine hotel and restaurant in a gorgeous region.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Toasting the Redbirds, the Nuns, and the Club

The last Friday in October, I was headed down to Washington, D.C. to celebrate my niece’s fourth birthday. A St. Louis native, my brother-in-law was keenly focused on game seven of the World Series after witnessing the Cardinals’ miraculous comeback the evening before. I told him I would bring a wine worthy of the event. He suggested that some Anheuser-Busch might be a more appropriate beverage. I said I would take my chances with a 2006 Umbria Rosso San Valentino from Paolo Bea, a blend of Sagrantino, with Sangeovese and Montepulciano by one of the region’s great winemakers.  
The Italian regional wine authorities claimed that the wine was too light in color and slightly oxidized and refused to award it DOC (denomination de origine controllata) status, so the wine sold for about $30 in the States instead of the $60 it would otherwise have fetched. I loved the ounce I had at a tasting last September, bought a bottle, stuck it in my desk, and more than a year later nervously pulled it out, wrapped it in a tee-shirt and put it in my luggage before going to Penn Station to catch the train.
Not to worry. The Paolo Bea was delicious, earthy in a controlled way, very interesting to drink over the course of a three-hour baseball game despite my poor handling. (Six months in a dark desk drawer in a temperature-controlled office is probably fine; a year is not.) I probably killed some of the nose, but it remained intriguing to sniff and drink all the way to our bottle-ending toast to the Redbirds’ 6-2 win.
Fully convinced of Bea’s ability, I turned to another bottle that had lingered in my mind since July, one made by nuns in Lazio with the help of Bea’s son Giampiero that I ran across in a Berkeley, California wine store, Vintage Berkeley. The Coenobium Suore Cistercensi, a blend of 45% Trebbiano, 35% Malvasia, and 20% Verdicchio, has an appealing label that looks hand-written and features the logo of the Trappist monastery in Vitorchiano, which is in the province of Lazio about an hour north of Rome, and a relatively gentle $20 price tag.
Last week, 2B Sales asked me to pick up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for her. From the Loire? Yes, from the Loire. I got to the wine store, thought about the Coenobium, and for entirely selfish reasons went with a 2009 bottle of that instead. I started to worry about 2B’s reaction when I got back to the office, since the Coenobium gets extended contact with the grape skins, which is unusual and certainly not like a Sauvignon from the Loire. A nip of the Coenobium last weekend set me at ease, though: gingerbread, maybe a little yeast, rich taste but reasonably light mouthfeel.
2B Sales loved it. Could barely stop drinking it, she said. Wanted two more bottles. Just hearing her talk about it convinced one of her brethren on the sales team to take a bottle. The chief took one. Big-Time Spender, ever suggestible, signed up. I took the seven bottles the store had left, which left me short a bottle for someone who wanted to take a few home for Thanksgiving, so I got him a white from the Jura, a Montbourgeau. (Speaking of whites from the Jura, the ’07 Gahier Chardonnay was a terrific bottle as well, its nutty character evident but restrained, with enough acid to balance the richness that can often be excessive in wines from the region.)
The seven Coenobiums were only a third of the orders for the last MFWC run before Thanksgiving. Given the boss’s enthusiastic endorsement of Bernard Baudry’s Chinons, which are made from Cabernet Franc, I picked up three of his entry-level (i.e., under $20) wines as well as yet another Loire red for the Boss himself and a variety of bottles for the rest of the crew, which welcomes a new member, the Pinot Grigio drinker who wants to branch out—call her PG Branch.
I selected a 2009 Beaujolais from Edmunds St. John in California for PG Branch on the theory that it’s a light, easy-drinking wine that will go well with turkey. Steve Edmunds has a California hippie affect, but he’s a meticulous wine-maker who favors the Rhone style, and a sniff of one of his 1996 Syrahs sent me into conniptions at a wine dinner in May 2010. PG Branch, welcome to the club, and a happy Thanksgiving to everyone else.
The next blog posts will come from La Rioja, where I’m headed on Tuesday.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What to buy for Mom

I began buying wine by the case because of the bad California Chardonnay that my mother - call her Madame Chard du Chêne -used to buy reflexively. There was always a bottle in the fridge when I came home, and it always tasted the same when I would (always, my sister would add pointedly) pour myself a glass: acrid, no nose, no subtlety, no nothing. One Christmas, I suggested to my mother than I buy her a mixed case of whites. She could put the receipt on the fridge, check the ones she liked, take the receipt back to the store, get them to pick the next case, and over time hone her palate. This seemed feasible, since my mother is an excellent cook and sensitive to what she eats.

The plan had mixed success. Among the cases I lugged back from the store on my visits back to Baltimore, she did discover some crisp whites that she liked. There was the Kris Pinot grigio from northern Italy, a Mantel Blanco Sauvignon blanc from Spain and some others, but when left to her own devices she pulled the oaky California chard off the shelf. The varietal wasn't a kind of white wine, or even a synonym for it. It was white wine in her mind, an no amount of remediation from her control-freak son has changed that.

Mme. Chard is not alone. One MFWC member will drink only California chards if she's drinking white. She's a customer of sorts, so I don't browbeat her, but I do wonder why she doesn't branch out. Others want to spend only $10 or $12 or a bottle, which with my thrifty streak I can appreciate. They get good, solid wines at that price, if nothing all that interesting, but they'll never cook a wine in their apartment or spend $30 on a so-so bottle. 

Earlier this week, someone presented me with a Mme. Chard challenge. This person's mother is older and likes what the woman thinks are terrible wines that are made even worse because Mom takes several days to get through them. Mom's palate is, apparently, shot. A three-liter box of wine is the perfect solution for Mom. She presumably has enough self-indulgence by age 78 not to overindulge merely because she's got the equivalent of four bottles of wine in the fridge. The box wine will stay good for weeks, and it will be drinkable. If the daughter wants something good when she comes over, she should bring it herself. By the mid-2000s, according to the Encyclopedia of Wine, almost a quarter of the wine sold in the U.S. came form a box, and for good reason. It's functional, environmentally friendly, cheap, and apparently tastes at least OK. I suggested that the person go to Astor Wines, a great store that does a lot of volume and has a reasonable selection of box wines. For those of you in Jersey, I would imagine Wine Library would be even better, since they do enormous volume. 

I though of my box wine recommendation on my trip to the store the next day. A new customer - call her Samba after her preferred foot gear - likes to get a red and a white for about $12 each. I saw a $12 liter of Yellow & Blue Mendoza Torrontes, an Argentine white grape descended from Muscat and Criolla chica in box-like packaging, and I didn't hesitate to pick it up for Samba, who seems like an easy-going wine drinker. Why shouldn't she get another 250 ml in lighter packaging for the same price as a $12 bottle that would have been decent but no better? I also got Samba an $11 Cotes du Rhone that another co-worker favored last winter. The co-worker warned that the CdR doesn't keep well after being opened. Few wines do. The ones Mme. Chard du Chêne buys certainly don't. But wines in boxes have less exposure to oxygen and last a lot longer than those in bottles.

This brings us back to Mme Chard, who now drinks a range of whites from dry Riesling to Assyrtico, a Greek grape that makes a crisp white. She's always liked sherry, and so the oxidized Jura whites I bring home from time to time work well for her. Wine has become a low-cost, low-stress (stress-reducing, even) mother-son activity for her. Would she be just as happy drinking wine out of a box, and could she do that more cheaply than buying Hahn Chardonnay at $12 a bottle from the overpriced liquor store a mile from her house? Absolutely.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Underpriced or underwhelming? A 21-year-old wine for $19

MFWC (okay, Marcus) is a sucker for affordable wines with bottle age on the theory that they're generally underpriced. Take, for example, the Lopez de Heredia rose, which generally ages in oak for several years, is released about a decade after the grapes are harvested and generally retails for under $25. The winemaker cares enough to defer the return on his investment for many years, and he's not making a massive profit. That's a good sign. The tradeoff is that the wine probably isn't wildly popular, or the winemaker would be charging a lot more for it. You can get modestly priced Riojas or wines from the southwest of France that are a decade old; go to Bordeaux, and it's a different story.

So MFWC couldn't resist a Mosel riesling from 1990, the Kestener Paulinsberg Spatlese from Gunther Steinmetz. Spatlese is made form grapes that are picked late in the season and so have more sugar, which leads to sweeter wines capable of long aging. Presumably Steinmetz cares about his wine, but in this case he just wanted to get something, anything, for it, because over the last few decades, or depending on whom you read several decades, German drinkers have turned away from wines they perceive as sweet, as explained in this blog post and response:

2B sales was looking for a bottle to go with salmon, and when I asked about the Steinmetz, the salesman suggested it would work with a salmon prepared with dill and lemon. I also picked up a bottle to take to my sister's this weekend, and my brother-in-law channeled the Germans with his response: too sweet, tastes like the apple juice he gives to his kids, no finish. I'm going to stick up for my wine, though. I found the nose consistently interesting if not overly complex, with some citrus, maybe a little lavendar, that riesling smell that eludes definition but is often labeled as petrol (a turn-off, another MFWC member reminded me), all of which shifted as I sniffed. I thought the acidity and the sugar were in balance and didn't find the wine too sweet, but that's the great divide about rieslings from the Mosel. A beverage that leaves one man lusting for a pairing of boudin blanc with mustard leaves another shuddering at the thought of filling sippy cups with apple juice.

Careful readers of the MFWC blog have seen this story of shifting fashions at least twice before, in the changing French attitude toward Beaujolais that Kermit Lynch lamented and in the decline of Maderia consumption in the U.S. after 1815. Tastes in wine change, sometimes quite rapidly, for a host of reasons that may be difficult to untangle.

Steinmetz may have misjudged his audience with the 1990 Spatlese, but whoever he is, he knows that if you give people a full liter of booze for $15, they will think they're getting 250ml for free and snap it up. Thus I bought two liters of Steinmetz's, one for the harried mommy (HM) and the other for steady quaffer of lighter whites (SQLW).

We probably won't be getting the coffee connoisseur any riesling given his horror of drinking white wine, but CC grooved on the Vid Sur, a Negramoll Tinto that he pronounced powerful but interesting, a response enthusiastic enough that I bought bottles for Big Green and a relatively new MFWC member who's been drafting on the Spanish explorations of CC, Mr. M. and others. CC let his palate rest this week, while Mr. M celebrated a new job with a 2009 Pares Balta Mas Petit, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedes, an hour west of Barcelona on the Catalan coast. It's an appropriate venue from which to choose a celebratory beverage, since Penedes is one of the primary sources of Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine.

The Boss-man went back to the 2005 Raffault Les Picasses cabernet franc. As the weather gets colder, maybe he'll head back to the Cotes du Rhone, where he happily lingered for several months last winter.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wine and the single drinker

One of Madeira's great strengths is its indestructibility. It flourished in the brutal conditions of a transatlantic crossing, after which questions of storage proved virtually irrelevant. There is no need to put it in a cool place, or lay it on its side, or drink it all in one sitting. These traits made it ideal not only for the 18th century Virginia aristocrats but for 21st century drinkers who can't or don't want to down 750ml at one sitting.

Jura wines have some of the same traits, as I learned at a tasting yesterday evening when Savignans and chardonnays that had been open for a week were poured. Because of their exposure to oxygen during the production process, the Puffeneys and Montborgeaus tasted fine after a week in an open bottle, as would sherry. A Sauvignon blanc would be wickedly acidic by then. This raises a key question for the MFWC given its number of members who drink a bottle over several days: which wines lend themselves to such consumption? The answers I've received to that question over the years have had a disturbingly low accuracy rate, but perhaps the club has the critical mass can bring some precision to the issue.         

Welcome to the Wine Islands

Since his first taste of the Pedralonga '07, a wine that's made it onto the MFWC's faves list as sure as a catchy song from Glee is downloaded onto iPods everywhere, the Coffee Connoisseur has been searching for a Spanish red that he likes as much. The man is a walking geography lesson. We've tried Galicia, Cigales, even the region near Madrid, and nothing has captured CC's palate. This week, the Spanish guru at Chamber St. recommended a red from La Palma in the Canary Islands, the Vid Sur 2009 Tinto. The Canaries are a string of islands off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic, and the grape is Tinto Negramoll, one of the primary varietals used for Madeira wine, which is made on the eponymous islands 250 miles north of the Canaries.

Madeira was the preferred source of wines in colonial America, since it was a convenient layover point on the shipping routes from Europe to America and the wine produced there improved on the journey. That's an exceptionally unusual trait, since excessive heat (temperatures in shipholds could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which would cook most wine to oblivion) and motion tend to harm wine, but those influences were so beneficial to Maderia that American customers often demanded that the wine be shipped to India and back to improve its flavor. Those with a taste for history can macerate themselves in David Hancock's 2009 tome Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Taste, an excellent case study of the interaction among merchants, producers and consumers of wine and its commercial aspects.

The product of CC's Vid Sur recalls the production of those legendary beverages in at least one way: Juan Mattias Torrez Perez, the producer, imposes no temperature control on his wines during their fermentation. La Palma is also known for its sweet wines made from Malvasia, another one of the primary grapes grown in Madeira.

While CC has been wandering all over Spanish wine country, the Boss is staying focused on the Loire reds with the 2009 Baudry Chinon from the plot Les Grezeaux, "a unique parcel of gravel over a bed of clay, sand and limestone at the base of the Coteaux du Sonnay, just west of Cravant." This is reputedly one of the best wines to come from the Loire in this vintage, and it's easily under $30. That right there should lure some of you to the Loire. Thirty bucks won't get you a lot in Bordeaux, Burgundy, or even the hillier part of the Rhone (long story short, hills are good for grapes, the steeper the better), but it gets you a great bottle from a place where for centuries they've been growing grapes in a serious way for seriously rich people like the ones who built all those castles to which tourists flock. Try one of the Olga Raffault Cabernet francs if you're a skeptic while we wait to hear back from the boss on the Baudry Grezeaux.

The rest of the club was fairly tame this week. I fulfilled a request for a Pinit Grigio with a Falaghina, an Italian white grape grown on the coast of Campania north of Naples since Roman times, and after buying more bottles of Broadside Cabernet Sauvignon than I can count, for variety's sake I shifted to the Ex Libris Cab, which is made from grapes grown in a variety of Washington state vineyards. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

A detour on the Spanish wine route

The club's cry for Spanish wines has me wandering all over New York. Last week, the Coffee Connoisseur and Mr. Marathon had the entry-level 2010 Garancha from Bernabeleva, a vintner in Navaherreros about an hour and a half west of Madrid. Both CC and Mr. M enjoyed it and asked for another Spanish red. I obliged with a tempranillo, the 2008 Lezcano-Lacalle Maudes Crianza from Cigales, which is about 150 miles northwest of Madrid and which a new club member - call her LRB for lover of big reds - very much liked. She also had a Conde de Hervias Rioja Joven the previous week, another tempranillo. (Joven means "young" in Spanish, and such wines see little or no aging, while crianza must age for at least six months in barrels and two years total.)

Garancha, or Grenache, is famous for its fruitiness, but the 2009 Bernabeleva tino I tasted was woodsy and earthy, a product of vines planted in sandy soil that sits on granite, I was told. CC dislikes fruit bombs intensely, so I'd guess that his bottle had the same basic profile. I don't know how he feels about freshness, though, so maybe he should try the joven as a test.

My search for Spanish wines that the gang might like also led me to Tinto Fino, a shop on 1st Ave. in the East Village. I wasn't expecting much when they poured an Albarino, a white grape with which I associated the citrus flavors of Sauvignon blanc. But the Abadia San Campio from Rias Baixas in Galicia was a different, higher-class animal, with a floral nose reminiscent of Muscat and a delicate taste that nonetheless had more backbone than the nose led me to expect. I asked the guy pouring the tastings if my impression had been formed by drinking too many crummy Albarinos made for U.S. palates. Apparently, it had. There's also Despana Vinos y Mas in SoHo for the Spain gang, and several of the salespeople at Chamber St. Wines are serious fans and buyers of Spanish wines, so CC, LBR, Mr. M will be able to familiarize themselves with Spanish wine geography in the months ahead.

I was on my way from the office to Chamber St. to taste more Spanish wines (Marcus Wines: We spit so you can taste) when I happened upon a tasting at Frankly Wines from the Jura in northeastern France (Jura as in Jurassic). My obsession with Jura wines could fill many posts, but for now the reader need only know that the region is most famous for the Savagnin grape (not a misspelling), from which vin jaune, or "yellow wine" is made. Like sherry, vin jaune is fermented and aged in oak barrels under a veil of yeast (voile in French, flor in Spanish), as are Savagnins that aren't subjected to the long aging needed to produce vin jaune. Frankly Wines offered pours from several bottles by Jacques Puffeney, a classic Jura producer, as well as some from the younger vintner who lives across the street from Puffeney, Michael Gahier.

The Puffeney '09 Savagnin was nutty and intense, perfect for the classic pairing with nuts and Comte cheese, but the Gahier was suaver, more subtle, and led me to think his Chardonnay might be a deal at $20.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Beaujolais and the boss, with a brief endnote on chaptalization

The boss so loved the Tue-Boeuf Cheverny, a blend of 70% Gamay and 30% Pinot noir, that I figured he might like a 100% Gamay - i.e., a Beaujolais. I sent him an email with some prospects, but he was not enthusiastic. "There's a lot to that bottle," he said of the Cheverny, "and not a lot to a lot of those Beaujolais." The boss had heard great things about Beaujolais before and always been disappointed, but he agreed to give it one more shot. If my choice failed him, though, he'd never drink another one.

The boss's displeasure, not to mention the promises made for some Beaujolais, are products of a major change in the way some wines are made in the region, which is about 30 miles north of Lyon, a city famous for the richness of its cuisine. Old-school Beaujolais was a light, relatively low in alcohol, occasionally fizzy and acidic enough to copy with tripe and blood sausage and other such fat-laden delicacies. "Beaujolais should not be a society lady," Kermit Lynch wrote in a lament for its alleged demise in Adventures on the Wine Route. "It is the one-night stand of wines." 

But even the French don't eat like they used to, and their per capita wine consumption has fallen by 17% in the last decade, which has to have given all French winemakers incentive to try to move up the value chain. The resulting wines are the ones that have presumably disappointed the boss, who wouldn't get mad at a $7 bottle of Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau that offers nothing more than good quaffing. Even in the 1980s, Lynch complained that Beaujolais had betrayed him as winemakers added sugar to the fermenting grape juice to increase its alcohol level, a process known as chaptalization. Higher-end Beaujolais aren't chaptalized, but they are the product of a more involved winemaking process than Lynch's Beaujolais of yore, one that's meant to result in a wine more like red burgundy, a wine made in the region just north of Beaujolais and one that commands higher prices.

The boss got one such wine, the 2010 Terres Dorees by Jean-Paul Brun from Morgon, a Beaujolais town known for its more elevated reds. The boss liked it OK, but he said it was still a Beaujolais, a wine he wasn't quite in the mood for. He's heading back to the Loire.

Footnote on chaptalization
The process is named for its champion Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832), a chemist who was Minister of the Interior under Napoleon. Chaptalization was particularly helpful in northern Europe, where cool temperatures didn't allow grapes to develop as much sugar as those grown further south did. Chaptalization has declined in recent years as grapes are picked later and - perhaps - as climate change has led to warmer temperatures. Thank you, Oxford Wine Companion. 

One cagey romantic

Kermit Lynch is at once incurably romantic and relentlessly, brilliantly commercial, a combination that's made him one of the country's most successful wine importers. Lynch opened his store in Berkeley, California in 1972, and he was soon heading off to France on long buying trips where he scoured the country for distinctive, highly personal wines to sell to his clients.

Lynch describes his journeys in Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France, which was published in 1988. He loves the personalities of the French wine world, from the the alcoholic Burgundy wine merchant whose "car smelled like horse shit, anise, and after-shave," to a 90-year-old Vouvray merchant who survived mustard gas as a soldier in World War I and the German destruction of Tours in 1940 and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Loire wine to the elusive Francois Raveneau, one of the great producers of Chablis, a small Burgundy town famous for its Chardonnay. Lynch plays every card he can to import Raveneau's wines, and the crusty Frenchman finally consents. Lynch still imports Raveneau Chablis in what must be a very lucrative trade for both of them - the wines often cost more at retail in the U.S. than the older bottles do on French restaurant lists.

Like a great investment banker, Lynch never forgets whom he's talking to of what his goal is. He realizes he must measure his words carefully when talking to the sly Burgundians. He negotiates special deals with producers to get wines made exactly the way he wants, and he cuts producers loose if they get lazy.

Lynch was an early advocate for natural wines, those made without added sugar or sulfur, preferably by small producers. The term suggests a drink that's been made simply by a producer who's a mere handmaiden to nature. But Lynch effortlessly describes the myriad decisions that must be made in the process: where to grow, what to grow, how to handle the vines, when to pick, how to ferment, and so on, all of which are affected by ecological, social and commercial factors. When Lynch looks at a vineyard or tours a cellar, he sees and tastes those decisions and translates them into dollars.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Acquired tastes

"It's remarkable that you can get that bottle of wine for $16," the boss said last week of a 2009 2009 Clos du Tue-Boeuf Cheverny Rouillon, a blend of 70% Gamay and 30% Pinot noir from a small town in the Loire. "Now, not everyone is going to like it. It throws a little sediment, it's a little effervescent, it's nto a fruit bomb." The boss's Cheverny apparently demands a palate attuned to finesse, as Kermit Lynch put it in his chapter on the Loire in "Adventures on the Wine Route," about which more later.

With those caveats I found five takers for a boss-man special, showing that Japanese salarymen aren't the only ones who mimic their superiors. I could have been the waiter in this great scene from the movie Tampopo:

Responses to the boss-man special were equivocal. One taker found far more exalted wines on a weekend outing and ended up selling his bottle back to the boss; two others have yet to drink their Cheverny. Another club member, call him DB for Database, liked it, but the Coffee Connoisseur wanted a more robust wine, which he'll get next week in the form of a red from northern Spain.

Like the boss, I stayed in the Loire with a 2002 Baumard Savenierres I thought would go with scallops. It did, for about a glass and a half, with a delicate nose and just enough honey on the tongue to balance the richness of the seafood, but then the acid took over and trampled my palate. "This is a wine for intellectuals, not neophytes," the Oxford Companion to Wine warns of Baumard's wares, and I'd have to agree, though I did enjoy the glass I had last year in San Francisco.

While I was getting my tongue seared off, Mr. Marathon stayed on a roll with a 2006 Guelbenzu Evo from Cascante in Navarre, which is in north central Spain just east of La Rioja. Mr. M wanted to celebrate eeking into the Boston marathon with a $30 cab that recalled Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon wines, which go for $150 or so a bottle. Instead of staying in California, I ended up with the Guelbenzu, which is 70% cab, 15% Merlot and 15% Tempranillo. Mr. M drank it with an Asiago cheese fondue that he found went well with the robust wine. Mr. M's verdict echoed another one in the office; upon hearing that the Evo was reduced to $20 from $25, the chief snapped up the store's several remaining bottles, so much did he enjoy his bottle last month.

Given their responses to recent wines, the chief, CC and Mr. M are headed for a group trip to northern Spain, which means La Rioja, Navarre and Cataluna, whose red blends aged in oak seem likely to appeal to their palates at relatively gentle prices. The region also features a fair amount of Cabernet, a grape that became prominent in the region in the 1860s when French vineyards fell prey to disease. The Spanish were able to profit by fulfilling the French demand for, among other things, cab-based blends, the most famous of which is Bordeaux. Several of the great Rioja producers in fact date from this era. The Spain gang will sample some of their wines in the weeks to come.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Marty Lipton, Mr. Vouvray?

The boss has been lost in the Loire all summer. He’s drunk Cabernet franc, Gamay, even the obscure Pineau d’aunis and ranged from Cheverney to Chinon and Saumur. The boss will buy something from Sancerre or Vouvray when his wife wants a white, but he leans red and completely avoids wines made from Muscadet and Chenin blanc. The former is a classic pairing for shellfish, but maybe the boss shies from shucking his own oysters lest he slice one of his fingers and have to go easy on the blogging. That, or he just doesn’t want to talk about the grand cru Chablis he drinks when he heads to the Jersey shore and has Wellfleet oysters flown in from Maine. 

The boss has even less use for wines made from Chenin blanc, which often contain residual sugar. After all, those Chablis are perfect with the succulent lobsters the boss favors, so he doesn’t need to pair them with chenins. But I’ve picked up a few chenins for the club, and last week I tasted one I bought and two others.

I began with a non-vintage sparkling Vouvray from Francois Pinon. The wine smells and tastes a little like sherry, because like that beverage it’s exposed to oxygen, but the bubbles and the sugar from the grapes (none is added, as is the case in many sparking wines) make for good quaffing.

I also drank a glass of Pinon’s ’08 Cuvee Tradition, a wine similar to one I picked up this winter for the Big-Time Spender. BTS is suave, single, and willing to stretch both his palate and his budget, and the wine store suggested a chenin for a pumpkin curry with naan that BTS was whipping up that weekend. BTS liked his wine, and I loved my glass of the Pinon: clean on the tongue, a slight hint of honey balanced by some acid and tropical fruit (I don’t know what anyone means by tropical fruit, but I mean intriguing, non-citrus tastes that were too shifty for me to pin down precisely.) Sophisticated, mysterious, and damn tasty at $20 a bottle.

I also went out on a limb and had a Savennieres 'Croix Picot' Chateau l'Eperonniere 2008, a Chenin named for the Loire town in which it’s produced. Savennieres can be bone-dry and needs time to age. The one glass I had previously – never let ignorance get in the way of a blog post – at Heirloom Café in San Francisco last year, was a 2000 Baumard that had a lovely, delicate nose but a much cleaner taste. This one was a touch sweet and went well with a spicy octopus dish and fritto misto, but it wasn’t in the same class as the ’08 Pinon – of which, for you law geeks out there, a certain MLipton is a huge fan according to MLipton was even more rapturous about the sparkling Vouvray.

Now, it would be too good to be true if MLipton were corporate law legend Marty Lipton, but who knows? Maybe the sparking vouvray flows at Wachtell, Lipton when they sign up a big deal. 

Zipping through Sicily

"This smells of quince preserves, green tea, narcissus, lily, and hints of mushroom and of caramel and lanolin from barrel. Opulently textured but vivaciously laced with fresh white peach and lemon, this delivers saline, stone-licking mineral notes in its finish ..." Parker's Wine Advocate on a Savennieres

"Sheeet." - Clay Davis, on multiple occasions

I have never read a description of a wine that gave me a real idea of how it tastes. Blackberries? Rose hips? Cut grass? The comparisons used by critics from Robert Parker to the amateur reviewers on just aren’t that helpful. Perhaps my palate is poor or my imagination lacking, but I find myself at a loss when asked to describe a wine in detail.  Words fail me to the extent that I admire Clay Davis, the unrepentantly corrupt politician on the HBO series The Wire who can express whole paragraphs with a single brilliant enunciation of the word “shit:”

The problem confronted me once again when someone in sales asked for two bottles of red for $50 or less total. (Call her 2B Sales.) I suggested Sicilian wines, since I loved the glass of Occhipinti ’09 SP68 I had this summer at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Every sip was delicious: refreshing, balanced, substantial but not overwhelming, not tannic but also not flabby. At $12 or so a glass, it was a steal. Could I describe what it smelled like, or why it was worth buying instead of a $12 table wine? Not a chance.

Fortunately, 2B Sales didn’t expose my ignorance, and I got her the Occhipinti, which is made from Nero d’Avola and Frappato by Arianna Occhipinti, a young Sicilian who’s quickly gaining cult status in the wine world. Nero d'Avola, named for a town about 15 miles south of Siracusa on the southeast coast of Sicily, is one of the island’s most popular grapes. Frappato comes from the same area and “can make good  lively wines to be drunk young,” according to The World Encyclopeida of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. 

I thought about getting 2B a 2000 Calabretta Etna for her second bottle, a robust red made from nerello mascalese I had last year at Del Posto because it was one of the cheapest wines with some age on the list. Nerello mascalese is usually considered the poorer cousin of nerello capuccio, but this one was delicious. (Come to think of it, this is a wine for the Coffee Connoisseur.) But 2B does not eat red meat, and the salesperson steered me to the Montoni 2008 IGT Sicilia Nero d'Avola. I also picked up a bottle for Vino Guarino, who wanted to ring in the fall by toasting her ancestors with a bottle from their homeland.

Speaking of CC and unusual grapes, he wanted a wine similar to the Pedrolonga do Umia ’07 (a bottle of which the baker bought this week), and he ended up with the Benito Santos ’09 Alipio, a $16 bottle from Galicia made from 70% Mencia, the predominant grape in the Pedrolonga, and 30% Garnacha Tintorera, a blending grape. CC liked it but said it lacked the complexity of the previous week’s wine.

The boss stayed in the Loire for a red from Touraine, an appellation that produced the Clos Roche Blanche he liked earlier this month. But the Touraine he got this week was $16 reduced from $20, so we’re going to keep the name under wraps until the Boss reports back. If he likes it, we’ll have the fall’s Boss-man special next week. Save your pennies.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why I trust the coffee connoisseur

The coffee connoisseur helped me move a few more bottles this week. Two of my coworkers - call them  sales chief and Big Green - wanted Cabernets. Neither is a finicky drinker, and I suggested the Pedralongo 2007 Do Umia, a red blend of the Spanish grapes Mencia, Caiño and Espadeiro about which CC raved in August. "He's got a great palate," I promised Chief and Big Green, each of whom signed up for a bottle.

The reader's suspicions may have been raised. How do I know what synapses fire in CC's brain when he sniffs and sips? I don't, of course, but I know that CC disdains the coffee brewed in our office Bunn machine and is particular about what he drinks. CC rejects coffeemakers in favor of a french press, and he prefers fresh-ground beans. He adds only small amounts of raw sugar and cream - not enough to taste, he says, only enough to lighten the flavor. Processed sugar  - "shit" was the term he used - and lighter grades of milk "make the coffee taste like shit," or, more precisely, "Maxwell House." (One of these weeks we'll have to see what CC makes of a Burgundy that tastes of, as the oenophiles politely put it, barnyard.)

CC likes his brew dark and bold, a palate that I believe leads him to prefer the bigger, more robust flavors that many American men favor in wine. His disdain for milk and processed sugar lead me to believe he'd reject overly fruity, poorly balanced wines. I'm guessing, in other words. But CC loved a Cabernet from Broadside in Paso Robles, Calif. that other drinkers enjoyed, which gave me confidence, and he's willing to try new wines. He found the '07 Pedralonga complex and hard to pin down. CC will consume another bottle this weekend, when Chief and Big Green will get their first taste of the red from Galicia in northwest Spain.     

The week's other noteworthy buy was a Clos Roche Blanche 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine from the Loire that I tasted on Monday and found crisp, lean, almost like a Muscadet. When I mentioned that reaction to one of the people at Chamber St. Wines, there was a long pause suggesting consumer palate error before he told me that the wine was very lightly oxidized. 2B, so named for her penchant of buying two wines per order, will get a chance to compare it to a Francois Cazin, 2010 Cheverny Le Petit Chambord, a Loire blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay.

The boss-man (not to be confused with Chief) went for a Texier Cotes du Rhone Brezeme, a syrah from one of his favorite regions, after two months of Loire drinking that included a dip into Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route, which begins in that region. The marathon runner in the cubicle next to me (Mr. M for short) rewarded himself for his 3:07 time in the Lehigh Valley marathon last Sunday with a 2009 Beaujolais from Julien Guillot. Mr. M found that the gamay stood up well to a Gouda he scarfed down to replenish his calcium supply, while a Broadside cab, a muscadet, some mommy juice, a Cali chard and a Bordeaux wine rounded out the case. Until next week, salut!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Blog - An explanation and user's guide

I have a wine-buying problem. When I walk into a wine store, I feel like a Dallas socialite at Neiman Marcus. I want to buy way more wine than I can consumer. Red, white, rose, sparkling, orange. Jura, Loire, Rioja, Sicilian, Lebanese. Sales and bargain bins are especially dangerous, as are cheap wiens with bottle age. Case discounts were invented for suckers like me. Wines with cool labels, which seem like most of them. Chablis. Wines a trusted bartender recommends. Wines flogged in store emails. Wine producers whose wares I've previously enjoyed. Nerello mascalese. Muscadet. Mourvedre. Mencia. I like the unconventional, the underpriced, the downright odd. But when an odd wine bakes for months in a third-floor walk-up with no air conditioning, it will not be underpriced upon opening no matter how cheap it was at the store. It will be bad.

Last August I stumbled on a solution. I wanted to buy a few bottles on a slow Wednesday afternoon. I emailed a few friends to see if they needed wine, and then a hit up some co-workers to assemble a buying consortium for a case, got on the subway, picked up the product at the store, and distributed it at the office. I had my two bottles at case discount, didn't need to go to a cash machine for the next week, had put a few miles on my Amtrak card, and had driven a little business at the wine store, thereby earning a dash of goodwill. I started going to the wine store every Friday. A few months later, I picked up an Eric Texier Côtes du Rhône for one of my editors. No piece of writing I'd done for him in twelve years had inspired such an enthusiastic response as the one I got the next Monday morning. This was born the Marcus Friday Wine Club and its first promotion, the "Drink what the boss is drinking for under $20 a bottle" special, later abbreviated to the "Boss-man special."  

Being the office wine buyer had what the economists call network effects. I could recommend bottles favored by more discerning drinkers, including the Rhone-o-phile and a coffee connoisseur. If a co-worker liked a bottle, I could get him a similar one next week. I developed a modest knowledge of producers. I got better information from salespeople because I bought more wine. I accomplished this without buying more than I can drink even as buying became more enjoyable. The editor likes Loire reds - what do you have that's good? He loved the '05 Olga Raffault Les Picasses - what would contrast with that? The coffee connoisseur loved the Broadside cab but wants to branch out. What kind of mommy juice stays fresh in the fridge for several days?

This is the blog version of the Marcus Friday Wine Club. The blog's focus will be the wines I buy for co-workers form week to week. These are journalists, so the wines are affordable, between $10 and $25 a bottle. They range from the unremarkable to the outre. Some of my co-workers care about food pairings; others just want something that goes well with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I'll also write about the wines I drink, since those influence what I recommend.

I do most of my shopping at Chamber Street Wines, a highly praised store that happens to be about 50 yards from the 2/3 train, a key advantage when you're carrying a case back to a Wall Street office. Now that I'm doing the blog, I'll try to branch out, though I'll still probably do most of my buying at Chamber St. Finally, I'll keep my coworkers anonymous but will provide pseudonyms. The boss-man, as you've learned, is capable of extending focus on a single region. The coffee connoisseur likes robust reds and loves complexity. In time we'll meet Vino Guarino, the baker, the Portugal lover, the New England editor, Johnny Bronx, and the rest of the club. Happy drinking.