Sunday, April 24, 2005

Open Letter to Viognier


In 1965, only a meager twenty acres of you was planted worldwide. You existed in only one region of the world and thus were largely ignored.

Growing up in France without much attention, I can imagine that you went through some hard, jealous times. Natural sparkling water was officially recognized by Napoleon III; stinky cheeses were made quite close to your 1965 source and sent on trips around the world while you went on hardly noticed; sparkling wines splashed from glasses all over the world while your efforts were barely recorded.

But things have begun to change, Viognier. In California, there are over 300 Viognier acres planted. Huge wineries, even, are taking a substantial interest in you. Late harvest Viognier, a magnificent treat, can be found way out here in Seattle!

So I’m writing in order to encourage you not to get too hasty. Don’t spread yourself too thin, like Zinfandel of the eighties or Syrah of the nineties. Don’t let yourself become a joke in a movie like Merlot in Sideways. True, those are all great varietals, but by spending too much time w/the papparazi they had to climb out of some nasty holes. You really are in need of this lecture: you’re in Washington, even, and that you’re beginning to get an ego is being noticed.

What I’m really trying to say is that you need to stick to your guns, stick to the course that allowed you any of this attention in the first place. When you’re not overripe, you do an impressive job with orange blossom aromas, so stop letting winemakers leave you on the vine so long that you reek of bananas. Nobody likes a volatile party guest; make sure people don’t throw you into new oak. And, damn it, you’re not one dimensional, so don’t let people bottle you that way.

I know you, and I know you like specifics and that’s why I came prepared. The folks at Joseph Phelps treat you respectably with oak: from them, you’re an attractive, pale straw color with only a slightly creamy mouthfeel. Grapefruit shouts from a glass of Geyser Peak’s Viognier. Westerly Vineyard is kind and respectful with their Santa Ynez Valley Viognier. Rosenblum, both in my opinion and that of others, knows how to take you on a date – and cheaply! Mount Baker Vineyards’ Late Harvest Viognier is a kick in the pants.

The last thing I'm going to ask you not to do is to not take this too personally. Even if you go the way of Arbor Mist or some other abomination, you'll still be on my table.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Wine: Francesco Bonfio Chianti

This Is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

—William Carlos Williams

Simplicity in food, wine, poetry — anything with an aesthetic, really — should be cherished. This wine is just that: simple. 12% alcohol. Roughly ten bucks. Drink it with a big chunk of sausage and a healthy slice of firm cheese. This wine takes a back seat to the conversation yet performs the essential functions of wine at the table: enhancing the food and enlivening the mood.

Value: 3.0
Color & Clarity: 3.0
Bouquet: 2.5
Flavor: 2.5

Wine: Cloudline Pinot Noir

Everything is connected; no one thing can change by itself.
—Paul Hawken

Monday, a handful of friends and I had the opportunity to have our buddy Tommy, the smokin', wine tastin' madman, cook up a massive feast of traditional Cambodian and Chinese dishes: fresh spring rolls, fried egg rolls, two whole ducks, a whole fish, live shrimp, and a variety of other shellfish. He even made all of the sauces from scratch.

The first of us present were roped into Tommy's nearly homicidal work camp: he had us rolling the fried egg rolls. I laughed out loud when he showed us the obscene amount of (delicious) filling we had to cram into the little wrappers. We literally could have filled a couple of pillow cases with it. I told him there'd be no way we could do it in a reasonable amount of time. He said, "Less talk, more work," and stepped outside for a smoke break.

Well, at about this same time another friend and I opened a bottle of the Cloudline Pinot Noir. He believed the wine wasn't going to be palatable, especially after I explained that it is Cloudline Cellars' first wine.

We were both wrong — he about the wine and I about the egg rolls. The Cloudline, a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley (Oregon), has a moderately attractive ruby color and is noticeably clear. Ripe cherries jump out of the glass. The wine is well balanced and a good match for fatty fishes in particular. It goes for $17/bottle.

Value: 3.5
Color & Clarity: 3.5
Bouquet: 3.0
Flavor: 3.0

Sunday, April 17, 2005

On Not Very Good Wines

A friend recently noted that I've only been writing about wines I like, wines that are noteworthy particularly with respect to cost. That evening, I was reading a Bukowski poem given to me by a close friend and found the following lines relevant:

... as God said,
crossing his legs,
I see where I have made plenty of poets
but not so very much

It's a beautiful thought, and I'd venture a guess that everyone would believe it if they replaced "poetry" with whatever it is they care deeply about. So, personally, I find it a terrible state of affairs that there should be so many winemakers and so few wines. There are just so many wines that are... well, that aren't very good.

When we speak of these wines, as we do poems or music of similar quality, we use phrases that are quasi-positive yet mostly hateful: "quaffable", "yeah, it's okay but", "well, yeah, have you tried {something else}".

The Di Stefano Sauvignon Blanc, from Washington (the state, not the political wasteland), is a strange and ugly beast. With it being essentially 14% alcohol, I didn't expect a cloying, sugary nasty mouthfeel yet that is exactly what I was given. You've got to love it when the bottle uses the word Bordeaux; Bukowski says that wrong poets use the word 'cicada', I say that wrong wines have the word 'Bordeaux' on them (unless, naturally, the wine is from Bordeaux!). Call a spade a spade, they say, and it may be cliche...

Like poems, some wines can be tricky on accident. The Steel Creek Pinot Noir is exactly that, in my opinion: its appearance says, "yes, I may look weak but try me out anyway -- I'm full of promise!" It's lying. The wine is exactly what you'd think when you see it in a glass. It's exceedlingly flat, unbalanced, and lacking in aroma. It isn't offensive, mind you, but it won't light anyone's face up with excitement. It's like eating wine-flavored paper.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Wine: Lamblin Bourgogne Blanc

A few nights ago, I had the chance to share some wine with friends. A glass of white Burgundy was left over, and so this early afternoon I sat on the porch and finished it off. As I thought about it, a hawk landed on a railing not fifty feet from me. It saw me as it landed and simply stared in my direction. Until then, I had never seen a hawk in Seattle.

Hawks, to some, symbolize wisdom and are observant, perceptive messengers from a spirit world. As the hawk left, I found myself remembering the night before, thinking about my good friend Tommy. Tommy is a little Cambodian guy who once said of the Carolina tobacco industry, "I smoke cigarettes faster than those bastards can make 'em." Hyperbole, perhaps, but not by much.

Last night, he eyed a glass of Lamblin Bourgogne Blanc suspiciously after hearing only that it is made of Chardonnay. He surprised me by picking the glass up by the base, gently swirling it, tasting and then saying, "They treated this grape with respect: its minerals, its floral scents are nourished and cherished by these guys. They knew not to give it too much oak." Well said, Tommy. Tommy, it turns out, spent years working for a wine distributor.

The Lamblin smells distinctly of pears, has a great mineral quality, and a rather pale straw color. White Burgundys this good probably shouldn't cost $10/bottle, but they do.

Value: 4.0
Color & Clarity: 3.5
Bouquet: 3.5
Flavor: 3.5

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Wine: Château L'Ermitage Costieres De Nîme

America's Francophobia is bizarre and historically inaccurate, but perhaps most importantly it is beneficial to casual wine drinkers. Okay, there may be more important ramifications of a dispute between two of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, but it's hard for me to think of any. In a time when the Euro is trying to pick a fight with the Dollar and finding that the Dollar can hardly defend itself, it's a delight to come across a wine like the Château L'Ermitage Costieres De Nîme.

This Rhône wine, even the young 2003 vintage, is a well balanced and yet slightly tart blend of Granache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. By today's standards, this wine's alcohol content (12.5%) is relatively low and so it's refreshing to drink a few glasses of it without needing to put your kickstand out in order to keep the room from spinning. It demands grilled food. Oh yeah: it goes for less than $10/bottle (!).

The next time The Senate decides to do something like rename their cafeteria's french fries to Freedom Fries, I'm going to run out and grab a couple of cases of French wines.

Value: 4.0
Color & Clarity: 3.0
Bouquet: 3.0
Flavor: 3.0

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Wine: Montevina Barbera

The reverse side also has a reverse side.
—Japanese Proverb
At Montevina, a rather large winery in Amador County (California), they like to tell how they make big, juicy red wines. Tasting their Zinfandels is like getting slapped with a canvas bag full of fruit. The Refosco smells like a coffee shop.

But anybody worth knowing will surprise you. I know a guy who is ill-tempered, unmannered, and as coarse as a newspaper photo or a barrel of broken rocks. I recently found out the guy has been working on yet another new translation of the Iliad. The Iliad!

Now, Montevina is neither unmannered nor coarse, but imagine my surprise to find that their 2001 Barbera, available for less than ten bucks, is an unassuming, inconspicuous wine. It is very much Italian in style: it doesn't try to shock and awe you with a carpet bombing of fruits. Pleasant scents of damp forest and playful fruit makeup the bouquet; it's impressively balanced for a wine that clocks in at 14.5% alcohol. This is a great pizza wine.

Value: 4.0
Color & Clarity: 2.5
Bouquet: 3.0
Flavor: 3.0

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Wine: Rotari Blanc de Noir (Sparkling)

"Oh, sure, everybody's always up for saving Hitler's brain, but when you put it in the body of a great white shark, suddenly you've gone too far!" (Professor Farnsworth, Futurama)
Go ahead and let people tell you that wine is predictable, that there are a few hard and fast rules. I just listened to a dork yesterday tell someone that you can't get a halfway decent sparkling wine for less than fifty bucks.
He told his date, and I quote, "good, cheap wine is a chimera: it's a mixture of things that do not go together and it is fictional."

Hitler's brain in a great white shark would suck. This part-baby part-bear doll flattens me with terror. Good, cheap wine, though, is another thing altogether.

Let's say you had to make a wine from Pinot Noir grapes (okay, you can use up to 25% Chardonnay) that was almost entirely white (amber/pink will do), and sparkled beautifully. You'd do yourself a favor to get out and by a bottle of Rotari Blanc de Noir. The Rotari, which goes for $10/bottle, is a pleasant, fruity sparkling wine from Italy. Dry and stuffed with cherry aroma, it's a wine that can serve you equally well throughout a movie or at a fancy pants dinner party.

While the Rotari is not a Champagne (it's Italian), it worth remembering John Maynard Keynes when drinking it; he once said, "My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne."

Value: 4.0
Color & Clarity: 4.0
Bouquet: 3.5
Flavor: 3.0

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Wine: Ajello Majus Nero d'Avola

Less is more. Simplicity is the soul of efficiency. Inherent complexity is orthogonal to actual complexity. Etcetera. All of this is my way of saying that you shouldn't get your panties in a bunch over wines with impressively long and unfamiliar names.

Ajello, an Italian wine producer relatively famous for white wine, makes a wonderfully straightforward wine from the grape Nero d'Avola. The designation for the wine is Majus. While "Ajello Majus Nero d'Avola" is a mouthful, there's nothing too complicated about the name of the wine or even the wine itself. If you're still raising an eyebrow, try this on: the wine is fantastic and it goes for ten bucks a bottle.

This Nero d'Avola is a beautiful solution to a complicated problem: which wine should you serve to a group of people who may have widely varying tastes? There isn't anything offensive in this wine: no overt oak, no unfamiliar colors, no funky textures, no hint of vegetables. Even the bottle is understated. I'll say it again: it costs $10.

An entry on CellarTracker hit it on the head when it used the phrase "ripe fruit" to describe the bouquet. You know that part of your brain that lights up when it smells ripe fruit? Yeah, that part is going to be woken up by this wine. The wine is acidic enough to give you that great "my thirst is being quenched" feeling. When you lick your lips after a sip, you'll taste that fruit again.

Value: 4.0
Color & Clarity: 3.0
Bouquet: 3.5
Flavor: 3.5

...a quote on complexity:
When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only of how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
(R. Buckminster Fuller)

King Tut's Wine? Red

Science Daily has a story on King Tutankhamun's drinking habits. After years of debating whether ancient Egyptian wines were red or white, professors at the University of Barcelona have shown that King Tut's wine, at least, was red.

Much like we do today, the Egyptians labeled their wines to indicate the name of the vintner, the vintage, and even the source of the grapes.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Wine: Col del Mondo Montepulciano

Montepulcianos tend to be, in my experience, rather hot and noticably unbalanced. I had the opportunity to taste one that is deliciously soft and inviting, despite being 13.5% alcohol (which may actually be rather low by today's red wine standards). Col del Mondo (winesearcher) is a reasonably priced
($30/bottle for the 2001 vintage, less than $15 for the 2003) wine that is soft, inviting, and fruity. The bouquet is rather muted, but does express some floral fragances including violets. It is not at all vegetative. It's a dark, skin-of-plum colored wine. I enjoyed it with a slice of a flourless chocolate cake and found it to be quite a good pairing.

Approachable Montepulciano, as far as I can tell, is in the States mostly relegated to decent-ish pizzerias and mid-range Italian restaurants. It's a shame, really, because Montepulcianos such as the Col del Mondo can be so inviting and yet withdrawn enough to highlight good food and encourage good conversation.

Value: 3.0
Color & Clarity: 3.0
Bouquet: 3.0
Flavor: 3.5

Friday, April 01, 2005

Wine: Spenker Zinfandel

One of my favorite wine sources in this country is the Lodi Appellation (as may already be apparent). The area gets its fair share of press on its Zinfandels and for good reason. The Spenker Winery's Zinfandels are superb examples of the excellent quality to cost ratio usually seen around Lodi.

Their 1999 Zinfandel can still be purchased directly from the winery, and at $19/bottle, it's a killer deal. I had a chance to open a bottle at a dinner party recently and attempted to spring it on some folks who aren't familiar with Zinfandels.
I tried to pour it without introducing it, but by the time I got to the third person's glass, the first two were singing its praises and demanding to know the name of it.

The Spenker Zinfandel has an impressively dark, inky color. Typical Zinfandel aromas come alive with one swirl: coffee, dark fruits, and violets all play together in its bouquet. The carmelized notes (coffee, chocolate) are subtle and quickly nudged out by the floral scents. As with many recent Zinfandels, it's a bit hot (at 14.5% alcohol it's hard not to be) but definitely not overwhelmingly so. Aside from that nit, the Spenker is a very well balanced wine with just enough acidity and tannin.

The 1999 may be reaching the end of its lifetime in the next few years.

Value: 3.5
Color & Clarity: 4.0
Bouquet: 4.0
Flavor: 3.5