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My Syrah column remarked on its unimpressive showing during a January tasting where I was more in awe of the setting than the wines poured, and where the theory that the price point at which better Syrah appears is relatively high… seemed confirmed. I needed a recommendation, a bottle that had the potential to rescue the varietal from the doldrums.
A bottle of Syrah from Northern Rhône was the first opportunity I had to restore my vision of the noble grape. In January, shortly after the tasting group malaise, I was given a sample of 2009 Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas to ameliorate my impression.
Uncorking the Syrah I poured four ounces of medium-plus intensity garnet liquid into my stemware; it wasn’t the color that was riveting. The bouquet leaped from the glass (medium-plus intensity), a developing aroma of violets, dried thyme, ripe plums, cigar and roasted meat appeared. The wine was showing off. On the palate it was dry, filling out the palate with a medium-plus frame buttressed by fine and grippy tannins and a blend of muddled berries, red and black, plums, edible flowers, black pepper and dried herbs finishing long and balanced. From my view the Cornas has a long life ahead of it in the cellar—having a pleasing core of fruit, bright acidity and tannin to reward patience.
Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas is my wine of the month in February. Its pronounced aromatics coupled with sculpted frame and complexity bowled me over. I wasn’t ready for it. The modest price tag ranges from $35-$45, in California, still supporting my theory, but I would gladly pay that price for such a great example. Today I’m recommending this Syrah as a strong buy! Still waiting for the same effect below the $35 threshold… please tell me if you find one.
Admitting that Syrah is not my favorite grape, I have no issues with the varietal other than how much I pay to find quality examples. When it was pitched to my tasting group that it would be our next grape of focus, I was reserved but optimistic about the possibilities.
Our group had implemented new rules on buying wine for the tasting, to avoid the same region making multiple appearances—like, say, having Australia’s Barossa Valley light up the scoreboard. The real challenge was certain to be price; we defined our spending limits between the 20-35 dollar sweet spot, fingers crossed for great values.
Our six brown bags were passed around the table, yielding two different wines that were far apart in the flavor spectrum but equally enjoyable. The first wine of the night was actually one of the best, hailing from Edna Valley (in San Luis Obispo County). The 2007 Topanga Red Red Wine Syrah showed a deep and brooding ruby inside the bulb. The wine was voluptuous and darkly skewed, giving black fruits, creosote, black pepper and dried lavender. The finish was a bit warm (the alcohol and body were both in the medium-plus camp) but pleasant, and the red showed a big side of Syrah with balance.
The second winner appeared third in our lineup. An aromatic experience, this Syrah had an elegant perfume that demanded our attention from the first sniff, showing fragrant violets and more red flowers, white pepper, smoke and a blend of berries and plums. On the palate it displayed a softer hand with fine medium tannin, a svelte medium body, keeping the alcohol in check (medium) and flaunting a clean finish that resounded brightly of youthful fruits, herbs and spices. When unveiled it was no surprise that this was a cool climate Syrah from France’s Rhône Valley, specifically Yves Cuilleron’s 2010 Les Pierres Sèches from Saint-Joseph.
Apart from our setting, in a private room of Villetta in Brentwood, and the great spread of food, our tasting was otherwise lackluster: I was disappointed with the overall showing; four out of the six wines were out-of-balance. For these tasting group blogs the verdicts are always personal, sometimes harsh, and strive for concision, but many of the other wines that I omit to review are actually very good. This tasting showed the widest disparity between winners and losers, and unfortunately validated my sticker-price theory for Syrah. Anyone having any suggestions for better Syrah under $30, please feel free to comment!
From my brief time playing hockey in Washington State, I remember seeing Mount Rainier dominating the skyline on drives to games and practices. Anywhere I went in that state, she stood fixed, constant. In wine, another “mountain” reigns supreme—on the eastern half of that state, Red Mountain, produces structured Bordeaux blends and Rhone varietals. Recently given a sample of 2010 Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain wine, I was encouraged to revisit my other favorite State… sans pucks.
The Red Mountain AVA of Washington State sits on the eastern border of the Yakima Valley AVA, where grapes ripen on steep slopes of sandy loam. Unlike the western side of the state where I resided, Red Mountain AVA gets plenty of sun and a miniscule average of six to eight inches of rain per year, which allows the predominant varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, among others, to ripen perfectly.
I poured a glass of the Hedges Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Syrah, which painted the inside of my stemware a deep purple core with ruby highlights. The bouquet was aromatic (medium-plus intensity) showing a developing and hearty cocktail of dark cherry, blueberry, tobacco, coffee grounds and leather. On the palate, the medium, fine-grained tannins lent structure, and the medium body was filled out with the rugged flavors found in the perfume in a long and smooth finish.
The red wine showed exceptionally well, it convincingly married those earthy flavors found in Bordeaux with balanced New World fruit. Red Mountain might not actually be a mountain, like Rainier, but it’s a distinct and reputable wine-producing region and for good reason, as it begins to dominate the Washington wine landscape. Hedges Family Estate is a recommended buy!
Chardonnay was my great discovery for 2012, spending a lot of extra income finding interesting buys and asking reps to provide me samples to understand the many faces of this noble grape. While I am often introduced to newer and nerdier varietals, I was looking forward to one more yesteryear dalliance with an emerging Chilean wine region; an introduction to the Limarí Valley.
I had been dropped off a seven-fifty of 2010 Talinay Tabali Chardonnay from the D.O. of Limarí Valley in the north of Chile. Within the Coquimbo Region, Limarí Valley has a warm climate, where noble varietals, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, enjoy cooling morning coastal fogs—the Camanchaca—that moderate temperature and preserve the inherit acidity as the afternoon sun warms up the area, allowing the grapes to ripen fully but evenly. The soil does the rest. The vines are growing in limestone heavy terroir, and these mineral roots are reflected in the wine.
I poured a glass of the medium-yellow Chardonnay stretching out its curvy legs (medium) that stuck to the edge of my glass. After a few spins I dropped my nose and took my first inhale. Exuberant and youthful fruit in the form of ripe pear, tangerine and lime, white flowers and crushed rocks manifested. On the palate it was dry and pure with medium-plus acidity and medium-body delivering Bartlett pears, squeezed limes and fleur de sel. There was mild interplay with oak that came across tastefully and rounded out the mouth feel. Suave.
An encouraging start from a relatively new (to me) D.O. of Chile, with the Talinay Tabali Chardonnay flaunting a bit of that Old World character (being compared to Chablis for its chalky soils formed by the ancient ocean beds that once washed over the Limarí, as we had talked about the geology in my WSET course) while retaining its enticing fruits and creaminess in the mid-palate. Sometimes you can have it all!
With resolutions still fresh, going back to last year seems an odd but appropriate place to start. I had been recommended the Shaka Shack by a colleague and was finally making good on a promise made months ago.
Toting a few pours worth of 2008 Bodegas Avanthia Mencia, crossing my fingers for a good pairing, while seriously hoping I wouldn’t have any misadventures, I slated a time that worked for a friend and me to share the offerings of my flask over cheeseburgers for lunch.
On the corner of Ocean Park Blvd and 17th Street in Santa Monica sits the little burger purveyor, dressed in tiki-attire with everything surf-oriented. Bringing about instant recall, afternoons spent on the shores of the beaches between Brooks and Thalia Streets in Laguna Beach were flooding my mind.
Despite the awesome mural and the interesting menu choices, my fill for the ocean themed eatery had been reached in a matter of minutes. I ordered the Shaka Royale combination with my counterpart following suit, waiting outside to allow myself some time to refresh.
A ten-minute wait yielded two identical combinations that were less than photogenic. Despite the disheveled appearance the food was actually perfect. A soft bun cradling the 1/3-pound Angus beef patty dressed in a nicely melted layer of cheddar with red onion, lettuce, tomato and secret sauce completing the classic sandwich.
The meat was tender and seasoned; the red onion added sharpness and crunch while the other vegetables were a supportive chorus. Fresh and simple. The fries were crisp to the tooth but gave way to soft creamy spud innards. Those may have been the best I’ve had in a while.
The wine was a bit of disappointment; the fruit was subdued, showing graphite and woodnotes in its place and a lackluster finish on the highly touted red from the Valdeorras region of Spain.
I went back recently, not believing that the photos I had captured would be able to tell the whole story of this deliciously simple burger convincingly, yet on my second go the presentation was fairly consistent. Leaving me to recite the wise (maybe trite) saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Shaka Shack may not conjure Photoshopped images of griddled burgers and perfectly cooked fries immediately, but a trip there serves up a consistent and well-prepared burger. It’s rewarding to follow your resolutions especially when they are met with great results.
One of the most exciting varietals was between the crosshairs of our tasting group. We had selected Gamay, or by its full name, Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc; the varietal that makes its appearance in those wildly costumed bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau found in Super Markets around Thanksgiving but can easily produce wines of spectacular value when dressed up for the occasion.
The six of us had brought seven-fifties of Gamay, sacked in brown bags, so that we wouldn’t guess that every bottle under the roof was from one of the ten Cru villages in Beaujolais rather than California, or Switzerland (where they have a penchant for blending Gamay with Pinot Noir).
We paired the wines with a spread of charcuterie and opened our taste buds with a Bugey-Cerdon—a sparkling Gamay—that was light, fruity and quaffable.
We tasted each wine—all six—making notes and scribbling interesting observations as the bottles clocked around the table. The wines were unveiled and it was no surprise that they all hailed from Beaujolais. My favorite wine of the night hailed from Morgon, a bottle of 2010 Domaine Alain Michaud. Its aroma was alluring, pitching violets, succulent red cherries and minerals. It was delicious; on the palate it had soft and round tannins (medium), and a pleasing core of youthful fruit that finished long and clean.
While not the biggest of the night, that honor would go to a bottle of 2006 Morgon from the Côte de Py under the direction of Jean-Marc Burgaud (big green tannins and larger than life mouth feel). The Michaud red was vibrant and juicy with an underlying complexity that made it satisfying now, yet having enough primary fruit character to make a convincing argument for aging it another 3-5 years.
We had a lot of overlap, tasting two wines from Régnié, Morgon and Fleurie that was enough to make us change up our wine buying strategy for more diversity in lineups to come. Even though we neglected to taste other wines from Juliénas, Saint-Amour or even outside of Beaujolais, we were left with a superbly painted portrait of Gamay, but particularly of Cru Beaujolais. In the hands of great producers these wines are complex, pure, exciting and best of all, relatively inexpensive. I’m not a fashion advisor but ditching the getup of those extroverted Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau bottles would serve Gamay far better.
Los Angeles is surprising… just when I get a feel for the lay of the land, I learn that LMU is actually down the street, and that Playa Vista is an uncharted territory for me. California’s size allowed the estimable Huell Howser to wander the state for so long and never run out of stops. LA is California writ smaller, but still inexhaustible. Setting up lunch with a friend in the wine business, another person with screwy hours, I decided to check out The Humble Potato, and start plotting its coordinates.
My first trek into the Playa Vista/ Westchester neighborhood and it was immediately reminiscent of the rapidly developing UCI landscape in my native Orange County. Upscale tract housing shading into any adjacent land, the area was new but familiar; as a microenvironment very different from OC, but similar too. I arrived at the corner of 83rd and Lincoln Blvd at exactly 1 PM for our lunch appointment.
A busy lunch crowd was drawing to a close and De La Soul was playing in the background as we ordered our wide assortment of menu items including: Hambàga, Battle Royale, Curry Fries and a Little Tokyo Doggu to be shared.
Tentative at first because of a similarly themed concept in Hollywood that had haunted me a couple years ago (such bland food, poorly integrated dishes and classless presentation, I couldn’t even post my review!), but from the onset it was apparent that The Humble Potato was less about attitude and more food-driven.
I decided this would be the time to test drive a holiday gift of govino wine glasses, christening them with a pour of one of the wines from my friend’s portfolio. We each had a glass of the 2010 Ferrer Ribiere Côtes Catalanes Rouge to be partnered with our food, which we would take to go.
We began with the hotdog; an inviting presentation of sauces were crisscrossed over the beef frank. The bites were smoky sweet with the applewood-smoked bacon adding extra protein. Not to mention the soy pickled jalapeño that delivered a measured dose of piquancy and the grilled onion lending more depth. An intelligent combination of flavors.
We started to dig into the fries before we would tackle our respective burgers. The curry sauce reminded my friend of a Japanese take on Poutine Fries. Each bite was messy but delicious.
Then it was time for the main attraction. My burger was simple and flawless. A fresh and perfectly toasted bun sandwiching a tender and well-seasoned 5 oz patty, with finely chopped romaine for texture, tomato, pepperjack cheese (by choice), and their secret sauce woven together cleanly. The Hambàga was stellar, delivering its flavors precisely.
On the flipside, there was the Battle Royale—a big burger—that presented a challenge as to how my friend could possibly eat that cleanly. The fried egg, bacon and avocado were included to make it the kitchen sink burger. It looked great and became napkin fodder.
Best part was how well it all meshed with our chosen French red. The dark fruit was brought out and the acidity tamed the spicier components of the meal. Everything a success!
It was like I had seen it all before, from my drive through the new neighborhood to the Japanese infused American restaurant. The real difference was the food, which stood out, delicious, and put my themed-food fears to rest. The menu showcased a smartly crafted board of culinary delights. The atmosphere was stylish and better served the food, in comparison to that Hollywood establishment that left a lot to be desired. The Humble Potato warrants a repeat visit and I can’t wait to get back and find out what else has been hiding in Playa Vista.
Happy New Year! I apologize for my absence toward the end of year (!) and am resolved to be more present, writing more, and fulfilling some of the themes I left on the backburner last year. Let’s get to it.
I’m sure most French listeners would appreciate the genuine timbre of Pete Seeger’s signing. I’m struck deeply by those old scratchy recordings, the phrasing and the sentiment of his lyrics—simple and effective. I wanted to find a wine to match—a wine so penetrating that it might strike a chord with me no matter the price or place. My first post of the New Year comes from humble beginnings, an everyday drinker from the Loire.
The Loire Valley is an enchanting and expansive zone in Northwest France, producing a great range of wines from the light, crisp and mineral-driven Melon Blanc in Muscadet to the vaunted Pineau de la Loire (Chenin Blanc) found in those delicious Quarts de Chaumes. It’s also the home of some of the greatest Sauvignon Blanc in the world, and though declassified, my sample bottle of La Petite Perriere Sauvignon Blanc from Saget La Perriere was ideal for accompanying my night spinning the hauntingly beautiful Almanac Singers record.
I unscrewed the seven-fifty, poured out a healthy six-ounce glass to the tune of “I don’t Want Your Millions, Mister (All I Want),” and analyzed the Vin de France for its character. Golden with medium tears (the beads of wine clinging to the glass) showing a fragrant bouquet (medium-plus intensity) of wet blades of grass, fresh-squeezed limes, green apple and minerals. On the palate it was dry with notes similar to the nose, and decent body (medium), balanced by refreshing acidity and possessing a good finish (medium).
Though Saget La Perriere is not a small-scale producer, they are family owned, passing through nine generations and where they do not own the land, they have longstanding relationships with the farmers they purchase from. For the price, the value-minded Sauvignon Blanc over-delivered. Most likely it would satiate those thirsting for Sancerre but unable to dole out the money for their favorite producers on a Wednesday evening. I think, like me, even Pete would’ve agreed that this was a charming white wine.
Strawberry Jam, not only the name of one of the most complete and visceral albums from Animal Collective but a tasting note found in one of the finest Californian Grenaches I had the pleasure of evaluating with my Tuesday tasting group.
The subject was Garnacha—oddly enough, after the reveal, no Spanish wines were found—and the 2010 Amor Fati Grenache emerged as a clear-cut winner.
Among Gigondas and Cannanau di Sardegna, my favorite wine of the night was born a few hours north, in Santa Maria Valley. The noticeable difference in color–medium ruby—had me intrigued from the start. The bouquet had a medium-plus intensity showing strawberry jam and lightly crushed raspberries—lavender, black pepper, leather and dried flowers. An effeminate perfume translated to a clean and exciting wine with medium body, medium-plus alcohol (pleasantly warm), medium-plus acidity and medium tannins (fine grained on the gums) that exploded with a medium-plus flavor intensity of a red fruit core balanced by dried herbs, flowers and cracked pepper.
Relative to the other Grenache of the night, once it was revealed we were stunned to find that this was a domestic expression. It was tense yet balanced, showing a lot of restraint from the winemaker’s hand while wringing out the most of an incredibly attractive red wine that was suitable for aging. A bit outside of our stated price range but well worth it—I would strongly recommend finding this bottle of Amor Fati Grenache.
A vintage change was the only thing different about the Luigi Buadana Chardonnay hailing from the Langhe in Piemonte that I sipped and spat at a Tuesday Chardonnay tasting, rediscovering a wine that had been good to me in the past. I had last tasted the 2010 vintage with the importer at my retail post, finding it particularly attractive for its freshness and bright flavor profile, before experiencing the latest release (2011) in a blind trial with my group.
It rounded the table cloaked in a double paper bag, deep in the lineup (number five of seven Chardonnay we would taste), that immediately struck me with its vibrancy of fruit on the nose and palate. Chardonnay isn’t an aromatic varietal, but this Italian white was bordering on medium-plus intensity with a youthful bouquet of lemon curd, citrus blossoms, tropical nuance and underlying salinity (mineral quality). From the perfume to the palate the wine was exciting and it made me break form, asking if the rest of the group was similarly affected. Met with a stoic response, I carried out penning my notes—possessing a medium body, medium alcohol (well integrated), medium-plus acidity, medium-plus flavor intensity that followed the tantalizing scent, carrying long (medium-plus finish) with its strong aromatic presence.
While we tasted many nice examples of Chardonnay, globetrotting from New to Old World benchmarks, I was astounded, again, by the quality and liveliness of Luigi Buadana’s Chardonnay. Best yet, was that it was in the blind tasting setting, free from influence of label or region, that the wine conveyed its merit. Hands down my favorite Chardonnay of the night.