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September 26, 2007

Connection Between 'Parker' Scores, High Alcohol Dubious

It's widely accepted as fact that Robert M. Parker Jr., the renowned wine critic, is to blame for the ever higher levels of alcohol in the wines we drink today.

There is no doubt that Parker has aided the emergence of the so-called "international" style of wine by championing its chief parcticioners, such as Michel Rolland, but I'm not so certain we can make the connection between elevated alcohol levels and the pursuit of "Parker" scores.

I have good reason for my skepticism. Just the other day, at the wine bar Fifty Seven Degrees, Larry the Loafer and I were moved to compare a couple of Bordeaux from the underrated 2001 vintage. I had loved the '01 vintage when I tried it from barrel during the Bordeaux primeurs tastings in the spring of 2002.

Larry had just picked up several bottles of the '01 Chateau Lynch-Bages, and I was eager to try it at this stage. So I raided my cellar for a bottle of the '01 Chateau Lascombes to see if it stacked up with the Lynch-Bages.

The Lascombes was stunning: inky, beautifully perfumed, layered, and with firm tannins that will carry the wine for decades. The Lynch-Bages was not as densely structured as the Lascombes, but this is typical of Lynch Bages. It seldom seems to have the stuffing for long-term cellaring, but 20 years out you'll discover it ages magnificently.

Larry and I took note of the fact the listed alcohol on both of these exceptional Bordeaux was 13 percent. That's low by current measures. So I wondered what scores Parker had given each, just to see if he had spanked them for being vinous weaklings. I looked it up in the latest version of his book, Bordeaux, and discovered he liked both.

Rating the Lascombes 90-93 points, Parker wrote: "This beauty is undoubtedly the finest Lascombes produced in more than 30 years."

Giving the Lynch-Bages 89-91 points, he said: "This wine is lush, pure, and just a lot of fun to drink."

So there you have it. A wine doesn't have to register 15.2 on the alcohol scale to get a good "Parker" score. If you happen to come across a winemaker or two in your travels, would you please pass the word!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:11 PM

September 21, 2007

What's In Your Cellar?

As I read my colleague Ed McCarthy's impressions of the '03 vintage of Barolo, I am reminded that I've gradually shifted my wine-buying strategy since the late 1990s.

Bordeaux, Burgundy and top-notch Napa Valley Cabernets were once my primary focus. But those wines are increasingly difficult to purchase without getting in line for the "opportunity" to snare a few bottles; and the prices have gone out of sight.

Over the past few years I've been stocking my cellar with Italian wines -- Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and the occasional Chianti (yes, the best Chianti is exceptionally age-worthy).

For one thing, I can afford the top wines (with the notable exception of Biondi-Santi and Gaja) from these regions. It's rare to find even the best vintages retailing for $100 or more.

And here's the kicker: Piedmont and Tuscany have been on a roll in recent years with a string of outstanding vintages going back to the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s and into this decade as well.  For example, the 2001 Brunello Riservas, which are widely available now, are a steal compared to wines of similar quality from Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Napa Valley.

I'm still a sucker for carefully cellared older Bordeaux, but from the standpoint of quality they've got nothing on the great Barolos of the 1990s.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:23 PM

September 17, 2007

Experiencing the Beauty of an Older California Vintage

One of the most enduring myths about California wine is its perceived lack of longevity, especially compared to its European rivals.

It's certainly true that some California wines, particularly fat Chardonnays, are dead on arrival if you open them more than a few years after the vintage, but Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah -- and in some rare cases Zinfandel -- have a good record when properly aged.

This point was brought home to me when I raided the cellar and grabbed a 1992 Heitz Cellars 'Trailside' Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon over the weekend. I took the bottle to a local restaurant and feared for the worst after the server broke the cork in half while trying to extract it.

With several pieces of cork floating in the neck of the bottle, she decided decanting might be the way to go. But I wondered if the fruit would fade because of the extensive aeration as my party lingered over a lovely bottle of Domaine Weinbach Pinot Blanc with the first course.

Not a chance. The 15-year-old Napa Valley Cabernet was in pristine condition. The fruit was bright and intense, and this particular vintage's ample tannins were still firm after all these years. The air softened the tannins and the fruit sweetened up nicely, delivering layers of delicious aroma and flavor.

If anything, I may have opened this wonderful Heitz Cab a bit too soon!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:01 PM

September 13, 2007

Wine Country Food for Thought

Man does not live by wine alone. Not this man. Not when there are so many exceptional restaurants on the heavily traveled wine routes of the world.

I've just completed an excursion to Napa and Sonoma, through San Francisco, and came home with much food for thought. Too much food, some might say, but that's why I've pedaled down to Fiesta Island on my 12-speed the past few days.

Anyway, I digress. Back to my wine travels. Besides the question of which wineries to visit, the most oft-asked question when our readers are planning a wine country visit is where to dine.

I had a number of terrific culinary experiences on my recent trip and thought I'd share.

Napa Valley

Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena is one of three superb dining spots owned by superstar chef Cincy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill and Go Fish are the others, and I highly recommend both). I had a wonderful salad with grilled salmon, but was seated outside on one of the Napa Valley's most scorching days of summer. My table was partially in the shade at the start of lunch, but before the main course arrived I was bathed in intense sunlight, reducing the butter in my butter dish to a pool of goo. All I needed was s grilled lobster tail! My server explained I had been seated at the "demon" table. Don't know if she was offering a commentary on my appearance, or what.

Redd is the stylish establishment created by Richard Reddington, formerly the chef at Auberge du Soleil. Reddington's resume is nothing short of stunning: Daniel in New York, Spago in Beverly Hills and Jardinere in San Francisco prior to the Auberge. Redd is one of about five spectacular dining spots in Yountville (the others are French Laundry, Bistro Jeanty, the restaurant at Domaine Chandon and Bouchon) and certainly one of the most elegant. My diver scallops would melt in your mouth! And the wines by the glass were not only exceptional, but not limited to the Napa Valley, either.

Sonoma County

Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar is exactly what it sounds like. Just off the town square in Healdsburg, Willi's is the place for freshly shucked oysters, sushi, diver scallops and the like. Wash it down with something crisp and refreshing from the impressive wine list, which includes numerous offerings by the glass.

El Dorado Kitchen is my new favorite hangout in the town of Sonoma. Couldn't stay away from the place on my last visit. (Scroll down to my previous blog on the El Dorado Kitchen.) Great food, great wine list, and a convivial bar atmosphere for when you're dining solo.

Photo: This alleyway leads to the entrance to Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen. If dining al fresco during the lunch hour, accept the "demon" table on the patio at your own peril.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:12 PM

September 12, 2007

Bring on Those Cool-Weather Wines!

It's only a matter of time now before these warm summer nights cool down and the leaves begin to turn, revealing their colorful autumn glory. Harvest is underway from the vineyards of Baja's Guadalupe Valley all the way to the Columbia Gorge. Optimism hangs heavy in the air like an overripe plum.

I will soon be forsaking my cache of crisp white wines and light reds for more robust flavors to pair with roasted root vegetables and hearty stews, and maybe even a few grilled 'brats' on a chilly football weekend.

The seasons change and so do the wines, at least at my abode. As the days grow shorter, the evenings more bracing, I get over my aversion to Chardonnay. Suddenly the weight and structure of a heftier white is a welcome addition to the daily lineup of wines.

As chanterelles and white truffles begin to make their way onto every restaurant menu in town, I conveniently recall my fondness for the earthy, forest floor aromas of an aged Pinot Noir. And I'm old enough to remember when red Burgundy was my only recourse.

I am thankful now for the Willamette Valley, the Russian River and Carneros, Santa Barbara, New Zealand and even some pockets of South Australia. I can drink Pinot without the (financial) pain!

This is the season, too, for game birds and sinewy dark meats such as venison and elk. We are now in a Beaujolais free zone. The red wines must have bold flavors and strong tannins. Wimpy wines won't do. Even those high-octane California Zinfandels have a place; for me, it's at a tailgate party, alongside the grilled sausages with spicy mustard.

This also is the season for Rhone blends (imagine a spicy Gigondas with roasted quail), Syrah, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm chomping at the bit to raid the cellar for some of those Napa reds I've been saving from the mid-1990s, particularly the '94s and '95s.

I stand at the meat counter at Whole Foods and I'm looking at an incredible specimen of rib roast, but in my mind's eye I'm picturing the cork coming out of a 1995 Grgich-Hills Cabernet.
Indeed, summer is on the wane. Autumn is on the way. And I, for one, am licking my chops!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:34 PM

September 11, 2007

Sarah Belk King Joins the WRO Kitchen

You may have noticed something different on the home page today. We've added a new columnist, the estimable writer Sarah Belk King. Sally, as she is known to friends, will write about food here at Wine Review Online.

Her column, In the Kitchen, will refresh every other week, alternating position on the home page with our "pairings" column, Wine With, and give us more great fare for the foodies in our crowd.

Sally also brings another established writing talent to the already star-studded roster here at WRO. Sally has authored two books -- Around the Southern Table and The Hungry Traveler: France -- and co-authored The Foster's Market Cookbook with Sarah Foster and Eleanora's Kitchen with Eleanora Scarpetta.

She has been Senior Editor at both Bon Appetit and House Beautiful, and Associate Food Editor at House & Garden, not to mention her numerous writing credits for other national wine & food publications.

We're thrilled to have Sally on our team, and all of us here at WRO extend her a very warm welcome!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:34 AM

September 10, 2007

Grange: A Wine That Speaks (Oz) for an Entire Country

I've just sampled the new vintage of Penfolds Grange and plan to review it later this week. As you might expect, I liked it very much. Grange is the world's most famous Shiraz, and that's because it perennially ranks among the best red wines ever made.

Not in any one particular year. Every year. This is truly rarefied air that is occupied by the likes of Grange. The new vintage is 2002, but it could be 1998. Or 1985. Or whenever. Pick a year, any year.

If you've ever tasted Grange, especially a properly cellared older Grange, I'm not telling you anything you don't alreay know. Nor am I trying to convince anyone to rush out and purchase a case of this rather expensive ($245 per bottle) example of wine aristocracy. Not that you could even if you were so inclined.

I am merely sharing the awe I have for this wine that is an icon for an entire country. Think about that. Is there one wine that defines France? Depends on whether you are more fond of Bordeaux or Burgundy. Italy? Depends whether you favor the wines of the north or the south.

Ask an Aussie, or any reasonably informed wine enthusiast from any part of the world, what's the best wine from Australia, and there is no debate. Grange.

Now I'm a person who happens to enjoy Australian wines and I've had the pleasure on many occasions to try some of the most renowned -- Leeuwen Estate, Henschke, Grosset, et al. But there is only one Grange.

I am reminded of this every time I taste it.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:13 AM

September 9, 2007

You Can't Tug on Superman's Cape

Tish, or W.R. Tish if you prefer, is author of the irreverant Wine For All website and former Editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Wine For All attempts to inject an element of humor into the serious discussion of wine, and it largely succeeds even though I don't personally agree with all of the off-beat positiions Tish takes.

Tish also avidly monitors wine blogs and was a frequent commenter, as a subscriber, on the Wine Spectator blog. Most of you know the Wine Spectator as the national wine publication rivaled in influence only by Robert Parker's newsletter, the Wine Advocate.

It seems Tish was poking WS Columnist Jim Laube in the ribs with the suggestion WS publish alcohol levels along with its wine reviews when WS suddenly pulled the plug on Tish's postings.

He tells the story in his monthly newsletter, which is emailed and requires a subscription (click here):

"I got kicked off the Wine Spectator blog comments board this summer too! Yes, I am officially persona non grata, after responding strongly in response to Jim Laube's inane two-part post about Napa Cabernet-maker Randy Dunn's 'open letter' to the industry regarding rising alcohol levels in wines (read more), particularly in his own 'hood.

I may never really know exactly what the tipping point was (perhaps it involved the word 'cop-out'?), but basically I challenged JL and WS in general to take Dunn's suggestion that alcohol levels be included in reviews. Laube's second post, which referred to 'one reader' (apparently moi) making that point, rejected the notion simply because alcohol-by-volume measurements by definition are imprecise. My point was: SO WHAT? The percentages printed on labels are accepted as legal data, and moreover represent the only concrete alcohol information we have at our disposal. I added that I thought the real reason WS wouldn't want to do this might be that people would see a clear correlation between high scores and high alc wines. Duh!

In sum, Wine Spectator doesn't like non-fawners bothering their thin-skinned critics. I had been an earnest contributor to the Spectator blog boards for months, and in fact at several points had had certain posts rejected-with explanation. I did not always agree (for instance, they nixed my comment asking James Laube to explain why he called Kendall-Jackson's $100+ Cardinale a ' Bordeaux knockoff' when it seems no more of a cheap copy than any other Napa Cab-Merlot), but whatever. On the other hand, when I caught James Suckling throwing around ratings like confetti, seemingly in conflict with 'official' ratings of the same wines in the WS Buying Guide, the blog editors actually went back and inserted '(non-blind)' after each of his flaming numbers, to make the distinction obvious. Most important of all, I participated in the boards under my own name (albeit misspelled as Willim Tisherman) and never even once referred to my pen name, my web site, my past position or my current status in the industry; I was a subscriber, period.

I can live without being part of the WS blog boards, but the surreally hilarious part of my getting the ol' cyberspace heave-ho is the fact that I have now been erased completely from WS blog history. ALL of my past posts (20+, I estimate) evaporated, not unlike the way Communist regimes used to erase all mention of historical figures they didn't want people to read/hear/think about. I was told this total removal was a technical issue, not a political statement. Maybe so, but it certainly fits with the Spectator's well-earned reputation as an 800-lb. gorilla."

What everyone should remember about the Wine Spectator is that it doesn't derive its clout from any particular expertise that can't be found elsewhere. It's important only because wine wholesalers and retailers use its ratings to sell you thousands, even millions, of cases of wine.

That could have been you getting the old heave-ho! Makes you wonder if those guys truly understand the source of their extraordinary power.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:49 PM

September 6, 2007

Vintage 2007 Shaping Up Nicely in the Napa Valley

ST. HELENA, Ca. -- I tend to take harvest reports from California's numerous and varied wine regions with a grain of salt. So that's probably about what this is worth, given the vagaries of weather and the human factors that can come into play over the next month or so.

During a visit yesterday with Flora Springs Winemaker Ken Deis, who is overseeing his 29th harvest at the venerable Napa Valley winery, Deis was optimistic about the 2007 vintage.

"We've had a moderate growing season through most of the summer," Deis said. "The heat has only spiked in the past couple of weeks. That's brought the sugar levels up and we're now getting those ripe flavors that we want in the reds."

He also mentioned that this will likely be a modest vintage in terms of crop load, with loose clusters and small berries, the harbinger of concentrated, intensely flavored wines.

Ho hum, you say, so what else is new about harvest in the Napa Valley? Indeed, there is a popular perception that vintages seldom matter throughout California in general and the Napa Valley in particular.

I can honestly say that I've only experienced one disastrous vintage in my nearly quarter of a century of closely observing California wine. That was 1989, when three separate storms swept through the North Coast and devastated what was about to be a robust vintage for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

But Cabernet producers who waited out the storms and picked several weeks into what turned out to be a glorious Indian Summer made exceptional wines, and a good bit of the Merlot survived the rains as well.

Yet stormy weather alone is not the only variable between vintages, and any reasonably experienced wine enthusiast can line up four, five or six consecutive vintages of the same wine and over an hour or so of comparative tasting distinguish characteristics that are unique to each vintage.

What those will be for 2007 is anyone's guess. All we know at this point is that, barring some drastic weather event, the news on the ground in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino is all good!

PHOTOS: Entrance to Flora Springs Winery; grapes being delivered as harvest kicks into high gear.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:57 PM

September 4, 2007

Culinary Discovery on the Sonoma Town Square

Always on the lookout for exceptional places to dine when I visit wine country, I was very pleased to stumble across a terriffic new spot (for me) last week in the village of Sonoma.

The El Dorado Kitchen, on the square, replaced Piatti's a couple of years ago in the refurbished El Dorado Hotel. It's the creation of chef Ryan Fancher, formerly of the French Laundry and Auberge du Soleil of the Napa Valley, and it's predictably chic, contemporary despite all the trappings of turn-of-the-century California gold-rush architecture and wine country casual elegance.

I dined at El Dorado Kitchen three times -- twice for lunch and once for dinner -- and was impressed on each visit by the freshness of the ingredients and brilliance of the flavors. Mussels buried under a pile of pomme frites was as good as any moules marinieres I've had in Paris, and a dish of seared diver scallops was divine.

The bistro steak, enjoyed with a couple of different glasses of red wine while seated at the bar, was simple but flavorful. The fact that I returned twice after my initial experience speaks volumes.

The wine list, particularly the selection of wines by the glass, was stellar, as was the helpful and informed service.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:16 PM

Sonoma Valley, Comfy Personality but Big Time Wines

SONOMA, Ca. -- I spent the long Labor Day weekend hanging around the Sonoma Valley, in theory to take in the annual Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, but more importantly to touch base with one of California's most misunderstood wine appellations.

We tend to get lazy in our language when we talk about Napa and Sonoma, the neighboring wine communities that together have laid the foundation for California wine throughout the world.

Napa Valley is an appellation, with numerous sub-appellations such as Stag's Leap, Howell Mountain and Rutherford. Sonoma is a county, home to many of California's most important appellations, including the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley.

Not to be left out is the Sonoma Valley, which is but one slice of the Sonoma wine pie. But a juicy slice, indeed. A number of years ago (15 to be exact) the Sonoma Valley vintners defected from the main body of Sonoma County vintners and held their own auction within weeks of the larger Sonoma wine auction.

No one knew at the time whether or not the Sonoma Valley gang would be successful, but it should have been a no-brainer. With the likes of Hanzell, Laurel Glen, Matanzas Creek, Arrowood, Ravenswood and a host of other prominent vintners in the fold, it couldn't fail.

This year's event was moved from its original venue at the historic Sonoma Mission Inn to the roomy spread at Cline Cellars, but the Sonoma Mission Inn retained one of the primo events, the "Palate" dinner on Friday evening that paired dishes prepared by several local celebrity chefs with vineyard-designated wines from the Sonoma Valley.

I particularly enjoyed this event because it paid homage to a handful of truly exceptional vineyard sites, and this is the real meat and potatoes of what the Sonoma Valley is all about.

Even though the look and feel of the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction is casual and homey compared to the glitz of the bigger Sonoma and Napa auctions, the Sonoma Valley vintners raised about a million dollars for charitable causes in their small part of the California wine world.

Not bad for an appellation that is so often misunderstood!

Photos: Scenes from the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction's "Palate" evening at the Sonoma Mission Inn.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:50 AM