Surprises in the Cellar

Since the late 1980’s I’ve been involved in the restaurant and wine industries, during this time I have had the opportunity to taste and accumulate some interesting and even iconic wines. I use the term accumulate, because I don’t really collect wine. I don’t buy wine as a collector, I buy an extra case or two of something I’ve bought for a client that I find personally intriguing. So far this year, there have been a few very lovely wines opened, but the biggest surprise of the past year was a Merlot from Stellenbosch in South Africa. Actually a bottle of 2012 Rainbow’s End Merlot that I imported back in 2014 along with the wineries excellent Cabernet Franc, Limited Release Cabernet Franc and Family Reserve. My business partner at the time, wanted nothing to do with Merlot. I insisted, knowing the quality was quite high and would improve with some bottle age. Who know that it would turn into sublime with an extra nine years of aging. The aromas of sweet framboise and kirsch combined with the gentle notes of toasted oak is the hallmark of excellent Bordeaux, but when it is found in a little merlot from South Africa it is wonderful surprise and worth noting that the site and winemaker have come together in just the right way.

Poor merlot has suffered for the past eighteen years, ever since the movie Sideways bashed the grape while touting the much deserved pinot noir. While merlot deserved a bit of a pullback, it happened to the whole category with the exception of wines not labeled by the grape like those from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux.

Merlot was so popular in the 1980’s and ’90’s that large wine companies and wineries began planting the grapes everywhere, wine grapes don’t always produce fine wine regardless of where they are planted and how they are tended or cropped. So the result was a sea of mediocre and bland wines. That trend did not effect all regions and all producers, but it all caught up when the Sideways character claimed in the movie, “No, if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving!” Miles also berated Cabernet Franc a bit, but to a lesser extent. The wine consumer heard him and the reaction was quick and devastating to many merlot producers. My wife and I happened to see Sideways in the Mattituck theater in the heart of Long Island Wine Country. The groans from the crowd were quite loud.


Wineseacher Critic Article

Yikes this is a hot one!

A producer sent a letter to another producer that scored wine critics in a manner that is similar to how they score wine and it is both illuminating and incendiary. Somehow the letter got leaked and Don Kavanagh wrote an article for about it, find it here. With thirty seconds of internet sleuthing, the offending letter is found in original french. Check it out here in low resolution (Ouch!).

I must admit, I have never been a wine critic follower. There are some wine writers I really appreciate, but more for their stories about wine regions and history of producers than the notes they give on actual wine flavors and then scoring them. I have my own method of evaluating a wine based on it’s region and grape typicité.

Unfortunately for very expensive, hard to get wines a wine critics notes may be the only way to determine if a wine should be purchased for aging or for selling in a restaurant or retail shop. This is a sad reality. There are some wine critics who I vaguely pay attention to when I have no other option, but I am careful to judge the ratings with a major dose of suspect. I trust my own palates experience with a producers and that producers history more than most critics. However, if I hear of a producers style changing or a new winemaker or viticulturist, I look further into things to see if there could be problems.


Difficult Wine Pairing Foods


White Asparagus salad with Salmon Gravlax from Topping Rose House April 20, 2016

Just saw this article from the NY Times about recipes for Asparagus and thought of the issues some foods create for pairing with wine. Asparagus is notorious for such. The asparagusic acidity in the vegetable is what creates that problem in pairing. This acidity along with the intensity of chlorophyl can make wines taste metallic and astringent. Wine is full of it’s own types of acidity and these can either pair or clash with certain styles of cuisine. Shellfish and Cabernet Sauvignon is notorious as is almost any wine with artichokes.

I happen to love asparagus and almost always drink a glass of wine with dinner, so creating a manner to make that paring more acceptable was a priority. One of the times that I was forced to consider how to pair asparagus and wine was for a wine dinner I did with Freemark Abbey when my friend Joseph Carr was working with them.

The key to creating a great pairing is balancing out the flavors and as acidity is one of the most prevalent flavor components in both wine and food, that is where to focus the efforts. Oak and alcohol can be stumbling blocks, so careful with wines heavy in those two areas. If you need to drink a wine with higher alcohol or heavy in oak or both then the dish must be adjusted somehow to allow such a pairing. How I did this with Freemark Abbey Chardonnay and Asparagus was to grill the vegetable after drizzling with olive oil, then dress with diced grilled pancetta and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. All of these little tweaks balance the acidic flavors of Asparagus so wine won’t clash. The same technique and theories can be applied to any food that has problems with high acidity and pairing with wine.

Artichokes, Chocolate, Hummus, Mexican Cuisine, Salad Dressing, Tomatoes and Blue Cheese are some of the tougher pairings. Some you adjust the dish or cooking process others, you make interesting wine selections and others you look to the country or region that the cuisine comes from and pair how the locals do.

The Hated One

I stole that name from a New York Rangers Hockey Blog, it was the nickname of JT Miller, a young player that the coach always benched for little mistakes. All the while letting other players make massive mistakes and continue playing plenty of minutes.

After being in the wine business for many years, I have discovered that I am indeed the Hated One when it comes to wine sales people. Apparently when I work hard to find great wines that fit one of my clients needs, tastes very good for the category and makes the client money, I am an asshole. Due to being a consultant, I take my responsibilities seriously in finding the right wine with the right profitability and the right competitive pricing. This means that that if the wine fits my clients needs and current budget, I will buy it. If the wine fits a sales organizations goals and needs and not mine… sorry. I work for the restaurant or retail store that pays me. Though some days the wine industry feels like what it might have been like just before and after Prohibition ended, it is not the proper way and is not good for the consumer. But there are laws in the wine industry prohibiting graft and payola. In New York, the State Liquor Authority oversees the industry an gives fines, suspends licenses ect. for violations. But some of the biggest Wine & Spirit Companies have teams of attorney’s with contacts or history with the legislators sooo….

So my view on graft and payola is that it hurts the consumer. If a company is giving cash for placements on shelves or bar or wine lists, this money is not reflected in the price of the product for the consumer. The consumer is getting an inferior product for the price of something that should be better due to the costs. As a former restaurant owner, I worry about the consumer… why? Because if they are not satisfied they go somewhere else and the restaurant or store looses business. Wine drinkers like restaurants and stores that give them value and knowledgeable guidance.

Wine has become very competitive and some companies use payola and graft to get an edge.

So due to my concern for my customers (clients) and their customers (diners & retail consumers), I am hated by many sales people. But some sales professionals understand, they taste me on things that I want. If some of those wines meet my needs and standards… done. If a sales professional need a sale of something to satisfy a supplier, company executive or manager, ask me. If I can help, I will.

Re-Post of old Cork issue article


, , ,

Bit about corked wines…

I just read the blog post on Michael Bravermann’s site Hamptons Rich & Pour about a dinner I attended last night. No need for me to re-address the evening as he has covered it nicely. But I would like to address the Dessert wine from the dinner and it’s problem.

The said wine is a little Tannat from Vinedo de los Vientos in Urguay. The wine is a late harvest Tannat called Alcyone. I immediately noted that the first wine was corked and whispered this to Kelly, the Sommelier (as I am the consulting Wine Director, I wanted the corkiness to be discovered by someone else). The wine was quickly dismissed by most at the table as crap (before it was announced un-fit). Then Louisa Hargrave smelled the wine and publicly noted it as corked. Kelly got a second wine and poured that around, I noted a nuance that bothered me so I thought it might be the glassware and rinsed my glass. The wine was not as obviously corked but still not right and with a hint of a ‘corked’ note. After that wine was dismissed as well we gave up.
After everyone dispersed, Kelly and I tasted a third bottle that had been opened and was being used for a by-the-glass pour. The wine was spot on, perfect. It was the type of wine that I can just smell and be satisfied. Notes of mocha, chocolate and fresh raspberries, once I did taste the wine all the acidity and balance that was lacking in the other wines was there in spades adn it was obvious that the wine would be perfect to pair with the dessert of Toffee Date Cake with Maple Walnut Ice Cream.
Unfortunately for the little dessert Tannat, Kelly and I conferred and decided to replace the wine for the James Beard Dinner with Patrick Bottex La Cueille Bugey Cerdon Rosé, a sparkling wine from the Bugey area near the Savoie area south of Geneva. The wine is a blend of Gamay and Poulsard (local grape of the area).
So now a bit on the concept of a so-called corked wine. I may eventually make this a separate posting but for now:
Chlorine is used to sanitize many things in our world and it is used in solution to sanitize cork for use in food products. So here we go with a bunch of chemistry…
Chlorine reacts with phenols ( a natural component of oak bark to produce 2,4,6 trichlorophenol (or TCP). TCP is then metabolized by molds growing on the bark to produce 2,4,6, tricholoranisole, aka TCA. It is kind of odd that the Chlorine and resulting TCP was introduced to kill the molds in cork for use in preserving wine and those molds help to create the evil TCA or the ‘cork’ in a so-called corked wine.
There are also Pentachlorophenols found in insecticides and wood preservatives that metabolized by mold to the dreaded TCA. Wood preservatives are sprayed on oak trees, wood palates, wood ships and construction wood. This has gotten some wineries in trouble infecting their entire winery with TCA and creating a situation that requires some severe solutions.
If you need to understand what a ‘corked’ wine tastes like, take a piece of cardboard and soak it in a glass of water for awhile…or consider the smell of a damp old cellar.
The major problem with TCA beyond the nasty smell is when that smell is not noticed…either by someone that doesn’t understand this issue in wine or someone with a relatively low threshold for that smell, is that a low amount of TCA contamination will hide a wines aromas and cause the wine to taste dull. It has been studied and researched and scientists have found that as little as 1ppm (part per million) of TCA will cause a wine to ‘loose’ its fruit and character. Yet many people only notice the ‘corked’/TCA smell down to 7ppm! So there is plenty of room for error. What this means is that a lovely wine can taste very boring and dull without tasting corked and therefore this is bad for the producer, sommelier, wine store merchant or anyone else in the chain of that wines trip to being consumed.
The ppm thresholds of TCA seem to be a moving target, I will be doing more research on this in the near future.
Here are a few links about the issue that I have found useful, but as I said, TCA thresholds seem to be a moving target.

What Goes Around Comes Around

When I first joined the “tribe” of street wine peddlers, one of the first places I called on was a little store in Southampton, NY that had just been bought by a new owner. Judy and Charlie were new to the business and I knew how the liquor and wine sales teams would pounce, selling them cases of stuff like Campari or other such that a store would only need a bottle or two of.  You know, someone trying to fill a quota in a simple, one shot way.

As I was working for a small wine company (American Estates, small division of Lauber Imports) and was a former wine buyer for restaurants, I offered a touch of guidance on things that might wait on their purchasing and what products might be priorities. That tiny bit of guidance turned into a twenty year friendship that includes my family visiting them at their winter hiatus spot in Lake Tahoe and skiing together. Charlie is the greatest Senior Skier I have ever skied with, he and I have had some wonderful days struggling through the steeps and deeps with my son in tow.

Given their gracious hosting of us and participation in our skiing adventures, my wife and I would always put together a collection of wines to bring from our cellar to enjoy with them. Always we’d bring more than needed and leave the rest. The bounty always included things my wife and I thought were special from Burgundy, Bordeaux to Napa, Sonoma, Willamette and Santa Barbara. Things like 1978 Beychevelle, 1986 Lynch-Bages 1992 Staglin, 1995 Clos de la Roche from Dujac, Foxen Pinot Noir, Forman Cabernet Sauvignon and others. Judy and Charlie always complained about the largesse of it but what a great time. We’d cook and drink after a long day of skiing or take some wines to a local restaurant and pay the corkage.

Soooo… on to last nights wine adventure. We were asked to join them for dinner at their house near Sag Harbor, NY. My wife was told the menu would include braised lamb, so we wanted to bring something nice with us. I chose a 1998 Fanti Brunello di Montalcino and a Luna Vineyards Canto (a sangiovese blend from Napa Valley). Things we thought would be a nice compliment to braised lamb. When we arrived they greeted us at the door we explained our wines, then Judy carefully put a white bottle box in my hands and asked that I (again carefully) look inside. What I found was this:

A tattered labeled bottle of 1945 Leoville Las Cases. The bottle was in the store when Judy and Charlie took over and at the time they thought this and the Petrus (which became a donation) and others of the ilk were over-priced in the purchase and inventory of their deal for the store (1994 ish). Those in the industry understand what has happened to such wine values since!

The bottle stayed in a dark corner of the stores basement wine storage since they took over and likely was there many years before. Judy checked the provenance at some point in the past and it passed her litmus test. The only reason she didn’t use it for a donation to a worthy cause (hospital benefit or the like) was due to the rather rough look of the label.

Surprising for me was the way the cork came out of this 67 year-old wine. I was worried, because I didn’t have an ah-so corkscrew (can it be a corkscrew if it doesn’t screw). But with a double hinged corkscrew I was able to remove 98% of the cork before a tiny piece refused to follow along.

I was able to get that little tiny piece out without it dropping in the bottle, yep I still got it Fred 😉
Naturally with such an old wine, you just never know if it’s hosed. So with a some trepidation I sniffed at the bottles opening. The wine seemed to be in decent if not a touch tired shape. I decided we shouldn’t wait too long to taste it as I wasn’t certain how long the wine would be in such shape once opened. I kept the bottle horizontal the whole time so that the sediments weren’t disturbed (Fred) and poured out glasses for each of us. There was a hint of mature Bordeaux mingling with a hint of spice and madeira, it was that hint of madeira that worried me about the staying power of this elderly girl. But I was totally wrong, five minutes later all of us found the wine evolving and changing in the glass and the wine still had some grippy tannins. And this just continued… the wine kept evolving a bit every few minutes, and then about an hour later it was gone and I had to open that bottle of Fanti ’98. Charlie commented on the incredible youth of the fourteen year old Brunello, and while it was still fairly youthful, our palates might have been a touch influenced by the previous elder citizen.
But… the Brunello was indeed a fine match with the lamb… it was just up against it with a perfectly aged world-class Saint-Julien so naturally we’d think it was young. And after looking at the ratings from Spectator 89, I think we got an exceptional wine in the 67 year old Leoville Las Cases. Parker didn’t rate it and Clive (my favorite wine writer) gave the wine an excellent written review in his Grand Cru book.