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July 31, 2007

Say It Ain't So, Warren!

Say it ain't so, Warren!

I doubt I am the first, nor will I be the last, to express that sentiment since yesterday's bombshell. Warren Winiarski has sold his iconic winery, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, to the partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and the Marchesi Antinori.

A press release informed us Winiarski would retire to the quiet life of grape growing on his Arcadia Estate, continuing to supply grapes for the Stag's Leap label. This is the passing of an epoch in American wine.

Say what you will about Robert Mondavi's footprint on the Napa Valley, California viticulture and American wine in general, but it was Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon that won the now infamous 1975 Paris tastings and forever after gave California wine a place at the table with the greatest wines in the world.

He also put the Stag's Leap Wine District on the map, for which all of his neighbors and their bankers must be thankful, once describing the Cabernet produced in the area as "an iron fist in a velvet glove." And his signature wine, Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, is an unparalleled icon in the Napa Valley.

I have no axe to grind with Ste. Michelle or Piero Antinori, but I can't help but feel a tinge of nostalia at the passing of the old guard. Joe Heitz is gone, may he rest in peace. Robert Mondavi no longer owns the winery that bears his name. And now this, Winiarski selling off his legendary winery.

I can only hope they made it worth his while.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:01 PM

July 30, 2007

Asimov on the Beauty of 'Grower' Champagnes

Wine columnist Eric Asimov of The New York Times covers the bubbly side of the 2007 International Pinot Noir Celebration over at The Pour.

The bubbly side of Pinot Noir, you ask? Indeed, Pinot Noir is one of the three grape varieties permitted in the Champagne region and the backbone of many a great Champagne house.

Eric's focus during a seminar he co-hosted was on the rise of Champagne's "grower" producers, who shun selling their grapes to the large Champagne houses in favor of making Champagnes that reflect a specific place within the Champagne region.

The Wall Street Journal's Europe edition also weighed in on this subject recently, and WRO has covered the topic in the past. These small-production Champagnes can be very interesting, but they're still not easy to find at the retail level in the U.S., and consumers have little to go on when they do stumble across a "grower" Champagne.

Asimov, bless him, has several recommendations.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:22 PM

July 29, 2007

Passmore Picks Up On Provence

I had the good fortune earlier this year to taste a number of superb red wines from Provence as I judged at the Concours Mondial, one of Europe's most important wine competitions.

The exceptional quality was a revelation to me. Provence has always enjoyed a decent reputation for its ubiquitous rose wines, but not so much for its reds and whites. It has been almost seven years since I toured the region extensively, but I can vividly remember the disappointing reds.

Obviously, things have changed. Our good friend Nick Passmore, writing over at Portfolio.com, has noticed, too. Nick rightly points out that given the advantage of so much "old vine" vineyard material in the region, there's no reason a dedicated vigneron shouldn't be able to make world-class wine across the full spectrum.

Says Nick:

People from outside the region are, for the most part, the driving force behind this transformation in winemaking. Well educated, well funded, and extremely conscious of the global wine market, the new arrivals couldn't be more different from the old-time farmers Peter Mayle wrote about in A Year in Provence, the ones who sold their grapes to the local co-op in September to put money in their pockets for Christmas.

Nick's observations are spot on, and he's an entertaining writer to boot. And don't miss the slide show!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:46 AM

July 26, 2007

Debate Over Elevated Alcohol in Wine Heats Up

Seems like wherever I go these days I get caught up in heated debate (pardon the pun) over the trend toward ever-higher-alcohol wines. These sessions are usually with colleagues and friends who have grown weary of table wines that more and more are beginning to taste like Port.

The most common complaint I hear is that two people can't finish one bottle at dinner without getting smashed. Second to that is an aversion to the "heaviness" of those 15 percent-plus-alcohol wines. Many foodies I know wouldn't want to finish a bottle of high-octane Cabernet or Syrah even if they could.

Yet some wine critics (but not all) continue to give such wines the highest marks. Finally a few seasoned wine industry professionals are starting to speak out about this scourge. Famed wine merchant Darrel Corti of Sacramento announced recently that his store would severely cut back on the number of 14 percent-plus-alcohol wines that it stocks; and just this week an influential Napa Valley winemaker, Randy Dunn, emailed an open letter to a number of wine journalists deploring the increased alcohol levels in pursuit of high scores.

Jim Gordon has most of the text of Dunn's letter here.

The question on my mind after reading Dunn's screed is how high is too high? I rather like WRO colleague Ed McCarthy's thoughts on the subject. If I understand Ed's position, his tolerance for alcohol in a table wine generally tops out at about 14.5 percent. I'm of the same mind, realizing that the fudge factor allows a producer to use 14.5 on the label even while the wine is pushing closer to 15 percent.

Another colleague recently did the math and explained to me that six ounces of wine at 14 percent was the equivalent of two gin and tonics made with an 80-proof spirit. Which means a half bottle of wine at 14 percent alcohol is about the same as five cocktails.

When the wine is 15 or 16 percent alcohol, which many are, you can just extrapolate those numbers right up the scale. Dunn's solution is to list the alcohol level along with the rating in a wine review, but I don't think a mere number would give consumers any clues about the overall balance of a wine.

At WRO we often mention the alcohol level in the text of a review, but we only recommend those more elevated-alcohol wines when they are well balanced and elegant. That said, Editor Michael Franz and I will certainly look at the feasibility of including the alcohol percentage along with the rating.

Bottom line, though, is that I believe consumers will ultimately decide this issue. Just as consumers have turned away from overly oaked, high alcohol, butterball Chardonnays in droves, I believe the days are numbered for the in-your-face, over-the-top reds that are now imbedded in the culture of the so-called "international style."

I'll never forget a conversation I had years ago with Far Niente winemaker Dirk Hampson that harked back to an exchange he had with the late Gil Nickel, founder of Far Niente.

"Gil asked me, 'Dirk, how come our Cabernet always gets scores in the low and mid-90s but never one of those 97s or 98s?' " said Hampson. "I told him, 'Gil, we don't make wines like that because you don't like wines like that.'"

Amen, brother!

PHOTOS: Top, Napa Valley winemaker Randy Dunn in the foreground; bottom, Far Niente winemaker Dirk Hampson.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:10 PM

July 25, 2007

Fresh, Crisp and Low in Alcohol for My Puget Sound Feast!

As I roamed the Olympic Peninsula recently craving all manner of fresh bounty from the Puget Sound, it occurred to my friends and me that we might better enjoy our seafood catch if we could round up the appropriate wines.

The task to choose from the broad selection at a well-stocked Port Townsend, Washington, wine shop fell to me. It was a chore I relished. I was in the mood for crisp, refreshing whites that might be ideally suited for fresh oysters, steamed mussels and Dungeness crab.

I knew we had found the right wine merchant when I stumbled across a broader-than-usual selection of Gruner Veltliner, the lean, lip-smacking white wine of Austria. Interest in Gruner has grown phenomenally over the past several years, fueled largely by the expanding culture of wine bars across the United States.

Its appeal is its versatility. Gruner Veltliner is an excellent cocktail or aperitif wine that is low in alcohol (generally about 12 percent) but generous in flavor. With bright citrus aromas and firm acidity, it also makes an excellent accompaniment to shellfish and tapas (small bites often served at wine bars). For the most part Gruners are stainless-steel-tank fermented and never see the inside of a wooden cask, so they are very clean on the nose as well as the palate.

I chose four different Gruners ranging in price from $17 to $19. All four met my expectations, though I certainly had my preferences. Tops, in my opinion, was the 2005 Nigl, which had an intriguing spiciness and outstanding minerality. It also had the benefit of being the lowest in alcohol at 11.5 percent. I could have drunk it all day!

I also found an organic wine, the 2005 Soellner Gruner Veltliner, very interesting in a different sort of way. Stylistically it was more voluptuous and fleshy on the palate, slightly riper, and showing aromas of tropical fruit. Perfect for crab or steamed mussels in a curry sauce.

A 2005 Leth Gruner Veltliner and a 2006 Huber Gruner Veltliner showed nicely, too, despite my slight tilt in the direction of the other wines. I'd be happy to have any or all of them on my table the next time I'm entertaining a crowd with a shellfish feast.

My new favorite wine merchant's selection of Albarino was less impressive, but I made  off a lovely 2006 Laxas and a 2004 Valminor that was beginning to oxidize, though the oxidation blew off once the wine got a bit of air.

Albarino, from the Rias Baixas region in the northwest corner of Spain, has made substantial inroads in the United States over the past decade and is similar in many ways to Gruner Veltliner in that both are high-acid whites that marry nicely with shellfish.

When visiting the region, my favorite dining adventures involve diving into piles of steamed clams and washing them down with a crisp Albarino - or two. The Valminor had lost a bit of its edge in that regard, but still retained exotic citrus fruit and floral aromas and excellent length in the mouth.

The Laxas, however, was classic Albarino, with crisp acidity and a strong whiff of fresh lime and intense minerality.

My most expensive purchase on this wine buying excursion was a 2005 Jermann Pinot Grigio from Italy's Venezia Giluia region. Jermann is one of my favorite producers from this part of Italy and renowned for its white wines. This Pinot Grigio coast me nearly $30, but it was impressive, showing a finely textured palate (probably from extended lees aging and perhaps a bit of time in barrel), good length and a spicy note that added character and complexity.

Much like the Soellner Gruner Veltliner, the Jermann Pinot Grigio was a perfect fit for sweet crab meat and curried mussels.

My least interesting purchase also was my least expensive, but at $8 the Chateau de la Cantrie Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie was a superb inexpensive quaffer that I wouldn't hesitate to buy again for a beach-side clambake. It paled in comparison only to the more complex (and twice as expensive) wines I had purchased.

Of course, there are any number of other wine types I could have selected with equal satisfaction, given the menu of the day. Dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre, Pinot Gris, certain styles of Chardonnay (preferably those that are a bit leaner and on the lemony side of the flavor spectrum) would have done the trick.

But, hey, there's always another day and another feast.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:47 AM

July 24, 2007

Dining in Lisbon, a Tale of Two Cities

LISBON, Portugal -- This ancient port city is well known for its marisqueiras. The local seafood restaurants specialize in lobster, shrimp, the sweetest, most succulent baby clams you will ever find, langostines and all manner of fish.

It's hard to go wrong in one of these modest establishments, particularly when you go with some local knowledge. So I asked around following a visit to the Douro Valley, Portugal's most important wine region.

Two marisqueiras were strongly recommended -- Sete Mares, across the street from the Corinthia Hotel, a local landmark, and Cervejaria Ramiro, in the old section of the city.

The good news first. I was looking for a marisqueira that embodied the genre in Lisbon. When I arrived at Cervejaria Ramiro, there was a line out the door. I made my way to the front and spoke to the manager, who understood English.

After maybe 15 minutes I was seated at a small table covered by butcher block paper. A waiter whizzed past and dropped off a basket of the unbiquitous toasted bread that is as much a part of the marisqueira scene as the tank of live lobsters and crayfish.

I listened for other languages in a good-sized dining room in which every square inch of space was taken, yet all I heard (to my ear) was Portugese spoken in loud voices as customers strained to be heard over the din.

Everyone seemed to be going for the pata negra -- the black pig, which is an appetizer course of cured ham that is served throughout Portugal, even in the seafood houses.

Searching for the authentic marisqueira experience, at Ramiro I found myself in the belly of the beast. People smoked, people shouted, waiters spun every which way, Vinho Verde flowed as if it was water, my steamed clams (natural, as opposed to the most popular presentation with butter, wine and coriander) were tender and sweet, and the grilled tiger prawns from Mozambique to die for.

The bill, with wine, came to $67.

Sete Mares, on the other hand, was a huge rip. I should have suspected that, I suppose, given that it is situated across the street from a large hotel with many tourists.

Oh, the clams at Sete Mares were exceptional, and the langostines (crayfish) divine, until the check arrived. You see, in the marisquerias you pay for most of the shellfish by the kilo.

My langostines, at 139 euro per kilo, came to 111 euro, or about $145. The check said I had been served 0.80 kilo of langostine. Now, I have to scratch my head on that one. For my tiger prawns, at 50 euro per kilo, cost me $17 at Ramiro. The scales there tipped out at 0.35 kilo.

To my untrained eye, my serving of tiger shrimp far outweighed my serving of langostine. I could have asked my waiter to weigh those bugs again. One problem, however. I had eaten the evidence.

The bill, with wine, an astounding $175. No question, I'd been had. If I only knew the word for ouch in Portugese!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 4:48 PM

July 16, 2007

A Breath of Fresh Air Does Wonders

While dining at the superb restaurant, Assaggio, in Seattle recently I had the good fortune to order a Barolo from the highly regarded 2001 vintage.

When the wine was presented for my approval it was clear from the ferocity of the tannic bite that this Barolo was far too young. But the sommelier had another idea. She poured the wine into a crystal decanter and let it breathe while I worked on the glass of Prosecco in front of me.

By the time the main course arrived and the Barolo was served, it had become a different wine: The tannins had smoothed out and the sweetness of the underlying fruit was beginning to emerge, revealing unimagined depth and glorious complexity. Over the next half hour the wine improved with each sip.

I was left to wonder why more restaurants don't provide this simple tool of wine service, although I suspect I know the answer. The practice of decanting has long been controversial and in many casual restaurants might be seen as pompous.

Wine originally was decanted to remove the sediment from older vintages. This was done with great ceremony: a large crystal vessel, a lit candle, a wine cradle for delicately pouring off the clear liquid, and a steady, confident hand at the cradle.

The practice of decanting young wines for aeration is more recent. It is most often applied to big reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux and Burgundy (Pinot Noir), but some restaurants I know (the Napa Valley's Martini House comes to mind) even decant white wines.

Aeration helps vaporize some of the alcohol and softens the tannins of red wines, which may seem hard, unyielding and grippy until they're been exposed to air. Many devotees of decanting will even open a big, tannic red a day in advance, then decant it in the morning before serving it at dinner.

This practice has been pooh-poohed as unnecessary and often pretentious, but my own personal experience tilts me in favor of decanting. And anyone concerned with the perception of pretense need only substitute a glass carafe for a crystal decanter to avoid the scorn of friends or family!

A glass carafe works just fine and there's less of a worry about damage from frequent usage.

The impact of decanting on whites is less obvious, but I've found the aromatics are greatly enhanced, particularly with Chardonnay and white Burgundy, where it can sometimes be a challenge to detect the fruit nuances beneath the strong aroma of oak. Aeration brings out the fruit and subdues the oak.

And there is the added benefit of temperature control. A chilled Chardonnay will remain cold, which inhibits the release of all its aromas, in an ice bucket. But in a carafe or decanter it warms slowly, releasing everything it has to offer in terms of aroma.

I suspect that some wine enthusiasts may be reluctant to transfer a special bottle of wine into a different vessel, preferring to show off their prize at the dinner table, but there are a couple of clever ways around that.

The first is to decant a wine, then wash out the bottle with cold water and return the aerated wine to the same bottle before serving. The second is to simply place the original bottle on the table next to the decanted wine, though space considerations could come into play, particularly in a restaurant.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:41 PM

July 12, 2007

A Judging That Failed

Jim Gordon of Wines & Vines was stunned -- along with nearly everyone else, including yours truly -- when word leaked that the Charles Shaw "Two-Buck Chuck" Chardonnay (sold exclusively at Trader Joe's) had been voted best Chardonnay in California during the wine competition at the California State Fair in June.

Gordon was curious enough to conduct a blind tasting of several California Chardonnays, and Two-Buck Chuck finished last on his card. Writing on the Wine Enthusiast's new blog, Unreserved, Jim speculates:

1. The system of judging failed. Maybe the judges had tried too many wines that day, or disagreed heavily over more controversial wines that were either very oaky, unoaked, too heavy with malolactic or something, so the only wine they could agree that they all liked was the most innocuous one. I think this happens frequently in big competitions with multiple judges.

2. The judges themselves were not up to the task. Maybe not enough of them had experience with great Chardonnay, or maybe it happened to be a group prejudiced against high-alcohol or even against Chardonnay in general.

3. The samples sent to the competition were not the same wine that I tried in the blind tasting. This is probably true in a very straightforward sense, because with millions of cases of Two-Buck Chuck being sold, it can't all have been blended from exactly the same base wines in the same proportions in the same tank.

It's my sense that Jim's analysis is spot-on. I have no beef with Two-Buck Chuck. It fills a niche and it does so nicely at an attractive price that allows wine enthusiasts to stock up without busting the family food budget.

But best Chardonnay in California? I don't think so. As they say, read the whole thing.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:24 PM