also known as…

Woman on the Verge of a Glass of Wine

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Most Wine-derful Time of the Year

It's amazing how stressed out a working mother can become as the end of December approaches. This is supposed to be a joyous and festive time of year, but for me it inevitably ends up being a time of mood swings and migraines. This fact always catches me by surprise because I have the most wonderful childhood memories of Christmas.

By the way, I should mention here that I come from a long line of "bad" Jews who celebrate Christmas each year, complete with a tree, lights, candy canes and stockings hanging from the mantle. My mother took the whole ritual of the holidays very seriously, and seemed to enjoy it immensely. Each year she would pick a different "style" for the tree's decor - one year it was all plaid with giant tartan bows, another year it was all silver ornaments, and so on. (She was one of those people who redecorated the entire house every other year.) She loaded the tree up with gifts and filled our stockings until they were overflowing. Every year she made the same breakfast of cheese eggs, toast and bacon -- again, "bad" Jews -- and literally played Christmas music while we unwrapped our gifts. I try to recreate this experience every year in my own home, much to the chagrin of my more religiously observant husband, and look forward to Christmas morning with as much anticipation as I did when I was a child. As a matter of fact, I'm eating a candy cane at this very moment.

The lead-up to December 25th, however is the part that can be rough. I actually started feeling it today, as my daughter and I set out to purchase some gifts for her friends. I don't know if it was the two clueless sales girls at the clothing store that set my mood off, or if it was the traffic that we fought to get across town only to purchase one measly gift, but I started to lose it. I think it's because I started to feel, as I always do at the holidays, that I am taking part in an un-winnable race, a steeple-chase complete with obstacles (traffic), challenges (what on earth do I buy for my sister who has everything), incredible distances to cover (the endless gift list) and that inevitable post-race muscle pain (the January credit card bill). I'm usually the one who decorates the tree, buys all of the gifts and cooks Christmas dinner, adding to the gauntlet that is my usual month of December. I started to feel that dreadful fear that I may not actually be able to finish the race this year, especially since I haven't even warmed up yet.

Much of this comes down to the fact that I spend many many hours at work and thus have very little leeway in terms of finding time to take care of these holiday chores. No matter how early I start my gift buying, I always end up duking it out on Christmas Eve with the rest of the shopping crowds. I end up spending way too much because I start grabbing one of every item that I see in order to avoid forgetting someone. I also carry a tremendous amount of pressure and guilt -- again, I'm a Jew -- about how much time I spend away from my children and subconsciously feel like I will make up for all of it on the morning of Christ's birthday.

So, as I felt that familiar feeling set in, and as my son in the back seat of the car screamed about not waiting one more minute to get our Christmas tree, I decided to retreat to my "happy place." My happy place is where I mentally transport myself in times of trouble. For instance, when on an airplane experiencing heavy turbulence, I close my eyes an imagine myself at my home, snuggled up under the covers with my son listening to him breathe while he sleeps. I say over and over to myself, "I'm in my happy place. I'm in my happy place." Somehow this gets me through without completely losing it in front of hundreds of people. I decided to take inspiration for my happy place on this irritating Saturday, two weeks to the day from Christmas, in my dreamy imaginary holiday moment, one in which I am sitting on my sofa in front of the fire, glass of wine in hand while the children decorate the tree. As I looked at my kids in the rear view mirror I came to slowly realize that my happy place may not be so far away after all.

I immediately turned the car around and drove over the Christmas tree lot down the street from my house, the one where the trees are a touch more expensive, but they are delivered to your home within one hour. My overjoyed son ran up and down the aisles of Noble Firs while my daughter and I looked for the perfect tree. I've brainwashed my little girl over the last thirteen years to look for the exact type of tree that I like: the super model of trees, slender, elegant and very tall. We found our green version of Kate Moss, paid for the beautiful yet doomed tree and headed for home. I decided when we got home to do what I have never done before, and allow the kids to decorate the whole tree themselves. Normally, I would fuss over it myself in an obsessive compulsive manner, quashing their creativity to satisfy my own need for order. This year, I decided to allow myself to just sit back and watch, and to allow them to experience the fun part, the part that I used to look forward to.

To help me in my quest for pre-Christmas relaxation, I opened a bottle of 2007 Jorian Hill "Beespoke" Grenache/Syrah blend. In my mind, this hearty red is one of the most perfect wines for this time of year. Jorian Hill is a small family-owned winery in the cool climate area known as Ballard Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley. Their winemaking and viticulture team of Mark Crawford Horvath, Kenneth Gummere and Jeff Frey focuses on organic farming, low yields and small lot fermentations to create wines that are at once rich and elegant. This wine is striking from the start with its aromas of black olive, tar and raspberry. It has a seriousness and muscularity that comes through well before even tasting. On the palate, the wine shows an interesting balance of qualities from both the Syrah and the Grenache. It has a meatiness and dark intensity that is balanced by nuances of red fruits and spices. It has strength and grip while also being soft and fleshy. I figured that its dark brooding character and comforting fruitiness was probably the perfect match for my mood and situation.

As I sat and listened to the kids laughing and enjoying themselves while decorating the tree, I was able to bring myself back from the dark depths of holiday irritation and appreciate this time of year again. They placed each glass ball and silver bell where ever they saw fit and I didn't interfere or offer my opinion. Now, I'm not sure if I drank too much wine or if I was just overwhelmed by the fact that I didn't have to lift a finger, but I knew then and there that I had never seen a better looking Christmas tree.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanks For Giving

It has been quite a long time since I've written anything here and I am loaded down with a tremendous amount of guilt and hesitation. I realize that by blogging, I am cultivating a friendship with those who are my followers. And like every other important personal relationship, one has to devote a good amount of time and attention to it lest it whither away and die. Now, my lack of blogging in the last couple of months is not due to a lack of interest or love. I haven't stopped caring. I was just basically overwhelmed with working on Suzanne and my LA Loves Alex's Lemonade fundraiser, and with preparing for the restaurants and myself for the holidays. I just did not have any time left in my day to focus on this particular relationship. Of course, after such a long time away, I find myself consumed with the inevitable self-questioning that further exacerbates getting back on track: "Has it been too long? Will they even want to hear from me? Do they even care?" Either way, I've decided to "pick up the phone" and re-initiate contact. Hopefully the friendship is not over.

To aid in this, I actually found that Thanksgiving gave me a reason to blog again. You see, I'm one of the lucky few in the restaurant business who get to take the last Thursday of November off to eat turkey with the relatives. And the perk for having twenty people over for dinner is the occasional hostess gift in the form of a bottle of wine that can come my way, something that I obviously greatly appreciate. A friend of the family brought me a bottle of 2008 Lioco, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This is clearly someone who knows my palate and penchant for delicate Pinot. I've been a longtime supporter of Lioco and because of this, I waited to open the bottle thinking that as I've had the wine before, there was no need to rush. In the end I didn't wait all that long, since I opened it up the very next day to drink along side my plate of turkey and stuffing leftovers. It was the perfect choice.

Lioco was started by Kevin O'Connor, the former sommelier at Spago and his friend Matt Licklider, a former LA import wine salesperson as a pursuit to create well-made wines that speak of their location. So often, people perceive California as a place of fruity, juicy wines that lack a specific regional expression. These guys have proved that idea as false with their series of elegant single vineyard, single AVA whites and reds. As lovers of old world winemaking, they take inspiration from traditional European methods, seeking out vineyard sites that make the vines work harder to survive, thereby producing higher quality fruit. They focus on using little or no oak in the aging process, fermenting naturally and over-delivering in terms of the wine and its price point.

This wine exemplifies everything I love in Pinot Noir with its tart red fruit notes, bright acidity, earthiness and the fact that this wine literally speaks of the holidays. On the nose, cranberry and cinnamon notes mix with touches of cassis, raspberry and candied yam. The palate manages to be lean and slightly fleshy all at once with red plum fruitiness, ginger and cardamom spice, orange peel and long finish laden with bacon fat. It's a wine that clearly represents its Sonoma Coast location with its cold climate and coastal proximity, resulting in Pinot Noir that tastes like Pinot, rather than some suped-up, Syrah imitator. It would have been the perfect pairing for my Thanksgiving turkey, especially since I follow my family's tradition of covering the top of the bird with bacon and basting it with butter. What better to cut the fat and marry with the bacon than this earthy, spicy wine.

I'm always in a quandary as to whether to immediately open a bottle of wine that a guest brings to dinner and drink it on the spot, or if I should save it for a later date. I never want to insult my guests by not drinking the wine with them, or by acting as though their selection isn't special enough to save for an important occasion. Fortunately, I was so distracted by the crazy family gathering taking place in my living room that I didn't even have time to think about what to do. This would definitely have been a great wine to drink with dinner that night, but I'm really happy that I saved it for the day after. That way, I didn't have to share a drop with all of those people.

Monday, September 13, 2010

State of Grace

I have to say that my meeting with Angela Osborne was one of the more unusual interactions I've had. One day during lunch service at Lucques, this young woman approached me and asked me if she could shake my hand. Hmmm. I don't know if I've ever been asked that particular question before. Can I shake your hand....of course. Most people don't actually ask, so please go ahead.

After getting through that odd moment, Angela got to the gist of her visit. She is a winemaker, originally from New Zealand who came out to California to work with her favorite grape variety, Grenache. Angela said that she had considered the major Grenache producing regions of the world, Spain, Southern France, Australia and California and eventually settled on the latter. She was hired on as assistant winemaker at Lioco under Kevin Kelly and thus began her California career. She wanted me to taste her new release, A Tribute to Grace, from the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard of Santa Barbara County.

I was honestly a bit worried about tasting her Grenache, particularly right in front of her because I'm not normally a big fan of the variety, especially from California. I find most Grenache made here to be too concentrated, juicy and rich for my palate. I was also dreading tasting the wine with a winemaker that I didn't really know for fear of not liking the wine. It makes me feel terrible when I'm in that position because I don't like disappointing people and I usually end up doing the polite/impolite thing of lying about my love of the wine then never ordering it.

The moment I saw the wine in the glass though, my interest was piqued. Rather than being a deep dark purple, the wine is the color of translucent ruby red, so faint in fact that it could be mistaken for a light Pinot or dark rosé. On the nose, high-toned cherry notes mix with elements of cinnamon and un-blossomed roses, resulting in an exotic, spice market aroma. On the palate, Grace is bright and fleshy in an elegant, feminine way, blending fresh and cooked red fruit notes, with cinnamon and clove spices and vivid acidity. It has hints of floral perfume and touches of savory herbs with a medium body, velvet-like texture and long finish. Even before I put the glass to my lips, I was reminded of Chateau Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, another Grenache that goes against type, and that like this wine, drinks more like Pinot Noir than anything else. For me, this is a good thing.

Angela makes a tiny amount of this, less than 200 cases, and numbers each bottle individually. She named it after her grandmother who has been a source of inspiration and strength to her. To say that this wine embodies the idea of grace with its elegance, balance and finesse is an understatement. Angela herself seems to follow in the same mold with her delicate personality, wispy long hair and soft demeanor. I immediately bought a case for myself as well as one for the restaurant, both of which seem to be disappearing quicker than I expected. Everyone who I've introduced the wine to has fallen in love with it and come back for more. This is a wine that I will keep on my list at Lucques for as long as it is available, because I wholeheartedly believe that we all could us a little more grace in our lives.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blinded By the Light

If there is one thing in the realm of wine that I have always been completely scared of, it
is blind tasting. Nothing makes me feel like more of a vulnerable loser than having to identify a wine's variety, region and vintage from taste alone. I think it's because deep down I'm afraid of looking like I don't really know what I'm doing and in the end, coming off like a complete fraud. You see, blind tasting is a learned skill, one that takes many hours of practice, trial and error. Some of my colleagues do this on a daily basis. I do not. In the world of palate fitness, this is one type of training that I just don't do and like any unpracticed, untrained athlete, I'm pretty out of shape.

So, when Bonnie Graves, a Los Angeles wine gal contacted me to join a men vs. women blind tasting panel at the Taste of Beverly Hills event last weekend, I immediately told her that there was no way in hell that I would do it. The other people on the panel were going to be individuals who I completely respect and who get loads of practice tasting blind. I told her that I would provide a personally embarrassing amount of comic relief and would basically end up looking like a complete idiot. Of course, after about seven emails and even a personal visit at Lucques, Bonnie managed to persuade me to do it with promises of a fun, light-hearted event, a potential bottle of Krug for the winning team and loads of p.r. for the restaurant. And, like any savvy business person, I caved at the prospect of good dose of public relations for the restaurants, even at my own expense. Needless to say that from the minute I accepted her offer, I regretted it like crazy.

With only a week to go before the event and determined not to enter this challenge totally unprepared, I enlisted some of the staff members at the restaurants to indulge me in a few rounds of "let's see if Caroline can get this one" throughout the week. My employees were all to happy to indulge me, a fact that I actually found slightly unnerving. Richard, our new Lucques manager lined up five whites and five reds for me to taste on the first day, five of which stumped me and five of which I actually got right. As I had truly expected to get them all wrong, I felt a wave of confidence roll over me. In the back of my head, I heard a voice say, "Hmm, maybe I'm not so bad at this after all." Richard lined up eight more wines for me the next day, only three of which I pegged correctly. My batting average was going down...not good.

The next day, I asked Amy Christine, a good friend and Master of Wine candidate to come to my house for a tutorial. Amy literally blind tastes wine every morning in practice for the tasting portion of her exam. She's got so much experience in this, I figured that there was no one better to work with me. Her husband Peter filled seven or eight small bottles with a selection of white and red wines and packed them up for her so that not even Amy would know what they were. We went through each one, meticulously analyzing their colors, aromas and flavors. We discussed each in detail and came close to the same conclusion on all of them. We were wrong six out of eight times. In Amy's defense though, I think that it was my overly anxious self that led her down the path of failure that day. But really, how on earth did that Gruner Veltliner taste so much like white Burgundy?

With the days flying by and my newfound confidence waning, I headed to Tavern and a fresh group of wines by the glass to blind taste through. I told John our bartender to just hand me wines throughout the night to keep me on my toes. One after the other, small tastes were handed over the bar to me at moments that I least expected them. Let's just say that it wasn't my night, or maybe that I was just caught off guard, as one by one I failed to identify any of them but one. Since when does Bandol Blanc taste like California Sauvignon Blanc? Zinfandel that tastes like Meritage? After another round of low scoring, I was beginning to consider a last minute family emergency scenario to get me out of this predicament.

Now, to give me just a little but of credit, what I was experiencing here was an example of what happens when the international wine community strives to market themselves to the global population. Many of the world's great wines start to taste similar and regions and grape varieties lose their individuality. I play a role in this as well. I don't love a lot of the Zinfandels that are on the market right now, so I tend to buy the ones that are more restrained and subtle. The result is that the Zinfandel that I pour by the glass doesn't necessarily taste like Zinfandel. All of this is fine and well, until I need to blind taste it. Clearly, I've been doing myself a disservice here.

On the morning of the event, I awoke with a butterflies in my stomach, knowing that I was inching minute by minute closer to my fate as the laughing stock of the wine event. I figured that I was just going to have to just go for it and laugh it all off in good fun. Each team of four was given the same four wines to blind taste, so that a man and a woman would have to face off on each. I decided to rip this thing off like a band aid and volunteer for the first wine. To be honest, from the moment I smelled it I knew it was Sauvignon Blanc, so I knew I would be safe. I described in detail the notes of guava, passion fruit and grapefruit on the nose and the touches of deep meyer lemon-like citrus. The wine had bright acidity and tart freshness as well as a slight hint of green grassy herbs. I confidently identified the variety as Sauvignon Blanc, the region as Loire and the vintage as 2008. My male counterpart agreed wholeheartedly. The reveal: 2009 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand! Of course, grapefruit and guava equals New Zealand. Urgh. Oh well, I earned the team one point. Could have been worse.

After three rounds of misidentifications from almost all of the members of the panel, and with a particularly embarrassing reveal of the 2009 Charles Shaw Merlot, I was starting to feel slightly better about myself. It was actually incredibly funny to see all of us flailing around in our search for the answers. We were basically all in the same boat. None of us was doing well and none of us cared. I think that our lightheartedness at being wrong was the most entertaining part of the whole thing.

In the end, we ladies redeemed ourselves with a totally right-on identification of a 2006 Rioja Reserva and won the match. We left the event holding our heads a little higher while laughing at ourselves a little louder. It was reassuring to know that we were all in the same boat, putting ourselves out on the line and having a ball. I'm now determined to blind taste at least once per week to hone my new-found skills, and to accept that I may not have all of the answers, but at least I'll have a good time trying to find them.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Habit I Clearly Can't Kick

Jeff Fischer is really on a roll. A few months back, he brought me a sample of a wine that he made, a Sauvignon Blanc called Habit, that he produced under the tutelage of California winemaker Doug Margerum. He's always had an intense love of food and wine and decided to follow his heart and dabble in the world of wine making. I loved that first wine the moment I tasted it, and clearly so did everyone else. You see, Jeff managed, on his own, to place that wine at some pretty impressive restaurants around the country, purchased by some of America's top sommeliers. This is a pretty amazing feat when one considers how hard it is to even get some of these people on the phone, much less taste and buy a wine from a newcomer to the business. In fact, when I called him to reorder a case for Tavern, he told me that he sold out of that charter vintage in a matter of months. As someone who has dabbled in wine making, I've gotta say that I'm a bit jealous.

Following up from that first wine, Jeff has just bottled his red, a Bordeaux blend under the same Habit label. This wine is a blend of 30% Cabernet Franc, 32.5% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12.5% Petit Verdot and 5% Malbec. The grapes for this wine are from the fairly new Happy Canyon AVA in Santa Ynez, which has a slightly warmer climate than other Central Coast areas, resulting in riper, richer fruit. It is precisely this warmer weather that separates Happy Canyon, the smallest AVA in California, from the neighboring Santa Barbara and Santa Rita Hills. Unlike these regions in which Pinot and Chardonnay thrive, Happy Canyon is the perfect place for these Bordeaux grapes, as well as Syrah and other Rhone varieties that really need the heat to reach their fullest potential.

I must say that I think he has another hit on his hands with this one. The wine is fleshy, rich and layered with a fine tannin structure and velvety texture. It has a classic elements of a meritage blend: iron-rich structure of Cabernet, the softening effect of Merlot, the complex earthiness of Cab Franc and the density of Petit Verdot. (Of course, I happen to be what I call a cabfrancophile, so the high percentage of Cab Franc in the mix makes me happy.) The thing that seems push this wine beyond though, is that small touch of Malbec in the blend that gives the wine a Mexican coffee like spiciness and exotic touch. It also surprisingly bright, a quality that sets this wine apart from those of the Napa Valley. Possibly the close proximity of Happy Canyon to the ocean allows for the wine to retain a certain level of acidity and acquire a unique maritime character.

Jeff hasn't yet figured out the pricing of this wine, not surprising since he literally just bottled it a week ago. I do know that he is focused on keeping the cost reasonable, a wonderful thing considering his relatively small production. He's created a true boutique project with very hands-on winemaking technique and time consuming attention to detail. In short, this wine is a crazy value.

I'm looking forward to the wine being released and getting it on my wine lists asap. I know I'm going to have a hard time keeping it in stock myself. In fact, that's the problem with this wine...there's just not enough of it to go around.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Brdas of a Feather

It can't be easy being a wine rep. I can't say that I've ever done the job, so I don't know this for sure. But if dealing with me is any example, then this has got to be a job filled with uphill battles. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that I'm a difficult person, or that I'm horrible to deal with one on one. I just have quite a few people that I buy wine from and whose job it is to sell me as much wine as possible. I know that one of my jobs is to buy wine from them, but I never actually have the wine list space to buy everything they show me. It's really hard to say no to people who I consider my friends and I always worry that I'm hurting people's feelings when their tasting visit results in no sale. Obviously though, I don't always love what they bring me, which is what has been the issue with Stetson.

Stetson has been trying to sell me wine for a while now with very little result. He's already running against the wind with me because he specializes in Solvenian wine, something I haven't been that interested in so far. Week after week, he's brought a wine bag full of wines for me to try and I've disliked every one of them. It feels like this has been going on forever and I've been fairly convinced that meeting with him has been a waste of time, which is why when he walked in the door to Lucques the other day, I actually cringed a little. And then, something unusual happened. He poured a taste of wine for me that I actually liked. Let me just say that it came as quite a shock to the both of us.

The wine? 2008 Kabaj, Sivi Pinot, a Pinot Gris from Goriska Brda. The Goriska Brda is a range of hills in western Slovenia along the border of Italy. This is actually an ideal grape growing region that has a sub Mediterranean climate with mineral rich soils and an Adriatic influence. These hills are completely covered with vines, 55,000 of which belong to the Kabaj winery family. Kabaj belongs to Katja Kabaj Morel and her oenologist husband Jean Michel Morel, who previously worked in cellars throughout France and Italy. As their property had a long grape growing history, they decided to vinify and bottle their own wine, rather than sell off the grapes to others. They farm their vineyards sustainably, doing all of the work manually and focusing their efforts on the soils and tradition.

Jean Michel does the unusual thing of making his wine in qvevri, large sealed clay vessels in which the grapes ferment and age for nine months. After this, the wine and its lees are poured into large oak barrels and left to age for an additional year. The wine is then fined, filtered and bottled for yet another year of aging. This process is an ancient Georgian technique which Jean Michel feels connects his thoroughly modern wine to historical winemaking traditions.

This wine, made from 100% Pinot Gris shows delicate aromatics on the nose of green apple and white flowers. On the palate, this wine drinks a lot like a white Rhone blend in that it is dry yet rich, clean yet fleshy. It has a textural density with touches of exotic, talcum powder like spiciness and an ever so elegant minerality. Though it is not a fruity wine, the green apple notes are present along side a balancing acidity that is decidedly unaggressive, yet effective. This is just a really layered and complex wine.

I completely adored this wine and bought the last two cases available to put on the list at AOC. It is just seems perfect for our adventurous clientele and is so good that I'm sure it won't last long. I actually liked this wine so much that it ignited my interest in Slovenian wine and made me think that maybe Stetson wasn't so bad after all.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mid-Summer Night's Doldrum

I know. I know. Where have I been? Why haven't I been blogging?

Well, I'll tell you, I've been in what I call the wine doldrums. I've been tasting wine fairly regularly, but nothing has really excited me. It's not that I'm not trying, or that I haven't tasted anything good and drinkable, but it all just been basically kind of blah. Nothing has knocked my socks off. No pizzaz. No personality.

Of course, a lot of my attitude about the wine I've tasted lately has to do with my attitude in general. I don't know if I'm clouded by the lazy quality of mid-summer days, or by my general desire at this time of year to go on a three month vacation like my kids do. All I do know is that I'm not falling head over heals over much of the wine I've been tasting lately.

That is until yesterday, when my wine rep from Beaune Imports poured me a taste of François Chidaine's 2009 Touraine. François is very old fashioned in his attitude toward wine making, which fortunately includes his commitment to organic farming. Chidaine is a bit of a hero to me in this regard because not only does he produce outstanding, elegant wines, but he is also someone who walks the walk, rather than talk the talk. He has been farming organically for years and more recently moved to biodynamics. But rather than use this fact as a marketing tool, he doesn't mention any of it on his wine's labeling. Many people who go to effort of becoming certified organic, which in itself is a long and tedious process, tend to announce their certification to the world. Clearly, Chidaine farms this way because he believes that this is the way it must be done, and not because it is popular or commercially of the moment. The quality of his wines stand on their own merit.

I always find white wines from Touraine to be really interesting. Both Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are grown there and although these varieties couldn't be more different, they always seem to take on each other's characteristics when bottled in this appellation. Chenin, to me, tastes like Sauvignon Blanc and vice-versa. In the case of Chidaine's wine, this 100% Sauvignon Blanc shows aromatic notes akin to Chenin Blanc, namely in its touches of talcum powder, glycerine and delicate citrus scents. On the palate the wine is strikingly fresh and tart with soft tropical touches and elegant acid structure. It has amazing minerality that results in a salted plum quality that is both savory and refreshing. This wine immediately brought me out of my wine funk and reawakened my zest for all things wine.

I could literally drink this wine everyday, especially since it's pretty affordable. And, since I'm putting it on my lists at Tavern and Lucques by the glass next week, I probably will.

P.S. We'll be pouring this wine at this weekend's Sunday Supper at Lucques. It will pair amazingly with the melon, proscuitto, mint and crème fraîche appetizer. Come by and join us!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Rosé By Any Other Name...

I know that I sound like a broken record, always rambling on and on about how much I like rosé, but I just can't help it. You see, one of the most exciting things to me about this time of year is the arrival of the newly released rosés into the market. It reminds me that summer is just around the corner and lazy weekend afternoons sipping rosé in the sunshine of my back patio are not so far away. I'm lucky because I actually have a pretty wide variety of rosés on my wine lists right now, so I'm a little spoiled for choice when it comes to finding one to drink. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the world seems to be in a rosé renaissance right now, with some pretty incredible and well-respected wineries producing outstanding pink wine.

To celebrate the season, our last Monday Larder Wine and Cheese Club featured four rosés from southern France that spanned the regions from Côtes du Rhône all the way down to Cassis. In fact, the highlight of the night, and my new favorite rosé, was the 2009 Clos Sainte Magdeleine, Cassis Rosé. Clos Sainte Magdeleine covers over 20 very special hectares of land that directly face the Mediterranean Sea. Most of its vineyards are planted on terraced slopes of Cap Canaille, an insanely beautiful rock formation that juts out into the water and is actually the highest maritime cliff in Europe. This is an amazingly picturesque area that is like a French version of Malibu's Point Dume, only covered with rows and rows of perfect vineyards. This place is so beautiful that I am dying to go visit just to experience it in person.

The Magdeleine estate itself has belonged to a Greek family named Zafiropulo since 1920, though wine growing in this area dates far back to antiquity. The winery makes only white and rosé wine from vines that average 30 years in age. They farm meticulously, picking and sorting by hand and de-stemming before fermenting and aging the wine in tank for 14 to 18 months. This wine is a blend of 65% Grenache, 18% Cinsault and 17% Mourvedre, a mix that seems to result in the perfect balance of fruitiness and acidity. On the nose, the wine shows notes of strawberry, melon and fully bloomed roses. It is bright and fleshy, bursting with bright red plum, tart acidity and long finish. Though the flavors are vibrant, the wine is clean and crisp, and manages to tame its fruity exuberance with a touch of salty minerality.

Rosé is one of those wines that I feel is under-appreciated in general, and is so often relegated to the afternoon aperitif role. Just like with Champagne, I could easily pair rosé wines with a multi-course meal, skipping white and red wine entirely. In fact, I re-tasted this wine last night with a variety of cow's milk cheeses that we are selling in the Larder at Tavern and was blown away by the wine's versatility. It worked with both the stinky and the mild, playing well off of the funky "animal" character and saltiness of the cheeses.

Fortunately, I bought the majority of the available Clos Sainte Magdeleine for Lucques and Tavern, so if anyone wants to taste it, you know where to get it...that is, if I haven't finished it off myself first.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

If I had a Nikolaihof For Every Time I....

Believe it or not, tasting wine on a regular basis is hard work. I know it sounds crazy, but it's really not all fun and games. I take thorough notes about the wine's color, aromas and flavors as well as the history and people involved in each winery. I have to know about the winemaking process and how each step of that process affects the product in the bottle. I need to speak intelligently about each sip, commenting on the wine's weight, texture and acid levels. ("This tastes good," doesn't quite cut it here.) And I often have to taste wine in the presence of the its maker, which means maintaining a happy face whether I like the wine or not. Frankly, I'm not drinking the wine to enjoy it, or the gentle relaxed feeling that each sip of wine provides. I'm tasting the wine to analyze it, to determine if it belongs on my wine list and whether my guests will like it as much as I do. It's a lot of pressure.

Fortunately enough for me, I get to taste more good wine than bad, making the process that much more enjoyable. Today I was lucky enough to sample the new vintage of Nikolaihof's Gruner Veltliner, Hefeabzig, a wine that I would happily taste each and every day. It helps that Gruner Veltliner holds a special place in my heart. There is just something about the variety's bright savoriness and oily texture that really speaks to my palate.

Nikolaihof is the oldest winemaking property in Austria, and the first biodynamic estate in the Wachau. The property dates back 2000 years, with wine being produced there since the time of the Celts in around 470 A.D. It's a beautiful place with elements of history scattered throughout, like their cellar which was built in what was originally a Roman crypt. The Saah's family that owns and operates the winery takes the biodynamic philosophy seriously, utilizing its principles in their daily lives and crediting it for the consistency of their wines from vintage to vintage.

This wine is nothing if not complex. On the nose, it hints at richness with aromas of potent lime, minerals and salt. But the palate is where this wine really sings. It's amazingly perfumed with touches of white flowers and exotic fruits. The flavors bring to mind bright red plum, bursting with freshness and acidity, alongside savory herbs and rich chamomile. It is complex and layered, heavy on mineral content and elegant notes of white pepper. This wine truly provides a new discovery in each sip.

I don't think I've ever tasted a wine from Nikolaihof that I haven't liked. I try to always have this wine on my list at Lucques, not only because I happen to love it, but because it works so well with Suzanne's cuisine. If every wine I tasted was like this, my job would be a breeze.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Marche to the Beat of Your Own Drummer

I realize that the majority of the posts I've written so far are about white wine. Oh there are a few red essays on my list, but I guess I've got a thing for high acid whites right now. I suppose that it's appropriate for the season as the weather is getting progressively warmer the idea of drinking a cool glass of white just feels right.

The whites that have been on my tasting radar lately seem to all be Italian. In fact, every time I order a glass of wine, or sit down to taste a sample bottle, it just happens to be some interesting little Italian find. It's like the wine tasting stars have aligned and we are in the house of white with Italy rising. Today was indeed more of the same...or stesso as they say in Italian. I was re-tasting the 2006 Fattoria San Lorenzo, Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi, Classico Superiore with my staff at Tavern today as I have just put it on the wine list by the glass. I originally purchased this wine for a flight night that focused on the wines and food of the Marche region in eastern Italy. I and everyone at that tasting loved this wine so much, that I thought I should expose more people to it.

The Marche is a curving rectangular shaped area on what I call, the upper calf of Italy's boot. The region has a varied geography and climate that includes coastal stretches, river valleys and mountainous expanses, and as a result produces high acid white wines as well as rich, robust reds. Verdicchio is the primary white grape variety grown there and in the hands of the people at San Lorenzo, it really sings.

Fattoria San Lorenzo has been passed down from father to son for generations. The grandfather Enrico Crognaletti is a barrel maker and, in fact, used to pick the trees and build the barrels that were used to vinify his own Verdicchio. His nephew Natalino is now at the healm of their winery and vineyards that are located in the nearby towns of Ostra, Ostra Vetere and Corinaldo. This wine has a couple of years of bottle age on it and is a great example of what Verdicchio can become as it matures. It is almost Burgundian in style and reflects the flavors of younger Verdicchio, but with more concentration. It is full bodied and creamy - but not oaky - with a bright straw yellow coloring with green highlights. It shows intense and continuous aromas of ripe fruit particularly apple and ripe pear with complex layers and nutty minerality.

I'm lucky to have so many venues through which I can feature all of the wines that I love. As for this one, it is becoming a favorite at the bar at Tavern. It's a wine that appeals to both the less experienced as well as the seasoned wine drinker alike. Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that no wine is too sophisticated or too "odd" to pour by the glass. I love introducing people to great wines, no matter the variety or place of origin. And although Verdicchio is not all that unusual, anything that gets people to stray from their normal Pinot Grigio wine path is worth the effort.

Friday, April 30, 2010

An Education

The windy weather we've been experiencing in LA has me a little off balance, and a bit freaked out really. I'm always a bit jumpy when it's like this. Every time the wind shakes the windows in my house, or rattles the retractable patio roof at Lucques, I feel my heart jump and my body stiffen. It's not that I have a fear of the roof blowing off, but there is just something about a windy night that puts me on edge. Frankly, it's the kind of weather that drives me to drink.

To calm my nerves on this blustery evening, I decided to drink a glass of the 2008 Elio Grasso Langhe Chardonnay, Educato. I've had this sample bottle for a couple of weeks now but just didn't have the opportunity to taste it until right now. I tend to like Chardonnays from Italy, as they usually have less fruitiness and higher acidity than that of new world regions. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against domestic Chardonnay. I just prefer the ones that shy away from the oak and butter profile.

I was actually pretty excited to taste this wine as I've been a long time fan of Elio Grasso's reds. The Grasso's have been in the region for generations, but it wasn't until the early 1980's that the family decided to revisit their roots as grape growers in the highly-regarded Monforte d'Alba region of Piemonte. Their main wine production centers around the traditional varieties of the area, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. In 1986, they added a small plot of the non-native Chardonnay in order to coax, or as they call it, "educate" their area's terroir into and out of the variety. They are meticulous in the vineyards and in the cellar, vinifying and bottling each variety from each vineyard separately. For the Chardonnay, they initially ferment in French oak barrique. Then, after malolactic fermentation in stainless steel, they move the wine into new French oak for seven months of aging.

This is not a bright, fresh light wine, but is rather more serious than that. It reminds me quite a bit of a Burgundy with some bottle age on it, where the fruit has matured and the oak softened, giving way to a wine of elegance and developed maturity. It has a deep and exotic nose of freshly grated ginger and ripe pineapple. On the palate, it shows notes of yellow nectarine and golden raisin mingled with a rich nuttiness and a balancing acidity that leads to a long finish. It has an oily texture and weightiness that highlight it's perfume of drying rose petals. Much like the Grasso Nebbiolo, it has a beautiful minerality running through it that is no doubt responsible for its elegance and complexity.

I've actually had a few glasses of this wine over the last few days and each time I taste it, my feeling about it is confirmed. I'm getting ready to open the second sample bottle that I have, just to reconfirm. If this is the education that the Grasso's are giving, then enroll me in more classes.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Window of Opportunity

We are in the midst of planning another winemaker dinner at AOC, this time with La Fenêtre, a boutique winery from California's Central Coast. I've had a couple of opportunities to taste through the line-up that we'll be pouring and I must say, I'm really excited for this one.

La Fenêtre (the window in French) is a label that was started by Sona's former sommelier Joshua Klapper back in 2005 as a negotiant project. He doesn't own his own vineyards, but instead buys grapes from others and then makes the wine himself. Of course, these aren't just any grapes he's buying. He's buying grapes from some of the area's most respected vineyard sites and from some pretty exacting growers, like Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria and Alisos Vineyard in Santa Barbara. And his mentors through this process are not just anyone. He's been guided down his winemaking path by the incredibly successful Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Lindquist of Qupé. Josh's goal is to make elegant, balanced and food-friendly wines that are old world in style and new world in technique. He ages his wines in neutral oak barrels and shoots for low alcohol levels and high acidity. After tasting through these wines, it's evident that he is doing what he set out to do.

It's hard to say which of these wines excites me the most. I love his 2008 A Côté Santa Barbara County Chardonnay for it's bright citrus notes and salty minerality. The 2008 A Côté Central Coast Pinot Noir tastes like true Pinot with its lean elegance and notes of cola and cherry. And his 2008 A Côté Syrah is high-toned, bright and complex, not jammy and fruity like most other Syrahs from Santa Barbara. All of the wines have a silkiness and acidity that speak to the La Fenêtre old-world sensibility, but with a delicate fruitiness that is unmistakably from California.

Josh is a really lovely guy who never seems to get tired of the wine business or of developing himself as a winemaker. He's come a really long way in a brief amount of time, having started out making his wines at Au Bon Climat and setting out on his own after only a few short years. It is not uncommon for a sommelier to want to make wine for him (or her) self. But very few of them actually succeed on this kind of level, wherein they actually make the complete move to winemaking full time and turn the idea into a viable business. It is a huge accomplishment that is really quite inspiring.

The dinner at AOC will take place on Monday, May 10th and will feature the La Fenêtre Alisos Vineyard Syrah, as well as the three above mentioned wines from his A Côté label and his Cabernet Sauvignon. I should mention that A Côté is a secondary label that Klapper began a couple of years after he began making La Fenêtre. These wines are equally as elegant and well made as his La Fenêtre wines, but are at a slighly lower price point, something that is much appreciated in these financially trying times. The dinner will consist of five courses and will cost $100, not including tax or gratuity. Call AOC at 323/653.6359 to book at table and join us.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Sparkling Personality

My husband Michael and I always giggle about our friend Kate because the only wine that she ever drinks is Champagne. Nothing but the best French sparking will do for her. It's kind of funny because she is not normally the kind of person who is so rigid and frankly, so bling. The more I think about it though, the more I think she's on to something. Even though Champagne is usually reserved for the cocktail hour, it is a very versatile wine that can be consumed throughout an entire meal. And, let's face it, it's nice to drink something that inspires such feelings of festivity and celebration. I suppose that if I truly had the option, I could drink Champagne every day of my life. What's so wrong about it, really?

Fortunately for me, the Champagne gods were smiling down upon me last night at Lucques when a bevy of wine vendors happened to dine there and bring me samples of some amazing sparkling wines. There was the gorgeous and rare Dom Ruinart vintage 1998 and a really interesting sparking Saumur from the Loire Valley made from 100% Cabernet Franc. The highlight to me though, was a Champagne that I had never heard of before last night called Dosnon & Lepage.

Davy Dosnon and Simon-Charles Lepage, I was told, were childhood friends who after inheriting a couple of hectares of vineyards in Champagne, decided to set out to create a new Champagne house, one that approaches Champagne from a new direction. They farm their land, as well as an additional five hectares, biodynamically, manually harvest and press the wines in traditional wood pressers. They also bottle only single-varietal wines. This is the most significant difference from the traditional type of Champagne house whose goal year in and year out is to create a consistent brand or "style" that is normally a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Dosnon and Lepage instead want to emphasize the essence of the grapes themselves and their special location in Avirey-Lingey, part of a unique region called La Côte des Bar, an area dominated by rolling hills of limestone.

The wine that I tasted last night was a blanc de noirs (made from 100% Pinot Noir) which just blew me away. Out of the gate, this wine drinks like a blanc de blancs or Meursault with its racy, high acid brightness and clean elegance. Thanks to their vineyards' Chablis-like soils, this sparkling is a study in minerals with its salty, nuttiness, vibrance and texture. It has a meaty richness in the mid-palate that is the hallmark of the Pinot, and that gives it a heft and muscle that is usually lacking in Champagne made solely from Chardonnnay.

Dosnon & Lepage are also quite concerned about their impact on the environment and are not only focusing their efforts on sustainable farming practices, but are also reaching beyond Champagne. They are a member of "One Percent for the Planet," an organization of businesses that give 1% of their revenues to improve the environmental health of the planet through support of initiatives around the world. They also support animal related causes like Peuple Loup (Wolf People) a group that studies wolves in Canada in an effort to save the species and work toward its survival along side human civilization.

It's hard not to fall for this winery. The wines are spectacular and their ideals are commendable. I'm going to start pouring this Champagne by the glass at Lucques because I can't resist supporting something so worthwhile and so delicious. And for that matter, I'm going to support the idea of drinking Champagne more regularly. It may not be the only wine that I will consume, but I don't mind making the effort to drink more of it. I'm sure Kate would approve.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Le Moulin Rosé

Thursday is the day when I often hear myself saying, "I feel a blog coming on!" This is because Thursdays are my wine tasting days, when Tara and I meet with some of our wine vendors to taste their latest releases. This is the day when I find that little jewel of a wine that I want to get on the wine list immediately and rattle on about in my blog. Fortunately for me, spring is here and that means that rosé wines are making their way state side.

I've always been a huge lover of rosé wines. I keep plenty of rosé on hand at my home and during the late spring and summer months, I can have up to five rosés by the glass at AOC. After a long time in which very few people were making rosé well, we are finally at a wonderful rosé moment when it's becoming much easier to find good wine at a variety of price points from around the world. And although there are a few Italian, American and Spanish rosés that I really like, I will say that I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to this and tend to like rosé from the South of France more than most other areas. Domaine Tempier and Domaine de Fontsainte are two labels that come to mind as almost always being on my wine lists throughout the entire year.

This last Thursday I had the pleasure of tasting a rosé from one of my favorite southern French producers, Mas de Daumas Gassac. This winery was founded by Veronique and Aimé Guibert in 1970 while they were searching for a family home. The property which was originally owned by the Daumas family was in the heart of a beautiful, untouched valley though which the Gassac River flows. The Guiberts actually had no experience whatsoever in grape growing, but were advised by professionals that their property with its underground springs and moist location near mountains, was much like that of Medoc. Naturally, they planted Cabernet Sauvignon, among other Southern french varieties, and with the help of Professor Emile Peynaud, a renowned oenologue and advisor to Chateau Margaux, Haut Brion, Le Mission Haut Brion and others, they began to make wine. They bottled their first white in 1986 and have since gained an immense amount of respect and recognition for their outstanding quality. They are definitely not a household name, as they produce a relatively small amount of wine, but they should be.

This rosé is bottled under their second label, Moulin de Gassac and is made from a blend of 55% Syrah and 45% Grenache from 20 year-old vines. The grapes were 100% destemmed, bled after 10 to 12 hours of maceration and fermented and aged for 5 to 6 months in stainless steel tank. The wine shows rich yellow peach and candied nectarine aromas with notes of fresh strawberry and plumy stone fruits on the palate. This is a lean, racy wine that blends high acidity and freshness with a delicate floral perfume and exotic quality. It is clean and bright while also being complex and rich.

When I tasted this wine, I immediately described it as one of my "Saint Tropez wines" that remind me of the summer that I spent in Saint Tropez with my husband Michael and my business partner Suzanne. We were all there together for two weeks of much needed rest and relaxation after our first year of business at Lucques. For each day of that vacation, we ate just about every lunch at the same little beach cafe. And each time, we would order the exact same thing, steak tartare, french fries and a bottle of bright, fresh, aromatic rosé. There is a saltiness in the Moulin de Gassac that recalls the sea air at that French beach.

Oh how I miss that summer. And lord knows when I'll be able to experience that again. In the meantime at least, I can close my eyes and take a sip of Le Moulin de Gassac rosé and be transported there in my mind if not in my body.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Artadi in the Larder

Once again, today is the first Monday of the month and we will be holding one of our Larder Wine and Cheese Club evenings at Tavern tonight. I love these nights because we get to introduce people to new wines and food pairings, and get to have a bit more interaction with our guests than we normally do. I and Melody, our Larder Sous-Chef, get up and speak to the group about the wines and the foods that we are featuring and we answer questions and mingle. It's a nice change of pace from the normal dinner service and we really enjoy mixing things up a little bit for ourselves.

Tonight we are featuring the wines of Bodegas Artadi in Rioja. I've always been a big fan of these wines for their concentration and elegance. These wines always speak of their region and are classic and well-made. Artadi was started by Juan Carlos Lopez de la Calle (say that three times fast) who set out in the mid 1980's to make great wines from Tempranillo grown in high altitudes from low-cropped, old vines. He uses only French oak, and really takes advantage of his location, an area with high levels of limestone in the soils. His wines are never over blown, have a beautiful mineral aspect to them and don't have the biting oak quality of other Riojas made with American oak.

My favorite of the four that we will be pouring is the 2005 Viñas de Gain, Rioja Blanco. This wine is made from 100% old-vine Viura, also known as Macabeo, a variety grown in Spain and France. I actually really like Viura, though it is widely used in the production of Cava, a wine that I don't normally enjoy. The Viura for this wine is grown in some of the highest elevation vineyards in the Alavesa area outside of Laguardia. This high altitude location and colder climate helps to enhance the acidity in this wine, allowing the Viura to really sing. The wine shows aromas of over-ripe pear, diesel and tar. On the palate, there is a tart brightness of lemon and honey backed by a salty minerality. This is not a particularly fruity wine, but I think that's why it is so drinkable.

We're pouring this wine along side tapas that will work perfectly with it, as this is a great wine for enjoying with these salty snacks. Its tartness and high level of acidity really play well off of the bright notes in Spanish olives and anchovies. This is one of those wines that I want to buy cases and cases of to have at home. Alas, this is yet again one of those small production wines that won't be around for long. They only made 300 cases of it, which means that only a small fraction of the wine will even make its way to California.

I think I'm on a mission to personally have it all to myself. We're pouring it by the glass at AOC and will start doing so at Tavern as well. I'm normally not the selfish type, but I just can't help myself. If anyone wants to get some before it's gone, you know where to find it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mystic Rivers

Every now and then I hear from various people how much I need to taste this new wine or that new wine. Everyone knows how much I like the small, artisanal winemakers and they want to let me in on the latest secret. It actually seems like more and more of these boutique wineries are popping up on a daily basis. This is a great thing, of course, but there are so many of them that I feel like I'm getting behind, and sadly am no longer the first to carry these little gems on my lists.

One such winery is Rivers Marie. I've been hearing about this label for a while now, but just hadn't gotten the opportunity to taste it. When asked about it, people would give me that sad and slightly disparaging look of, "Where have YOU been?" Thankfully, I've been to Napa and was able to sit down with Nat Gunter at their offices in Saint Helena to taste through their latest releases. I can honestly say that I can see what all of the talk is about. These are some pretty delicious and luscious wines.

Rivers Marie is a wine project started by Thomas Rivers Brown and Genevieve Marie Welsh, Pinot lovers and winemakers. They started their business, much as Suzanne and I did, with the desire to make something to share with others and that truly reflects what they personally enjoy. They are making wine in the Occidental area of the Sonoma Coast AVA and are fortunate enough to be working with an outstanding vineyard source, the Summa Vineyard. Cool climate fruit which translates into elegant wine is the name of the game here.

I tasted through a few of their Pinot Noirs, and though they were all wonderfully seductive, I did have a favorite, the 2008 Summa Vineyards, Old Vines. This wine is an interesting study in contrasts. It shows a deep concentration of bright cherry, young fig and cedar-like spice notes followed by a cleansing acidity and earthiness that keeps it from being too fruity. It has a fairly lush quality to its texture, while also having a lightness of body. It definitely speaks of Sonoma with its spicy character, brightness and zip of orange-like fruit that runs throughout. I think the thing I like most about it is its acid and tannin structure, something that gives it great length and life.

Of course, this is also the most expensive of their Pinots, but I have to say, well worth the price. They truly make so little of each of these wines that it is next to impossible to get one's hands on any of them. And even though I'm trying to be conservative in these financially trying times, I decided that I just had to go for it. I bought a case for Lucques and know that those twelve bottles won't last very long. That's the beauty and the dilemma of these small production wines. Those few bottles sell out so quickly that you've gotta get them while they last.

Monday, March 29, 2010

More From Up North

I can't go to Napa and just write about one winery. It's impossible to go there, taste so much wine, and come away with only one wine to talk about. I can say that there is not enough time in the world for me up there. I want to visit so many wineries that I think I need two weeks to visit, not just two days. I didn't even scratch the surface of what is available to me there, and even missed out on visiting some people that I had planned to see. I did manage on this trip however to visit the winery that I consider to make the best Cabernet in Napa, Araujo Estate. I know that this is a tall order, and quite a statement considering the vast number of people making Cabernet there. And it's not that I don't absolutely love other Napa Cabs, but I really believe that their wine stands out from the rest.

As I was driving to Araujo, I had forgotten just how far North on the Silverado Trail it is. I had my sister Beth in the car with me and my sister Julie and her husband Rob following behind. After many many miles I started to think that I had passed it and had (yet again) gotten lost. Beads of sweat started to form on my forehead, and just as I got desperate and called the winery for directional help, I came upon the sign for their street. Thank God.

The Araujo compound is one that I would happily abandon all of my belongings and move to Napa for. It is just utter heaven there. Acres of gorgeous vineyards run side by side with deep olive groves and a rock walled creek. There is a gorgeous vegetable garden, chickens, a beautiful home, sturdy and handsome winery and of course a hauntingly lit cave that houses their aging barrels of wine and library. It is impressive without being lavish or gaudy. It feels very much a part of the surrounding landscape, rustic and charming, yet serious.

Bart and Daphne Araujo, one of the most elegant couples I have ever met, grow Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the other red Bordeaux varieties, Sauvignon Blanc and a small amount of both Syrah and Viognier on the property. They farm the vineyards biodynamically and really look at the property as a whole, making in addition to their wine, olive oil, honey and grappa. Because my sister and her husband make olive oil in France, Burges Smith of the Araujo Estate, took us on a walk directly to their olive groves, where we sat for some time taking in the scenic beauty and hearing about the history of the winery. He spoke at length about their farming techniques, biodynamics and the Araujo's meticulous attention to detail. We then walked back through the vineyards and gardens and past the most majestic crab apple tree I've seen, finally arriving at the winery building itself. And though the visual beauty both inside and out of the place was quite evident, I could tell that my relatives were totally unprepared for what they were about to taste.

Burges poured each of us a taste of the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. My brother-in-law's eyes nearly jumped out of their sockets. This wine is so bright, so fresh, so balanced and basically so striking that it can take you by surprise. Fruit notes of bing cherry and ripe fig burst forth followed by aromatic flavors of cardamom, allspice and just a hint of chocolate. There are also delicate floral notes of lavender and roses that intermingle with intense mineral tones of pencil lead and tar. This is a luscious yet serious wine that has a mile long finish, defining acidity and silky texture. I've tasted this wine before, but I just can't get enough of it. The Syrah that we tasted was equally as astounding, and even harder to get one's hands on.

My brother immediately asked to be on their mailing list, and if he's lucky he'll get a bottle or two. As for me, any time I have the opportunity to just taste this wine, I'm there. You can keep your Screaming Eagle, your Colgin and your Bryant Family, just as long as I get to have my Araujo.

Friday, March 26, 2010

I Just Need To Take a Napa

I've just returned from an all-too-short visit to the Napa Valley. My sister Julie was making it her last stop on a trip around the world that started in London. So, I decided to drag my other sister Beth up there with me for some rest, sisterly bonding and a good dose of wine tasting. And though trip ended up being a cluster of delayed flights, getting lost in transit, cancelled appointments and a bout of food poisoning, I did manage to taste some pretty incredible wine.

My first stop on the trip, after driving about 30 minutes in the wrong direction, was to Brown Estate. It's pretty amazing that this was my first visit with them when you consider that I was practically the first person to buy their wine in Los Angeles roughly 12 years ago.

The Brown's happen to be one of the nicest and most lovable families on the planet. They purchased their idyllic property in hills east of Rutherford in 1980 and planted it to Zinfandel, Cabernet and Chardonnay. They also fastidiously restored the original homestead and barn that were built on the property in the 1800's, and most recently built an amazing cave into their mountainside. It is a stunning, yet unassuming set-up that truly mirrors the family's personality of warmth, grace and modesty.

I have to say that I truly love all of the wines that they produce. Their Chardonnay is elegant and their Cabernet is formidable. But I always seem to return to the wine that I fell in love with 12 years ago, their Zinfandel.

Now, Zinfandel is normally the last wine that I would ever order for myself, as it is usually too fruity and jammy for my taste. But, Brown Zinfandel is another thing. It's laden with bright red cherry fruit, baking spices and hibiscus flower notes. It has many layers of flavors and components ranging from blackberry to tobacco and from chocolate to licorice. Yet all of these elements exist in a world of restraint and elegance. Whereas most Zinfandels go for power and excess, Brown Zinfandel pulls back on the reins and maintains its cool. And cool is the key to this wine. Their vineyards and winery are located at a higher elevation than much of the rest of Napa, allowing for the cool evening temperatures to maintain a high level of acidity in the fruit. This acidity is what allows this wine to stay racy and relatively lean.

I don't think that I have ever introduced this wine to anyone who hasn't truly loved it. In a fairly short amount of time, they have developed a cult following of their own. Everyone loves the Brown's. My sister Beth felt exactly the same way. After visiting their home and winery, we were both ready to move in and become a members of their family. It looks like we may need to get in line.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Red Very Good

We had our wine dinner with Evening Land Vineyards the other night at AOC and it was quite a night. Winery owner Mark Tarlov spoke throughout the meal about the wines, their philosophy and plans for the future. They have a lot that they are developing between vineyards they are planting in California, the wines that they are making in Oregon and the ones that they are making in France. I'm truly excited about all of this because I'm a big fan of this project, as well as the consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon.

Mark was very generous with his time and his wine that evening as he pulled out little surprises for our guests: a Pouilly-Fuissé here, a rosé there and even a Beaujolais. By the end, our guests had consumed far more wine than they had ever expected. It was at the culmination of the night that he served everyone a taste of his special baby, his RTB 7. This wine was developed under the advice of Lafon who instructed to him to set aside his favorite barrel of wine and bottle it for himself with the name RTB, which stands for "Rouge Très Bon," or in English, "Red Very Good." The wine has no front label to speak of, just the letters Rtb7 scribbled in white chalk ink on the front, like a barrel sample bottle that one would find in a winery's laboratory.

This wine was the hit of the night with its velvety texture and plummy fruit quality. This particular bottling was the 2007 Pinot Noir from the Occidental Vineyard in Sonoma. It was made by Sashi Moorman, who is the winemaker for the Sonoma and Santa Rita Hills parts of the Evening Land project, and definitely shows his signature. It has the concentration and ripeness that is so much a part of Moorman's Syrahs, but with the finesse and acidity that is the hallmark of Pinot. It was lush without being jammy, fleshy without being flabby. Everyone at the dinner could see why he saved this wine for himself with its seductive balance of fruit, texture and acidity.

Fortunately for those of us who don't live with Mark, and don't have access to the precious few cases of RTB, we have the 2007 Evening Land, Two Daughters Vineyard Pinot Noir. Much like the RTB, this is a wine of texture and richness. Dark plum and figgy fruit notes here are balanced with a fine acidity and spiciness that one expects from Sonoma Pinot. It is layered and complex, with exotic aromas and structured nuances that keep the wine in a flirty discourse on the palate. It is clearly a play of right brain versus left brain, apparently much like his two daughters for whom the vineyard is named. And although I'm normally more of a fan of his Oregon wines, it is pretty hard to deny both the seductive and intellectual qualities of this one.

I'm looking forward to more Evening Land dinners in the future and tasting all of the wines that they are making in France. They are definitely keeping things interesting, and proving time and again that red (is) very good.

Just Sit Back and Smell the Rias

I'm a white wine drinker. I admit it.

For some reason, drinking white wine became unfashionable in certain circles. A trend developed whereby people would look down on those of us who ordered a glass of white. Looks ranging from disdain to pity would be cast my way. "Poor thing," the red-only folk would think, "She's ordering white wine. I'll have a glass of Cab."

This whole idea is really insane when one considers that some of the world's greatest, and most expensive wines are actually white. This topic came up yesterday during my weekly wine tasting session with Tara at AOC. We were tasting wines, almost all of which were white, when we came upon one of the most aromatically impressive wines I have ever had. It was the 2007 Finca de Arantei, Rias Baixas.

Rias Baixas is located on the West coast of Spain and is most well-known for its white wines made from Albariño. Most of these wines are made by large cooperatives and are blended from various vineyard sights around the area, resulting in wines that are not all that exciting. Finca de Arantei is quite different in this respect as it is a single-vineyard, estate grown and bottled Albariño, grown in the sub-region of Condado de Tea, an area that basks is the Spanish sunshine.

The intoxicating aromatics in this wine virtually leapt out of the glass, so much so that I just couldn't tear my nose away from it. It was one of those wines that I didn't rush to actually taste because I was happy just to sit and smell it. On the nose, layers of exotic spice scents of cardamom and ginger mingled with bright apple tones and hints of tropical fruit. With each return to the glass, new aromas came into play. I smelled fully bloomed roses and honey, lemon verbena and slate-like minerals. On the palate, the complexity continued with notes of yellow peach and nectarine, creamy notes akin to white Rhone varieties and a lively acidity that kept the wine in balance.

This is probably the most exciting and exuberant Albariño I've tasted. I really wanted to keep the rest of the sample bottle that the vendor brought, but I was too shy to ask. I feel bad keeping a bottle of wine that the salesperson can show to another buyer. I'd hate to keep her from selling it to another account, even if I did want to buy it all for myself.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Day Mick Unti Came to Town

I had a meeting today with a winemaker that I hadn't seen in eons, Mick Unti. He has a wonderful, family run winery in Dry Creek Valley whose wines I have carried at AOC and Lucques in the past. It's been quite a while since I've tasted or carried his wines. So, when he contacted me about meeting, I was intrigued. Where had he been all this time? And how are his wines?

We got to talking immediately about how long it had been since we'd connected last and he filled me in about Unti Vineyards. Apparently, he's been concentrating on family life for the past few years and focusing for quite a while on his mailing list clientele. As is the case with so many small businesses over the last year, he finds himself looking to market himself and his winery in new ways. For him, new is a return to the old, basically searching our those restaurants with whom he has lost contact and re-establishing those relationships. I'm personally thrilled that he looked me back up. I've always admired his winemaking and felt that his wines were a great fit for my lists.

Over the past couple of years, Mick has expanded his line-up from focusing solely on red Rhone varieties and is experimenting with some interesting grapes like Picpoul and Montepulciano from Italy, unusual choices for California. Additionally, he's been farming his vineyards biodynamically for the last four years which I really appreciate.

I tasted through four of his reds today and really adored his 2007 Grenache. What struck me about this wine was how un-Californian it was. It probably drank more like a Rhone wine than any other California red I've had. Much of this is, I'm sure, due to the fact that Mick has adopted traditional Rhone winemaking methods, like whole cluster fermentation and the use of indigenous yeasts, to give the wine a broader flavor profile, more structure and finesse.

He also shies away from the use of new oak. There is a tendency on the part of some winemakers to broaden the profile of Grenache grown in California by aging it in new oak. Sometimes I feel that by doing this, big gets piled onto big, resulting in mammoth wines that are too rich and jammy for my taste. Mick, on the other hand, ages his Grenache in large 600 gallon foudres, rather in small barrels, which results in wines that have less exposure to oxygen and that feel less of an impact from the oak itself. Even though he harvested the grapes for this wine at full ripeness, the wine has restraint, elegance and acidity.

Like Grenache from the Southern France, this wine shows rustic notes of game meat and a smoky earthiness in a background of bright, red fruits like cranberry and red currant. On the mid-palate bacon fat, tar and black pepper elements come in to play with touches of dark green herbs like rosemary and thyme. The wine has excellent acidity and elegant tannin structure that allows for a long and lively finish.

If I didn't know better, I would have thought I was drinking wine from Gigondas or Côtes du Rhône. If he is able to achieve this with Grenache in California, I can't wait to see what he can do with his Italian varieties. So few winemakers in California are able to do those wines justice. There may be hope for for us yet.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Riesling Down Under

We have one of our Larder Wine & Cheese nights coming up this Monday the 15th of March. The great thing about these evenings is the process of putting the menu together. Most of the time, the preparation for an event is the least pleasurable part, with all of the administration, organization and stress. But with our Larder Mondays, the opposite holds true.

A few days before the actual evening, I sit down with my business partner Suzanne and our Larder Sous-Chef, Melody and we taste the four wines that I've chosen for the night. We taste each wine on its own and then go through the line-up again, tasting along side an array of cheeses and cured meats in an effort to figure out what works. By the end of our "sessions" we look like a group of hedonistic ladies who lunch with empty wine glasses and scraps and blobs of luscious cheeses scattered around us. This is literally my favorite part of my week as it doesn't feel like work at all, and yet it's so educational.

The evening that we have planned for March 15th is a sampling of Australian wines, both white and red. I always get a bit nervous when I open these wines for Melody and Suzanne as I worry that the wines won't be as good as I remember them to be. I breathe a sigh of relief when the wines show well, thankful that maybe I do know what I'm doing.

Today's sigh of relief: the 2008 Glen Eldon Riesling from Eden Valley, Australia. Riesling from Australia can be a sketchy thing. Such a hot climate can produce a flabby, sweet wine that is all sugar and honeysuckle and none of the mineral and acid that riesling can be. This wine is the shining exception. The aromas in this wine are much like an Alsatian or Austrian wine with characteristic tar and diesel on the nose, along with touches of white flowers and lemon. On the palate, tart apple and passionfruit dominate with hints of savory herbs and the continuation of that tarry element throughout. The Australia in this wine comes out in its generally assertive nature. This is not a delicate wine, though it's not a bulldozer either. It's a beautiful and balanced wine that can be paired with a multitude of foods. Red Square, a creamy, meaty cheese from Australia tasted wonderful with this wine, matching the wine's intensity and playing off of its earthy savoriness.

The rest of the night's wines are equally as impressive as they show that wines from Australia can be surprisingly diverse and elegant. Of course, I'm already looking forward to next week's tasting session and am thinking we should make this wine and cheese thing a daily activity.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Could Make This a Habit

It's funny how we sometimes discover things when we least expect them. We had our Pisoni Vineyards wine dinner at Tavern last evening. The dinner was a huge success, which is not surprising considering the caliber of wines being made by Gary Pisoni. My surprise came, however, even before the dinner began.

You see, Jeff Fischer one of my all time favorite restaurant investors brought me a taste of his latest endeavor, his small-production wine project called Habit. This is as boutique as you can get with a fifty case production, made by a novice winemaker with passion to spend countless hours making such a small amount of wine and applying each bottle's intensely detailed label by hand.

Under the tutelage of winemaker Doug Margerum, Fischer bought a tiny amount of fruit from a few different vineyards in Santa Ynez, fermented and aged it in stainless steel. The interesting thing is that he achieved a softness and delicacy not typical of sauvignon blanc aged in steel. Whereas many winemakers employ the use of oak to soften this grape variety, Fischer accomplished this without the oak and successfully avoided the cloying and sweetening effect that the oak can impart on the wine.

From the moment I smelled the wine, I was hooked. The catch word for this wine is restraint. On its nose, savory dill and tarragon blend with aromas of citrus and passionfruit. All of the typical sauvignon blanc notes are present, but in such an unusually quiet way. The scents in the glass tease and tempt, rather than knock you down as so many other sauvignon blancs do. The palate reflects the same elegance with crisp citrus and tropical notes and delicate, clean acidity.

I know a lot of people that don't particularly like sauvignon blanc, mainly because of its aggressive, sharp nature. Only in the form of an older white Bordeaux does the wine hold appeal to them. This is a young California wine that will change their minds. Its balance and minerality makes the wine drink much more like a white Burgundy than anything else. Even Suzanne, my business partner (exactly the sauvignon blanc hater that I refer to) loved this wine and took a bottle home to drink with her husband.

Fischer set out to make a wine that he would like to drink himself. I always think that this is the best strategy for any project. Follow your heart, and those of like mind will join you. I know that I could drink this wine all day long. I think this wine really could become addictive.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Go Ask Alice

I've never been a huge fan of Prosecco. This may not be something that a sommelier should admit, but it's the truth. Prosecco is usually too sweet and flowery for me, and not nearly as rich and weighty as Champagne, a beverage that I could literally drink every day. Whenever I'm given a glass of Prosecco, all I can think of is how I would rather be drinking Champagne.

I am happy to say, however that my new friend Alice has shown me the light. Le Vigne di Alice is a woman-owned and operated property that is making some pretty spectacular wines. Cinzia Canzia, the winery's owner along with winemaker Pier Francesca Bonicelli are focused on the details, working diligently in the vineyards as well as the winery. Their Proseccos are elegant and dry, as they work to emphasize the acidity of the wine over its sweetness.

Not surprisingly, my favorite of all of their wines is the "Extra-dry" Prosecco di Coneglaino and Valdobbiadene, which comes from the two most well-known areas of the region. It is clean and bright, and drinks more like a blanc de blancs Champagne, a selling point in my book. Notes of ripe pear and Pippin apple dominate, with touches of acacia flower and apricots. It has a hint of yeastiness, fine bubbles and vibrant acidity that keeps it fresh on the palate.

Of course, the beauty of Prosecco, particularly for a Champagne lover, is its affordability. At about $50 per bottle on the wine list, Le Vigne di Alice could trick you into thinking that you are drinking more richly than you are. In Alice's wonderland, you might actually think the recession is over.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Oscar Buzz

I decided that since I wasn't doing anything more glamorous tonight than sitting in front of the television and watching the Academy Awards, that I would drink something glamorous instead. Tonight's winner is the 2003 Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Meursault, 1er Cru, Charmes.

Domaine des Comtes Lafon is one of the greatest Meursault producers of all time. Although the estate has been in existence for over a century, it was not until the 1950's that anyone in the family took an active interest in producing high quality wine. During that time, René Lafon extensively replanted many of the vineyards and changed the focus of the domaine to bottling a higher percentage of wine under its own label, rather than selling it to negociants. In 1984, René's son Dominique took over the estate and has been managing it solely ever since. The domaine covers almost 14 hectares of vineyards in 13 different appellations, the majority of which are in Meursault. They farm their vineyards biodynamically, harvest the grapes manually and allow their white wines age for up to 22 months in barrel.

This wine is pretty incredible and I must say very appropriate for the occasion. First off, the color of this wine is a deep golden yellow, somewhere between the color of Sandra Bullock's dress and the Oscar itself. On the nose, an intoxicating blend of honey, fully blossomed roses and sandalwood aromas fill my glass. And about the palate, all I can say is WOW. This is one seriously concentrated wine, which is no surprise considering the unusually hot vintage that was 2003. In the hands of some winemakers, this could have resulted in a flabby, flat wine, but in the hands of Lafon all is well. Notes of ripe pear and meyer lemon are complemented by ginger, cardamom and exotic spices. Along with the exotic, full-bodied personality that embodies this wine are a vibrant minerality, bracing acidity and a finish that lasts about as long as the Oscar telecast.

We have a few more bottles of this at Lucques and after tasting it I'm considering buying them for myself.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pisoni Wine Dinner at Tavern

'Tis the season for wine dinners, apparently. In addition to the dinner that we are having for Evening Land Vineyards at AOC on Wednesday, March 17th, we are also thrilled about our upcoming dinner for Pisoni Vineyards on Wednesday, March 10th at Tavern.

Pisoni Vineyards is legendary. You know the story: the vineyard's owner, Gary Pisoni smuggled cuttings from Burgundy's famed La Tache vineyard back into America and used the rootstock to start his own vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands region of California. This vineyard and others spawned from it are the reason that the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA has become so well respected. That and the fact that the wines are delicious. The Pisoni style of winemaking is that of balancing power and grace, a result of their attention to detail in the vineyards, their ideal location and sustainable farming practices...something that I really commend.

The dinner will feature a menu created by none other than Suzanne Goin and was inspired by each of the winery's rich and complex wines. The selections that we will be pouring are as follows:

2009 Lucy, Rosé
2007 Lucia, Chardonnay
2007 Lucia, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands
2008 Lucia, Pinot Noir, Gary's Vineyard
2007 Pisoni, Pinot Noir, Pisoni Vineyard
2007 Lucia, Syrah, Gary's Vineyard

It is a stellar line up and the menu will not disappoint. The evening is also a deal at only $100 per person plus tax and gratuity for the four-course dinner and wine pairing. The much admired Gary Pisoni will be on hand to talk about the wines, answer questions, and just basically be there for everybody.

Call Tavern at 310.806.6464 to book a table.