Midsummer Hedonism

Like many people in the wine biz, I’m part of a tasting group that meets regularly to sniff, sip, ‘n spit wines. I’m also part of another subgroup – with some of the same people from the main group – where instead of getting together and writing tasting notes that we’ll probably never read again, we cook a delicious dinner and mutually raid our cellars. We hosted the most recent dinner in San Francisco. With a couple days to work (and recover from a massive house party; Advil, natch), Simon and I assembled the menu: fava-pecorino crostini, hand-made fettucini with an earthy porcini-shitake ragù, roast leg of lamb with crispy potatoes and a salad of spicy summer greens, panna cotta with raspberries. Below, the wine spoils:

Apologies for the darkness of the shot; I was a little sauced by that point and not up to the task of adjusting the light settings on the camera. Poor Dampierre, forced to hide in the shadows like that.

The ’99 Giacosa Barbaresco was stunning, and continued to positively evolve over the course of the evening (and it killed with the fresh pasta); the 2001 Paleo, a Bolgheri cabernet franc from Le Macchiole, was supple and elegant, a distinctive expression of cabernet franc that tastes totally Italian. But then you would expect stellar performances from these wines. The shocker was the magnum 1986 Ahlgren Santa Cruz Mountains Semillon that my friend Matthew brought over. Fresh and vibrant, yet showing that semillon honey/waxy character, I found this wine (from Santa Cruz–wtf!?!?) to be just delicious. And because of the large bottle size, we got to drink it throughout the meal. Matthew had bought this recently at the winery, so that probably accounts for its freshness.

*The Santa Cruz Mountains is one of California’s more obscure AVAs, but one that’s totally worth getting to know (You can check out the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association here). I find that I’m constantly surprised by wines from here, and the ’86 Ahlgren Semillon was no exception.

Recalibrating My Palate


Maybe it’s because I had an excellent yoga class earlier tonight, but I’m suddenly in a mood to recalibrate a few things in my life. Starting with my palate. Although that’s more of a work excuse than anything else. After a long break from tasting wine at Wine & Spirits, I’m about to start regular panel tastings again tomorrow. And here in San Francisco, that means all North American wine, all the time.

For various reasons, I’ve had a long break in what is normally a long and intense tasting stretch (the most recent tasting cycle pushed 1,000 by my most recent count, if not more). Thank god that number is spread out over several weeks and not, as shown by Jamie Goode over at his blog, concentrated into the two grueling weeks of the International Wine Challenge in London. (Jamie, btw, I’m available to judge next year.)

As part of that long break, I’ve been drinking mostly European wine (and of that, mostly Italian), and without going into the details, it’s been quite lovely. Tonight though, I wanted something from California, and taking that theme further, I wanted zinfandel. Not my usual choice, I know, but I think I might be a closet zin lover, a log cabin member of ZAP, as it were (kidding).

But what I pulled out of the cellar wasn’t entirely zin, and damned if it doesn’t taste downright Mediterranean. Once upon a time I was a member of Ridge’s ATP (ATP=Advance Tasting Program) and I have a delicious collection of Ridge wines as a result. I opened one of these–a 2000 Mazzoni Home Ranch–this evening. According to a history on Ridge’s site, one Giuseppe Mazzoni and his brother-in-law Abramo Trusendi (who was apparently all of 14) arrived in California from Italy in 1898 and began working at the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, Sonoma County. Long story short, they eventually bought land in Alexander Valley and planted a vineyard of ‘mixed blacks’ there: zinfandel, carignane, petite sirah and a slew of other such grapes. Ridge has made wine from this vineyard since 1996. This bottle of 2000–which is almost done, sadly–is tasting great, all fresh red berry and red plum fruit, with snappy acidity. Delicious, and perfect with tonight’s impromptu pasta tossed with roast purple cauliflower, pine nuts and capers. And a little pancetta for kicks.

So there, palate recalibrated.

More Olfactory Delights

Following my recent post touching ever so briefly on the sensory experience of perfume and wine, I wanted to share John Lancaster’s excellent article from the New Yorker’s March 10 Style Issue. Maybe it’s already made the rounds, but since the New Yorker is something I have a hard time keeping up with, and since I’m usually less than thrilled to see the Style Issue in my pile of mail (I don’t think fashion and style are the magazine’s strong points), this was an easy article to miss. Check it out!

Here’s a choice excerpt:

“The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously might sound felicitous, but there is a catch. The words and the references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a shared basis of sensory experience and a shared language. To people who haven’t had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like horse manure, and not in a good way.

Consider product A, in which

layers of cedar and raspberry strike a sharp upfront note, while clove and creamy notes add body while contributing an exotic, sumptuous character that conveys luxury in its essence. Might there also be a trace of rubber, though?

And then there’s B, with

its aroma of underripe bananas, and the way the fruitiness opens up on my tongue with a flick of bitterness that quickly fades to reveal lush, grassy tones.

Product C, on the other hand, is

fruity (with a high-profile role for the deliciously garbagey, overripe smell of guava) plus floral (powdery rosy) plus green (neroli and oakmoss).

These are descriptions of, respectively, a chocolate, an olive oil, and a perfume, but you couldn’t possibly guess that.”

*Taken from Scents and Sensibility: What the Nose Knows, by John Lancaster (New Yorker, March 10, 2008). Link here.


I guess one advantage to jet-lag is waking up early. At least when you want to be productive. Here it is, 6.30 am in New York and I don’t even have to be at work until 9.30. And for a prosecco tasting at that. So who’s got some breakfast/coffee place recommendations out here? None of that cappucino/latte shit either; those will only bring with them a nostalgic sadness for the real thing. Too much to bear in the morning. Drip, which we Americans seem to have returned to with a scientific ferocity, is where it’s at in the country. I’m sure there’s a happy medium to be found here, so, any thoughts New York readers? I need some caffeine, stat!

Meanwhile, the round of anteprima tastings I attended in Tuscany went rather well. Aside from growers from these regions presenting their latests commercial releases to gatherings of trade and press, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Italian organizational ability here stayed true to form, and while certain things for the most part were very precise (logos, for one), much of the day’s schedule was left open to interpretation. Once you actually knew where to be and at what time, the laid back nature of each event was quite pleasant.

The Chianti Classico Collection, Chianti Classico’s anteprima event, was held at the ex-Stazione Leopolda, an abandoned 19th century train station a the west end of Florence. Packed with events, artwork and tables of producers pouring their wines, the setting in a reclaimed industrial space had an air of Critical Wine about it. Unfortunately I never had the chance to ask the organizer if that was the case, or if she knew abut CW.


There were over 320 wines to taste at the Chianti Classico event, and this was organized in one of two ways. First, and this is what I preferred, there was an area set aside (like above) for focused tastings. Each table was divided into four stations consisting of glasses, a spit bucket, two bottles of water and a catalog of wines. You used the catalog to select the wines for tasting and then handed a list with their numbers to a sommelier who would then bring the glasses to you. Producers were present in the next room over to pour their wines directly, but that very quickly turning into a public tasting zoo. And while there were no Hawaiian shirts (these don’t leave the US apparently), I preferred the first method.


(Above: my work station before the onslaught)

It sounds like overkill but it actually worked. And as there were normale wines from 2006 and 2005 to work through, plus riservas from 2005, 2004 and even 2003, the service method allowed one to think unhurried through a tasting strategy. The tastings in Montepulciano and Montalcino later in the week followed this plan as well, though obviously with a focus on different vintages depending on DOCG rules for new releases. At Montepulciano, we tasted the 2005 Vino Nobile, selezione wines from 2004, 2003 and 2001, and the riservas from 2004 and 2003. Montalcino was dedicated to the 2006 vintage of Rosso (which I didn’t focus much on) and the awkward 2003 Brunellos.

While I found great wines in each region and from various vintages, I want to try not to generalize too much here. Chianti Classico is capable of wonderful wines that speak to its identity; some of these new releases, while good, seem to have lose sight of their origin. Maybe they’re just young and this is an odd time to taste them. Still, as I came away from the tasting, I couldn’t help but ask myself what does it mean to make Chianti Classico anymore?


(Above: I wouldn’t have minded a spin around the vineyards of Montepulciano in this early 70s Renault 4)

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was more confusing, although again, there were some delicious wines. This lovely DOCG has it all: rolling hills, generations of growers, a particularly regional clone of sangiovese, and an amazing medieval city standing watch over the vineyards. Unfortunately it’s sandwiched between Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, meaning that’s it’s both often overlooked in favor of the the other regions, or tries unsuccessfully to imitate them. The best wines here were, to my palate, those made as traditionally as possible in large Slavonian oak botte old enough to be in high school. I visited one such producer whose historical cellars are right in the center of Montalpulciano–right under it in fact, built a couple stories down into the city’s 11th and 12th century defensive walls. I couldn’t help but think that the best direction for this region might be found by looking inwards.


(Above: the view to the west from Montepulciano)

On to Montalcino. The 2003 Brunellos–which, I believe, are the last major releases of this vintage from any high-calibre table wine appellation–were tough to go though. Besides simply being to young to drink, many showed signs of suffering in the heat, producing either cooked, jammy fruit flavors or showing high alcohol levels. Some were downright awful. And then there were some good ones: from sites that grew at high elevations, from growers who engaged in hyper-rigorous fruit selection, or from those with older vines that have a knack for responding to what nature throws at them. It’s not a vintage to write off, but I’d taste a few of them first before committing to a bigger purchase. As for the great stylistic debate between ‘tradtional’ and ‘modern’ wines, the 2003 vintage, to me at least, seems to amplify those differences, so if that means something to you, then you know what I’m talking about. And based on a few cantina visits I made, there’s much to look forward to in the 2004s.


(Above: sunrise in Montalcino with the moon still lingering around)

And now, about that coffee…