also known as…

Woman on the Verge of a Glass of Wine

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.