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In the midst of discarded Christmas trees and drained Champagne bottles, re-activating the long-neglected Maverick Palate was a pressing resolution. In the streets of San Francisco, drawing inspiration from culinary tastemakers and superb bottle shops and out among the Sonoma vineyards I was feeling the comeback.
I had lots of great wine in 2013 after I left you, my fantastic subscribers, in the lurch. There was so much I wanted to write about but after picking up a few more wine gigs (read juggling three jobs), the rest of the year flew past in a torrent. By the time I half-typed about a bottle of Field Recordings Chenin Blanc in early October it was time to saber that bottle of 2006 José Dhondt Champagne on NYE!
I am not sure what will come of 2014, with travel plans and wine adventures on the books; I don’t want to make promises this early, but, what I’m certain of is that my latest trip to Sonoma County, specifically at Copain, was a resounding success. Not only did I receive excellent customer service while visiting the property in Healdsburg, I was very much impressed by a graceful Syrah from Baker Ranch.
Baker Ranch—a single vineyard release from Copain in 2009—is a personal and individualized expression, rather than the ensemble cast of Les Voisins (the neighbors), which is to say, a cast of single-vineyards’ fruit blended together. Baker Ranch is in Anderson Valley, growing Syrah and Pinot Noir in a cool and a high elevation site. Apart from the other single vineyards that were shown, like Halcon, this wine was confident and extraverted. Pronounced aromatics like violets and sweet spice notes tap-danced above red berries, pencil shavings and beef jerky. The Syrah was equally impressive on the palate with a fine and prevalent grip (med-plus, ripe tannins), cut medium figure, toned by medium-plus acidity and deep intensity of flavors that left a long lingering impression. Baker Ranch Syrah was in a great place, distancing itself from its parts in Les Voisins Syrah, but without losing focus or sacrificing balance.
There were a lot of good food and wine memories forged on my Northern California (San Francisco) expedition, especially that Syrah, enough to make my drive back to Los Angeles a little less exhausting. On that five-hour drive I also thought about how I had missed an opportunity last year to share some killer wines and superb meals worth checking out. I am hopeful that this year will be different, perhaps my vacation has me talking brave, but I am determined to learn from the past and propel this site to new levels. Only time will tell.
Why it took so long for me to cross paths with one of the most dynamic indie/natural wine producers, I’ll never know, but in all my time between restaurant and retail gigs, pleading with Kermit Lynch reps to crack a bottle of Domaine Ostertag’s deep roster, in hopes of saving my billfold an extra flex, the moment never materialized. It was high on my list of things to try and I would read about the Alsatian producer frequently as if to sate my parched lips vicariously, stubbornly clinging to hope for a chance encounter. That all changed on my latest trip up north.
After tasting at Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, turned on by the prospect of natural wine, and close enough to the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant—the importer’s retail outpost and wine lover’s Candy Land—to hope that the stars would align, I thought about closing ceremonies of my San Francisco trips upon entering the iconic shop; shouldn’t a traditional late lunch at Mission Chinese be paired with a Domaine Ostertag Pinot Blanc, punctuating a sensational weekend spent eating through the Bay? To get there one had to first find the bottle.
Strewn with open cases of varied offerings from the importer’s reputable lot, I rummaged like a record collector in Pasadena to find the most fitting candidate. Striving for a modest introduction, not wanting to get ahead of myself, I purchased a basic Pinot Blanc “Barriques.” As I would learn, little was basic about that wine.
My friend and I stuck to the script, toting a chilled flûte d’Alsace into Mission Chinese as a fond farewell to San Francisco. Shellfish had been sidelined (taken off the menu), so we went heavier, ordering General Tso’s veal rib, egg-egg (sic) noodles and broccoli beef brisket, skirting what would have too easily paired with the wine, in order to challenge it.
Chilling on the side, the Pinot Blanc exhibited buttoned-up traits, youthful notes of green apples, a squeeze of lemon and spice. The first sip followed the nose, but the medium-body had been graciously toned by the use of barrique (a 228 liter used barrel), rounding it out on the tongue—giving a textural omnipresence.
It was when the spicy food arrived that we saw what the Pinot Blanc wielded. A lot of fat and a hearty dose of capsaicin in General Tso’s veal rib was perfectly fit for the lush white wine to demonstrate its capacity. The medium-plus acidity inherent in the wine was able to squelch the heat while handling the fattiest elements of the entree. Interspersing veal tidbits with the mouth-coating egg-egg noodles, the Pinot Blanc squeegeed our taste buds clean, leaving a candied green apple, mineral and slightly herbaceous finish. It didn’t mesh too well with the broccoli brisket combo (the greener parts of a dinner [asparagus, artichoke, etc.] can prove difficult for most wines and it was no exception here), but that was no drawback, since by then we were already sold on the results.
Perpending our full bellies in Dolores Park, not quite sold on fate in our post-meal torpor, but not resisting it fully either, it seemed that these two things—an exalted producer in a far-off place at the side of a great meal—were meant to go together. Whatever the reason it took so long for me to cave and actually purchase a bottle of Domaine Ostertag, I’m grateful, because I couldn’t imagine that midday meal without it.
Five plus hours spent fermenting in a bucket seat works up quite a dream thirst of wine, so when I’d finally arrived in San Francisco last Thursday my friend must have anticipated it, having two Burgundy stems with their globes wetted by six-ounce pours of 2010 Domaine Ecard Savigny-Lès-Beaune Vieilles Vignes.
Demure, having a middle-sister way about her, the wine—a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, specifically the Cotes du Beaune—was youthful, prim and well mannered. Leading with ripe red fruit but yielding wet leaves, black tea and a pinch of cracked pepper that foreshadowed her development. A fitted medium-bodied dress hugged her hips, sporting modest acidity (medium), ripe tannins and leaving a trace of raspberries, cherries and a smidgeon of seductive earthy charm in an expected (medium) finish.
The wine was in a primary stage, delivering mostly fruit and minor earthen notes in liquid form to a wine-parched tongue, meanwhile portending a fantastic epicurean weekend ahead in Northern California. Though Domaine Ecard’s Old Vine Pinot Noir was in a youthful and less exciting stage, I knew that this wine would benefit from some maturing in the cellar because it possessed some key structural components and hinted at a really well-put together wine that needed a little time to coalesce. She was just letting her hair down.
Sipping wine under a backyard umbrella, we embraced the warm hug of summer at a safe distance, cooling down with an array of chilled brown-bagged-disguised rosés and a charcuterie spread accompaniment—our bare arms virtually as open and exposed as were our palates.
As rosés become more popular, consumers will be increasingly accepting of darker variations—ripostes to the wan glow of Provençal rosé—and origins from more exotic locales, but until then, we are happy to do the work for you! Our tasting group never shies away from these less desired places (that’s what happens when a bunch of wine nerds get together) and our tasting reinforced our risk-taking with a few new magnificent highlights.
The most titillating example came courtesy of Spain, specifically a bottle of 2012 Ameztoi Rubentis from Basque country. An Ojo de Gallo (a rosado from Txakolí) captivated all in attendance… saline and spritely, the ruby-tinted Txakolina rosado was racy, light-bodied, with vibrant acidity (medium-plus to high), signature effervescence (minor but notable) and pitched a long finish of cranberry and red currants that had been sifted through the riverbed. Sexy, sharp and unlike anything else we tasted that night—fair to say it was unique.
Though there was no shortage of notable rosés, we had one bottle from Provence that showed beautifully. Saint André de Figuière La Confidentielle rosé wore a medium-bright salmon jacket, emitting an intense summer perfume of strawberries, fresh-cut flowers and apricots. In the palate, the dry, medium-bodied rosé brought with it tremendous structure (medium-plus acidity) and a lip-smacking finish of raspberries, red cherries and flowers under a light misting of white pepper. Classic and poised to catch the waning bits of sun.
This tasting embodied summer, and we stayed patio-side for hours after we had finished our assessment of the rosés, all identities revealed. The entire lot of wines offered immense pleasure and though we only paired them with a charcuterie board’s zakuskis, a few of these wines harnessed the potential to pair with main courses. If you were on the fence about pink/blush wines, you should reevaluate your position, even in the noonday sun.
With an intensely busy schedule, featuring lots of driving, Santa Barbara surfaced as the perfect escape from LA. On a rare Sunday off, I headed to Lompoc, forty minutes north of SB, cramming as much wine tasting into an afternoon as possible, and where I happened upon my wine of the month.
Tyler was an afterthought that took root shortly after my brief visit to the cellar doors of Zotovich, and for that, I was thankful. It was at Tyler that I was walked through an entire flight of the difficult 2010 vintage (the difficulty being a limited vintage because of heat spikes at harvest, generally in Santa Barbara) and where my pick—2010 Clos Pepe Vineyard Chardonnay—made an indelible mark.
Best in class, the Chardonnay distanced itself from its two siblings, not just in fruit source—hailing from a prestigious estate in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA rather than Sta. Maria Valley AVA—accounting for the brawn… it was the finesse that helped it distinguish itself. Humming with apple, lemon peel, warming spices and kissed with sea salt, the Chardonnay was quite attractive, marrying the youthful core of fruit with a puissant medium-full body, taut acidity and an exponential and direct finish.
A serendipitous encounter, I enjoyed every wine in the lineup from the robust Pinot Noirs to the marvelously dense Chardonnays. Tyler’s wines are balanced, forward and worth seeking out—especially the Clos Pepe Chardonnay!
When I am in study mode I’ll scrupulously break down wine regions into manageable subsections, uncovering esoteric tidbits while committing requisite information like prominent varietals, climate/ microclimates and soil types to memory. Often I am more democratic about where my information comes from, proffering an area or style to my tasting group to study, like I did a couple weeks ago for the red wines of Loire.
It wasn’t new to me that Cabernet Franc reigns supreme in the Loire Valley, or that even Cot (Malbec) makes an appearance as a blending varietal in Saumur. However, just reading about the expansive Loire Valley, or any appellation by study alone is only a part of it. Tasting wine is essential and is the most important clue in pegging down a region or varietal.
We tried seven red wines from Loire cloaked in brown-bags; we found afterwards that Cabernet Franc dominated the showing, which wasn’t surprising—lip-smacking tannins and herbaceous overtones, the trademarks of the varietal, confirmed our suspicions during the tasting.
The most intriguing wine of the night appeared early on and just funked up my taste buds. I was off-kilter, trying to determine what wine could possibly pitch such a wild aroma of earthen red fruits, fallen white flowers and a Compari note (strong herbal flavors). The dry red was light in body with medium but finely grained tannins and finished as it had started—complexly. It turned out to be a biodynamic Le Cousin Rouge, consisting entirely of Grolleau—an indigenous grape to the Loire, that was completely new to me.
One of the better examples of Cabernet Franc came from Charles Jouget—an established and well-known producer from Chinon, in central Loire Valley. The 2003 Clos de Chêne Vert, despite being harvested in a terribly hot vintage hadn’t lost its step, showing deftness (balance) and youthful vigor with its spectacular display of confected red berries, violets, black pepper and tomato stems. The old vines and a prime vineyard site within the town of Chinon itself produced a structured dry red wine with ripe tannins and finished long with plenty of red fruit and savory herbs.
Even if I study thoroughly there is a good chance I will miss things. My tasting group is not only a wonderful collection of friends and professionals with similar interests but they are a catchall, keeping me honest in my assessments and introducing me to nearly extinct grapes and better examples of wines I thought I knew well. Now it’s time to get back to the books.
I was fourteen when the transformer blew out. On the eve of the millennium, in my brother’s home, someone on the block had the bright idea to ring in 2000 by candlelight, blowing out the neighborhood’s power during the Time Square countdown. Meanwhile, in France a bottle of unassuming Burgundy had just been bottled ready to forge an equally exciting memory in the future.
Thirteen years later I opened a seven-fifty of 2000 Maison Leroy Bourgogne Rouge while hanging out with friends; the culmination of love for Burgundy and reverence for a unique producer, this bottle was ready to be cherished by the august body of wine geeks with whom I shared it.
Lalou Bizet-Leroy, alchemist and owner, strongly believes in the tenets of biodynamic viticulture, converting all her family’s vineyard holdings over to the all-encompassing system by 1988. Her dedication to natural, low-yield wines that see no filtration or fining are considered some of the greatest examples of Burgundy.
I had opened this bottle of 2000 Maison Leory—a negociant bottling, unlike Domaine Leroy, which are purely estate grapes—that would test the limits on aging appellation wine.
I poured the contents carefully, mindful of sediment, between the three over-sized Burgundy stems. Wearing a medium ruby with tawny accents feathering clearly on the rim, laced with a bright aroma of maraschino cherry, black tea, clove, cinnamon and toasted fennel seeds. The scent continued to develop as the wine opened—emitting deeper flavors that made the wine quite compelling on the tongue. On the palate the Pinot Noir still showed fine and elegant tannins, with a medium, contoured body, low alcohol and taut acidity (medium) that helped deliver the developed flavors of cherry, mushroom, herbs and spices that echoed faintly after the final sips.
The Maison Leroy set an unattainable benchmark for the other wines we uncorked afterwards, exceeding expectations I’d put on Leroy, and forging an indelible memory that will rival some of my favorite wine tasting moments. With new friends and old wines it put the year 2000 in perfect perspective even if it didn’t blow the lights out.
Behind on rosé coverage, only sipping, spitting and noting for buying purposes, I wanted to highlight a recent personal experience I had with Red Car Winery’s rosé from the Sonoma Coast on a warm weeknight.
This rosé of Pinot Noir hailed from the Bybee Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, specifically the Green Valley AVA within it, close to Sebastopol. A cool microclimate allows these certified organic and biodynamic Pinot Noir grapes to achieve a delicate ripeness while balancing food-worthy acidity.
Getting past the sexy packaging, my eye focused on the color—a soft (medium-intensity) coral pink that was indicative of its abbreviated maceration (time in contact with the skin of the Pinot Noir grapes).
This rosé leapt from the glass with a youthful aroma of red cherry, peach and fresh rose petals. The mouth feel was decidedly rounder than expected, even with its medium-body and pert, mouth-searing acidity, which helped me negotiate slices of fatty salami. The finish smacked of apricot yogurt with a few fresh-picked cherries and strawberries thrown in for good measure.
A good start to my recorded rosé encounter, but if you were only mildly curious about rosé this one might be going slightly overboard—the price point is a tad steep (≈ $20)—for an introduction. For the more serious enthusiast, looking for something special, look no further.
An annual dalliance with the Rhône Valley white wines seemed a weak tribute. Rather than a once-a-year fling, I wanted to taste those unctuous wines again and revel in their visceral texture that leaves way to a seductive honey-and-mineral mousse as they course through the palate. Maybe even show them off with a dinner? Luckily, my tasting group was of the same mind, and we turned our attention to the Northern Rhône.
The region is perhaps best known for Syrah (the only permitted red grape in Northern Rhône), but the terraced slopes and continental climate are extremely hospitable to the principal white grapes of the Northern Rhône—Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane.
Our tasting featured some of the greatest producers of the North, leaving only the Viognier grape unrepresented. Jean-Louis Chave made three appearances, followed by Paul Jaboulet and François Villard. Tasting blind encourages us to keep unbiased rather than succumb to reputation. The fourth wine was profound, a deep gold painted the inside of the glass with a clean and pronounced intensity of caramel, lemon peel, minerals and essential oils (think extracts) on the nose. In the mouth, it possessed a youthful vigor with more citrus fruits emerging, sweet spice (vanilla) and a handful of rocks that coalesced into a suave full body, shaped by decent acidity (medium). We saw the cress of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave unveiled, specifically a 2002 Hermitage in the wake of the discarded wine bag disguise; the bottle’s contents’ not phased by age but enhanced by it, matching the pedigree of the wine.
One other bottle happened to really excite me during the tasting, perhaps because it was so wildly different! Before the stately and serious fourth wine, our third bottle stood out as an extrovert, youthful aromas of lime zest, peach, white flowers (Jasmine) fireworked from the glass. On the tongue the wine had a definite swagger; a full body that kept the alcohol, though medium-plus, reined in, and strutted out with rich flavors of white peach, squeezed Lisbon lemons, beeswax and a fleck of vanilla bean for a sultry finish. Flashy! Unfortunately, when we unveiled it, one member of the group missed the memo and bought Southern Rhône, fetching a sexy bottle of 2010 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc.
These wines were probably the most difficult to judge blind, they had a lot of overlapping qualities sandwiched between their robust texture and stone-fruit-inflected flavor profiles. However with food, they were a delight. Every aspect seemed to mesh nicely with our seafood accompaniment and although nobody splurged on Chateau Grillet the tasting was another wonderful success. Might make it a quarterly engagement?
I hadn’t lost sight of my goal for Syrah: To find a bottle that was balanced, complex and most of all, affordable. I looked to a domestic producer that was synonymous with Syrah, specializing in all things Rhône.
I had a split of 2010 Qupé Syrah open and breathing on the countertop.
This Central Coast Syrah was a deep purple at the core with ruby highlights at the rim. The youthful hue was just a passing note but the enticing scent was worth lingering over. I brought my nose to the bulb and discovered scents lifting (medium-plus) of cooked plum, tobacco, sage, cardamom and jerky. The intense aromatics were mouth-watering and continually evolving. When I transitioned to the palate, the first sip showed off the structure, a flexed frame (medium body), with moderate tannin and medium acidity that helped round out the slightly warm finish of Pluots, black cherry, tobacco, beef jerky and dried herbs.
The half bottle of Syrah brought a deep list of descriptors with it. Showing more than similar domestic Syrah I have tasted this year, and for a fraction of the price (≈ $15*), this modest red, an entry-level wine from the acclaimed producer, showed well until the end, shattering my sticker price theory for Syrah and left me with one wish: A bigger bottle!
*Price listed is for 750ml, not the 375ml I tasted.