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There is never a convenient time to eat a bad burger; one better, to have a bad meal, but it happens. I hate to complain about wimpy or over-complicated gourmet sandwiches but my latest experience, just three days before the New Year would really cut me deep and had that distinct honor of being a bad one.

I had envisioned a place–nothing exotic–rather a bare bones establishment that cranked out consistently delicious griddled/char-broiled fare. Oh yeah, it had to be close and have a BYOB policy too.  We found a candidate quickly, one that did not hurt the wallet because spending greater than $15 did not appeal to me that night. My friend and I were sipping on a bottle of 2008 Petra Lava Rosso (#3) from the D.O.C. of Etna while conducting our Yelp-aided search. We found a place that satisfied both needs but did come with mixed reviews. We were in agreement that Yelp reviews were not to be trusted because there was no accountability for many of the negative write-ups.

We went for it, finishing our glasses of mineral heavy Sicilian red wine, showing off its terroir beautifully. The volcanic soil provided the minerals and there was a layer of smoke coming through before the cranberry would make an appearance. The rosso was sleek like a polished obsidian stone. We corked the bottle and took off for our nearby burger joint in hopes of slaking our hunger.

After a quick jaunt down Olympic Boulevard we arrived at the dingy establishment. The restaurant shared a strip mall with a bevy of other random eateries and was affixed to a strip club. It wasn’t certain how bad the burger was going to be because we were open minded but dubious.

In our midst we had a bottle of 2008 Schild Estate Shiraz from Barossa Valley (#2) that was highly rated. We were confident that the Shiraz would partner exquisitely well with the fare. We ordered two different styles of burgers, going beyond the standard California style and immediately unscrewed the top of the Shiraz to allow for maximum breathing time.

Ten minutes passed before we had our reasonably priced grub. I picked up my order and immediately spotted a red flag, a Kraft-like single hardly melted on the exposed patty. I was nervous and beginning to regret my decision. I cradled the burger and felt the stiff wheat bun resisting my fingers as I applied my grip. The patty was desiccated and even the thousand-island sauce couldn’t save this burger—though curiously it was watered down. There was little taste to the sandwich and I reached for my plastic ware for comfort.

The Shiraz was already showing some deep notes of tar, freshly ground coffee, earthy bramble and buckets of fruit. It was complicated and only getting better as the food paled in comparison. There was talk of us going to In-n-Out to absolve us of our mistake but that passed.

A short drive home filled my car with a John Cage like composition of bitching and bebop Jazz mixing organically. The only thing that helped power us past the worst burger of the year was the promise of great wine, cheese and bread that lay ahead. In the New Year it is inevitable that I will come across some meager and downright awful burgers but let’s hope they come in the beginning of 2012, if at all.

Chicken potpies and holiday parties were the latest excuses for me to establish good positioning on the countdown as December has been whizzing past. In the last month of the year everything blurs as I tractor-beam closer to the New Year; between parties and scrambling for gifts the time flies by in a hurry. Barely getting my grip on the month, and desperately staying focused on the completion of my blog, I try to document some of these events that helped me redraw my attention on the 500-bottle prize.

Immediately upon my return, I was anxious to taste some loot from my trek up north. I planned to uncork the flute du Robert Sinskey, a bottle of 2010 Pinot Gris from Los Carneros (#15) modeled after the elegantly dry Alsace wines. I wanted to serve it with a dinner that I had planned with my folks. Over some homemade chicken potpies, I shared my travelogue with them while we sipped the chilled straw colored vin. I wouldn’t say it was a perfect pairing but the flavors meshed agreeably and I was able to go over the finer points of my trip through Sonoma and my surprisingly pleasant experience in Napa Valley.

When I returned I was off to a Sparkler tasting held at friend’s home in Glendale. The party was more festive as we were days from Christmas and each of us was to bring some bubbles. Of course, I did not bring a sparkling wine because I had only one bottle of Gaston Chiquet Special Club and was not prepared to have just a sip of that pricey wine. Instead, I brought a bottle of Summers Cabernet Sauvignon to have with dinner (roast beef and potatoes au gratin). There were too many bubbling wines for us to make it through so in the end my Cabernet was hit. We tasted through one of my favorite Sancerre’s by Hyppolyte Reverdy with some hors d’oeuvres. There were appearances by: NV Chandon Rose, Pierre Péters NV Grand Cru Champagne, Toques et Clochers Crémmant de Limoux, Roederer Estate Brut NV and a 2007 Grand Reserva Cava from Juvé y Camps Brut Nature. All were different; some showed granny smith apples and a light toast while others flashed nutty overtones in addition to the classic brioche that we expected. The Pierre Péters Grand Cru champagne placed best in show, wiping out the competition without breaking a sweat. It’s elegance and structure provided the highpoint of the tasting. And after the seven wines during the course of the evening and some desserts, I was back to the Westside, hunkering down for a crazy Christmas Eve’s Eve Party.

I worked feverishly on Latkes and selecting a festive playlist before guests would arrive in droves. The apartment was dolled up with kitsch items, Christmas lights, poinsettia and menorahs. In the air the sweet smell of fried potatoes enveloped the room. I had a Hawkes Cabernet Sauvignon uncorked, breathing on the countertop for the guests that would arrive early. In lieu of wine there would also be an assortment of holiday themed ales and some homemade-spiced rum for those inclined to spike their eggnog. Once the party was underway and Stanley Turrentine played in the background, I spied an interesting assortment of bottles open on my table: 2006 Termes, 2005 Rosenthal Meritage from Malibu Newton Canyon, 2008 Unti Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley and a bottle of 337 Cabernet Sauvignon. Hot damn it was a party. I would only include four of those bottles opened since there were a few repeats on my countdown. People warmed up comfortably with the wine while noshing on potato pancakes, olives and about six different cheeses before we transitioned into the other drinks on the menu.

I successfully conquered the holiday rush and in retrospect I could have handled the mayhem a little better. Next year will be different; I will hopefully be more prepared to handle the holidays and in a better position to write about them. With only four wines left before we move into 2012 I can honestly say that I’m enjoying the ride.

I put everything aside, the prior day spent in Napa Valley served as preamble for my annual pilgrimage to Alexander Valley. Every year I try to make it to Sonoma County—a wine region that has occupied my heart since the beginning of my wine journey—to visit the fabulous producers in Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley. I plan for it, and when the time comes I become giddy and it is impossible to reign in my excitement. My trip was a little different this time; I had appointments and news to share with some of the familiar tasting room managers who could trace my path back to its roots. My tastes had changed quite a bit from the year before, trading in my adoration for Zinfandel (which nobody makes better than in Dry Creek) for more esoteric varietals and my recent raising stock in Northern California Cabernet Sauvignon. I would also sharpen my cartographer skills, penciling in new wineries throughout Sonoma as I spent my blithesome day tasting all over the expansive county.

Along the familiar 128 my friend and I stopped for breakfast at Jimtown Store before our day would begin. We placed our orders for a couple of breakfast sandwiches, taking a seat at the communal tables as we waited. We sat next to two people discussing the latest release by the Black Keys—what we didn’t know was that that record would score our wine tastings.

After our quick bite we traipsed next door to Hawkes Winery, parking under a burdened persimmon tree. The pregnant branches were festooned with apple-sized orange lanterns and after admiring the tree—recalling my father’s near obsession over the Hachiya persimmons—we wandered into the tasting room. A new face greeted us and it seemed much had changed since my prior visit to the winery. We discussed the differences since my visit over a year ago and we were treated to five very nice wines. We began our flight with their only white wine. The Home Chardonnay was crisp and clean, leaving my mouth full of fruit and minerals. We soared through the tasting, running through a Merlot and two Cabernets (a single vineyard Cabernet from Stone Vineyard was poured) before ending on an aged beauty. The 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon pulled fruit from all of their properties and gracefully displayed its potential. Firm but elegant tannins, ripe black cherries and a long-lived finish demonstrated that after nine years they—all my shipments from the wine club—could last easily past a decade in the cellar.

Our second stop was close on the trail, continuing up the 128 until we reached the manicured estate of Stonestreet Winery. Our unannounced trip would not be as private as Hawkes; we shared the room with a group of three, tasting through some hedonistic expressions of Chardonnay to begin the flight. Our weathered tasting room liaison monitored my expressions as I sipped and spat the Gold Run and Broken Road Chardonnays. Most were in agreement that those were favorable styles; I was not enamored with the heavy mlf (malolactic fermentation). The white wines lacked subtlety, rounding it up in exchange for Disney-in-July fireworks. We pressed on and learned about the contributions of Jess Jackson and his role in Sonoma, as well as the history of Stonestreet Winery. Our pouring room guide culled bold reds from the ‘Single Vineyard’ collection before our sampling drew to a close.  He was resolute on wowing me since he had all but one juror in favor of their wines. My friend and I shared Monolith, Monument Ridge and Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon before calling it quits. The expressions were rich and the tannins were almost too big. Despite having popped and poured the latter three, it was easy to see the elegance and the ageing potential of the youthful reds.

After tasting five wines at Stonestreet Winery we were off to our first appointment of the day at Medlock Ames. We pulled up to a newly renovated space (previously the home of Alexander Valley Store and Bar) and on display in the garden was a sustainability exhibit. Early on, it was apparent that these guys were ardent supporters of the environment. In the tasting room, near the wine rack, were the makings of local and organic produce for sale, in the form of preserves, pickles and other vegetables. The latest sounds of the Black Keys filled the airspace, as our tasting guide was eager to share his new purchase. Without having tasted a sip of wine, I liked the place a lot. The differences between Napa Valley and Sonoma County were becoming quite clear to my friend. And after a brief introduction we tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that was just perfect. It tasted of fresh citrus (grapefruit and pommelo) and finished long on the palate. It was summer in a glass and the wines of Medlock Ames continued to impress. We riffled through eight wines; different vintages of Merlot and Bell Mountain Red Wine (an approachable Bordeaux blend) were all tasted before concluding with the signature varietal of Alexander Valley—Cabernet Sauvignon. Different tasting profiles manifested themselves for each wine; our mouths were coated with notes of cola, baking spices, blackberry and black cherry that stayed with us until the end. Before the album finished, I left a fan of the winery, confident in my ability to sell their wines when back in SoCal.

Before it was time for a highly anticipated lunch—I had been singing the praises of Diavola for some time to my friend—we visited Trione Winery. We caught up with their tasting room manager—a long time acquaintance—who first poured for me four years ago at Stonestreet. The epitome of class and hospitality, she would pour us the royal treatment. We tasted through twelve wines, crossing vintages and digging deep into their cellar. Over the airwaves was the timid but powerful voice of Regina Specktor before there were musings of changing the station to the Black Keys. As we tasted through some of the acclaimed wines, the music did little to distract us, though it was changed. We tasted and talked, breaking to rest our palates between varietals and enjoy our time. We moved through the lineup and in no time we were onto the last legs of the tasting. The apex came when we examined their Pinot Noir. The 2007 vintage was very good and varietally correct but when it came to the 2005 vintage of Russian River Pinot Noir I was blown away. I couldn’t hold back my enjoyment. The wine was Burgndian—though I am not a fan of using that descriptor on domestic expressions—and called to mind some of the better old world expressions I have had. Dusty and earth-driven; with notes of root vegetables, mushrooms and forest floor filling my nose as the wine still possessed some raspberry and pomegranate fruits in combination with the best elements of oak in the mouth. It was by far the best thing I had tasted all day.

After a sumptuous lunch at Diavola, that survived my hype, where we enjoyed headcheese, minestrone soup, beef cheek ragu, a salsicca pizza and a drank a local example of Sangiovese from Acorn vineyards it was onto Dry Creek Valley to taste at Quivira. I was somewhat familiar with the winery, having sold their Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc; this was a time to try a larger portion of their fleet. I knew that they were dedicated and staunch environmentalists but I was not aware that their lineup ran so deep. They served many Rhône and Southern French varietals with success; a Grenache that was loaded with pepper, an earthy Mourvèdre that was reminiscent of Bandol and a servile Viognier that would tandem with Sauvignon Blanc. Quivira proudly portrayed some spicy California varietals to offset their Francophile fancy with the aforementioned Zinfandel and their Petite Sirah. Intrigued after tasting seven wines, I could not get over their Refuge Sauvingon Blanc that relied heavily on malolactic fermentation, ageing the wine for ten months on lees (dead yeast cells) to give it some creaminess. It shook my view of the possibilities of California Sauvignon Blanc and provided a tastefully warped guise on a grape I thought I had pegged.

Before wrapping up our day we finished our eventful Friday at the family-centered tasting room in downtown Healdsburg on the recommendation of the tasting room manager of Trione. Portalupi would be our final stop. We were walked through the list of seven wines by the father/winemaker. A daughter and her boyfriend were fresh from the Pacific Northwest, adding to the vibe of the tasting room. We felt bad for interfering with family time but were assured that there was no need to worry. The wines had a particular Italian influence, though the grapes were not distinctly of Italian decent. We tried two excellent Pinot Noirs, sourced from two different regions in California and a Mendocino Barbera that displayed lithe acidity that recalled my love for Piemonte. The unique package of the Vaso di Marina told a story that was rich in tradition and particularly interesting. The daughter and nonna shared the name Marina, which highlighted a deep family connection inherent in every wine we had tasted to that point. The showstopper for me was the Port, maybe because I was in the mood for a dessert wine or just enjoyed my glimpse into their family dynamic but that Port was beautiful. Restrained and free of goop, showing notes of chocolate, nuts, fruit and caramel that was fit for a Christmas gift. I bought a bottle for the fast-approaching holidays and we bid arrivederci to the Portalupi family.

In no hurry to leave the beautiful settings of wine country, we had some drinks at the Spoon Bar in Healdsburg before departing for San Francisco. We met some wonderful locals at the bar, flanked on both sides by people willing to engage us, sharing stories with the couple on our left and the three ladies to our right over deliciously-crafted libations as I discussed my purposes for the trip through Sonoma in the off-season. Eighty-eight wines between two days (16 remained), glorious foods and the Black Keys latest record supplying the perfect diagetic soundtrack to my visit up north… yeah, I was living right and on pace to crack five hundred bottles before the year’s end. I can’t wait to go back to Sonoma.

I was looking forward to my latest trip to Napa Valley, a fresh start on a place that had been too expensive in the past to even contemplate a visit. A lot had transpired since my first time tasting in Napa; I became a buyer and had successfully delved deeper into the industry unscathed. I was no longer impressed by high price points or influenced by Parker scores… I was my own man. I was also in need of cracking a few bottles for my countdown as the tension was mounting. And then there was Sonoma, my home away from home, replete with charming locals, providing a friendlier atmosphere in the tasting rooms that was a catalyst in propelling my wine career. I was clamoring to go back to Alexander Valley where it had all started. Between the two regions it was my plan to taste upwards of eighty bottles, paying more attention to Napa Cab than I had in the past, and trying a lot of the big hitters on my store’s shelves, to speak with aplomb when customers inquired. I was gearing up for a big trip.

I made the excursion up from Brentwood to San Francisco in about six hours on a Wednesday evening drive. I stayed with a friend who would be accompanying me on my trade-centered sojourn through wine country. On Thursday morning we were headed to St. Helena to begin the day tasting at Merryvale, a beautiful and big space that was all but deserted on the cool December morning. I had an appointment to meet with the Southern California Sales rep and he made our visit a good one, setting us up with a charismatic tasting room manager at the bar. We went through an entire flight of wines (ten in total) beginning with a crash course on Chardonnay and ending sweetly on the Antigua—a solera method Muscat wine that had been fortified with Brandy. The tasting started with the Hyde Vineyards Chardonnay that was lean with pear, minerals and vanilla combining on the palate that wiped clean the notion of buttery Chardonnays from Napa. The Carneros Chardonnay was fuller in style while the Silhouette Chardonnay had brioche like characteristics with a richer palate of fruit and toast. It’s Champagne nose was one of my favorites for the olfactory buffet being served. On the palate of the Silhouette there was a little too much mlf (malolactic fermentation) for my taste but what a bouquet. After the lesson in Chardonnay we moved through the reds, weaving between Starmont and Merryvale wines, tasting Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and a few different expressions of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon before tasting the 2008 Profile. The Profile was a big Bordeaux blend and the benchmark for the winery. It lived up to its name. It was opulent with ripe black cherry, blackberry, baking spices coating the palate with elegantly supple tannins. The wines finish was insane and I could only see this wine being a trophy in the cellar in a decade as it developed.

Our first stop was incredible, the best treatment I had personally received in a tasting room in Napa and will not be forgotten.

We had learned of another worthwhile destination while we were north of our appointments in the Stags Leap district, namely Ehlers Estate. We pulled up to the property that sported ‘organically grown’ for its mantra and moseyed into the renovated historic winery. We were greeted cordially, despite not having an appointment, trading business cards to open up the tasting. Small talk ensued with our Spanish host, telling us the history of the estate and philanthropic nature—donating all proceeds to the Leducq Cardiovascular Research Center—of the winery. As we talked, we rolled through a flight of wines, sipping and spitting a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc all the way through to the decadently packaged1886 (not the year but the signature bottling) pewter-embossed bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. A few other wines were poured for us, like the 2008 Estate Merlot that had nice spice and plum flavors. The petit verdot was a rarity on its own and an equally fun talking piece but not a wine one would go to after work. The Cabernet Franc however was, laced with bell pepper and black currants and provided a great chalky tannin structure that I prize in best examples of the varietal. After I set up some photos of the five wines it was off to enjoy a Duck burger at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and a respite for our palates.

With bellies comfortably full, we finished lunch and headed down the 39 to the Stags Leap District, lining up the remaining winery appointments. Winding down the road, we saw our first stop on the second leg: Pine Ridge… to taste ten more. That tasting room was oppressive, fostering a track house feel with elevator music; luckily the tasting room guide was a good guy. He pulled me some Forefront wines to start; he told me that they like to keep this working label separate. The Sauvignon Blanc had fresh notes of citrus and a moderate finish and was serviceable. The Forefront Pinot Noir and Cabernet were much the same. The Viognier and Chenin Blanc combination was off-dry and apparently all the rage in terms of production and brought to mind some of those demi-sec Vouvrays that don’t really appeal to me. The latter stages, segueing into the Pine Ridge line, is where the story changes. The Pine Ridge Chardonnay had aromas of pear, caramel and squirt of citrus. On the palate the golden wine showed lots of golden delicious apple and vanilla. The 2008 Merlot from Carneros and 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon both showed favorably but were eclipsed by the Appellation designated wines. The Howell Mountain Cabernet was dark and intense and the Stags Leap District Cabernet was texturally striking displaying sophisticated tannins and replete with an endless belly of dark fruit lingering on the finish. We concluded with the 2007 Fortis that possessed a softer nose of licorice, blackberry and leather. On the palate it was rich and loaded with mineral. The tannins were poised; the wine had structure and finesse and was definitely a crowning moment in the tasting. We thanked our host and pressed on.

I had an appointment at Robert Sinskey and that went awry, the tasting room representative was not aware and his service was barely passable… but what a dullard. I was literally pulling teeth with this guy to tell me about the wines and the history. I was not able to pry much from our laconic pouring guide but I gathered that he was not sure of me and I was getting the much-feared Napa service that had haunted me four years ago. We tasted through some nice Pinot Noir from Carneros as well as some balanced red blends (five wines in total) before calling it quits. Being a sucker for Alsatian whites, I purchased their Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc and noticed that I did not receive a trade discount. It was the final straw to ruin what the wines had earned. ‘Grin and bear it’, I thought, before I ran out of there trading deprecatory remarks with my friend about our shoddy service. And I had an appointment for God’s sake!

We stopped by next door at Baldacci where everything changed for the better. The tasting room was tiny and vivacious, club members were inside picking up their winter shipments and the mood was festive. It was homey and they were more than happy to accommodate my friend and me, unlike our previous appointment (still disappointed about that). We set up on the granite countertop, with two large glasses being filled with eight different wines. It was primarily a red affair at the Baldacci winery but we did begin with our only white wine of the flight, a Chardonnay from Carneros that was big and buttery. Changing gears quickly and trading in glasses, we had the 2009 Pinot Noir from Carneros poured for us. The Pinot showed some strawberry and raspberry notes and was pleasant on the palate, serving as a transition before we proceeded into the thesis of the tasting—Cabernet. We shuffled between vintages, finding the sweet spot on the mineral rich 2006 vintage despite the “goldilocks” year of 2007 showing a classic canvas of flavors. The 2008 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap did me in; my palate officially cried uncle and my teeth were stained to defeat. It was so big and needed more time than we had to soften up. The structure was immense and tough for me to support however I could see the merit and the age-ability of yet another Stags Leap Cabernet.

Finally, as we came to the end of the tasting, I summoned up all I had left of my palate—palate fatigue was a gross understatement by this point—to try one more producer: Stags Leap Wine Cellars. We saddled up at the bar, next to a sommelier, a winemaker, another winemaker’s wife and two buyers (it was a crowded house), but we put in for our standard flight. We tasted the Sauvignon Blanc that surprised me thoroughly, tropically inclined flavors that stayed with me while I ran out to my car to fetch my camera. The Karia Chardonnay was next and crossed that fine line between too much creaminess for my palate, not to say it wasn’t sensitive or smooth but that style was really wearing on me. The 2007 Merlot and 2008 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon were next in line before we finished with a treat—the 2008 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite the rough treatment at Robert Sinskey Winery and the repercussions of tasting too much Cabernet Sauvignon (sore palate), I was genuinely elated by my second time spent in Napa Valley. I learned a lot about the various styles of Chardonnay and began to appreciate the underdog Napa Valley Merlot. We ended the night having tasted forty-three wines and capping the evening with my first ever Michelin dining experience in San Francisco at Quince. I was living it up and the next day I would be having a homecoming of sorts in Alexander Valley.

There are a lot of perks that come with being a wine specialist, from samples to trade shows, the constant exposure and immersion in the industry makes the whole job unreal at times. On occasion, I am even fortunate enough to have private tastings, as I was most recently when invited to a Duckhorn event. Duckhorn has always intrigued me with their recognizable labels limned with drakes and hens, of all different breeds, to show off the anseriformes in their various environments—the pairings of art and wine at work here. In addition to the artwork, I was always curious about the contents but never really felt that it was practical to buy a bottle of pricey Cabernet Sauvignon (though that is changing) for over sixty-five dollars. Since I am unable to routinely purchase a bottle of their wine, I jumped at the chance to taste a fraction of their flock to uncover the mysteries and see if the contents matched their packaging.

Gathered there, we (the specialists for our stores) were asked if we knew about the brand or had any exposure. Most everyone had tasted at least one offering from the winery, I was the black swan. Fourteen wines were poured (110 remain, for the countdown followers) and each came with a breakdown, depending on the label, like Duckhorn vs. Decoy or the Migration vs. Paraduxx. After the philosophies were shared, and winemaking practices were dutifully expounded, we tasted the following:

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Chardonnay

2009 Migration Russian River Valley Chardonnay

2008 Migration Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Decoy Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Merlot

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Red Wine

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

2009 Decoy Sonoma County Zinfandel

2008 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine

2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot

2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

After tasting through a few of the white wines it was nice to finally crack the code on the Decoy and Duckhorn debate, beginning to understand their relation to each other. Decoy is the pure varietal, where Duckhorn takes an old world approach to varietals by blending in the requisite amount (by law) of the named varietal and divvying up the remaining grapes with other Bordeaux varietals. By the time I had the Pinot Noir raised, I was beginning to understand the allure of this brand, seeing the wines for more than a comfort label. Honestly though, I preferred some of the Decoy wines over the more coveted Duckhorn Vineyards wines. In no case was that truer than the Merlot; the Decoy Merlot was one of my favorite wines for its mouth feel, exhibiting chalky tannins in a manner similar to my favorite Carmenères, where the Duckhorn Merlot fell in that bigger, homogenous style that Napa knows so well. Decoy Merlot’s character on the palate was better than the classic flavors of ripe red plum, currants and spice, giving the wine a leg up—for my money— on the Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot.

By the end of the fourteen wines I felt better acquainted with the style, more confident in recommending these wines and demystified as to what lay beneath the feathers. I am not sure if I would want the wine for my stocking stuffer, yet I can see why they are a go-to for so many of my customers and why they deserve a shot with many holiday dinners.

I hadn’t envisioned myself in downtown Los Angeles the day after Thanksgiving making pasteles. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened. One might have expected to see visions of Johanna before making the banana leaf-wrapped savory treats. I would spend an evening acquainting myself with the traditions of Puerto Rican culture—though thoroughly unfamiliar—through dance and food, meeting new friends and of course, drinking four more bottles of wine (124 remain) in the waning of the night.

Dejected after watching a tumultuous Ducks matinee tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks, I needed a spirit lifter. It came in the form of a call from a friend who resides downtown. He invited me to join him and a few of his friends, to battle their turkey hangover and enjoy some wine with a few appetizers. I was game, and looking for a palate cleanser, since the Ducks failed third period left an unwanted flavor in my mouth.

Making it there around 7:45 P.M., as to not look too over-excited about the invite, I had my entry pass, with a bottle of 2009 Jean Claude Thevenet et Fils White Burgundy in hand.

After a few knocks on the door, I was in, making haste to find my friend Johan, like any shy guest, waiting for a familiar face who would act as my shepherd, easing the introductions until I felt comfortable to roam about the loft. I quickly dunked the bottle of Chardonnay in the ice bucket, taking up room next to an already resident La Crema Monterrey Chardonnay.

I couldn’t refrain from comparing the two Chardonnays, not to prove which was better but to identify winemaking practices and see differences between two very different wines that shared a common varietal. A lot was determined in the few glasses of wine and after that I stopped being concerned with the glass and instead, focused on my surroundings. The music was wailing, and people were dancing. Before I knew what was happening I was prodded to dance, moving my hips as best I could without having my shoulders follow. It isn’t my forte, but after a quick break in the music we had centered ourselves around the production table, creating an assembly line for crafting pasteles.

Each person was involved in the making of these tamale-like bundles. I was in charge of cutting the banana leaves while the host had folding duties and others were parceling out the cornmeal and more were doling out the carne. When we had about forty finished we began to tire of the process and were starting to crave our handiwork. But before we could eat the official product, they had to cook, and in that time, we made the rice (in an interesting and sensual style with spices I had not expected to combine with rice) and I uncorked another bottle of wine. Now we were onto the Filus Malbec that had good red fruit but showed restraint for a value wine. It was an excellent accompaniment for the spiced pork filled pasteles. The flavors meshed beautifully and the cinnamon in the rice reacted favorably to both wine and food.

Almost immediately after eating a few portions, dancing restarted. I resumed my lessons with two girls, having a lady behind me physically maneuver my hips while my dancing partner continued to instruct from in front. I blamed my inability to effectively conquer the meringue (and other Latin dances) on the wine and my clumsy hockey feet. It was a weak excuse to proffer, but that didn’t stop the ladies and we rounded out the night uncorking a bottle of Pro-mis-Q-ous (sic), which was a fiery red blend that captured the attitudes of all in attendance that night.

As the evening wore on we changed settings, taking advantage of the nearby activity—in the form of a plethora of bars—we danced and enjoyed the early A.M. scenery of downtown LA. It was truly different and remarkable. I never expected to be dancing (seriously) or eating Puerto Rican food while searching for bottles to add to the countdown. However, I was happy to have had the experience to meet a new group of amazing people, to learn a new step and take in an unfamiliar culture through its food.

Spicy and savory, deep and complex with more descriptors than I can summon, I have found a way to taste ten more wines in the span of a little longer than a week. In an effort to mitigate the looming countdown, I find myself hardly turning down a glass of wine—whether I drink it all or not—in the hopes of finding something exciting and learning a bit about each particular offering that is poured. Sometimes I have to look harder for the silver lining but I am beginning to appreciate the search and opportunity (occasionally) because it is often tailored to an experience.

Clos du Bois (#137) Cabernet Sauvignon was not a finer moment in the countdown, not an all-time low but not far from it, as it played an end cap to an action packed day that spanned driving from LA to Orange County and back. I was hanging out with a fellow graduate of UCLA all day, doing errands and visiting my cellar in the OC with the promise of subtracting a few bottles of wine from my daunting five hundred figure. We uncorked two bottles of wine with the common thread being France. The first was a bottle of Antoine Arena’s 2007 Red Patrimonio from Corsica (#136) that we shared on our beat to the OC in Long Beach with my mom. A dusty fragrance of earth, spice and leather gave way to old world fruit. The wine was enticing and possessed all the charming characteristics of why someone would praise the know-how of French vignerons. The wine did a lot to incite our appetite and we finished up the random chore for my mother, b-lining it to a burger joint on PCH in Seal Beach.

With our bellies full of simplified California burgers, we headed down to my cellar and split a bottle of Aligoté—the second child of Burgundy’s white grapes (the premier being Chardonnay)—from Bouzeron (#135). The wine was decidedly more aromatic with spices (coriander, etc.), white nectarines and citrus dancing rhythmically in the olfactory as the palate bore medium density but expressive flavors that followed the nose. We played pool at my cellar club and had wine until the day wrapped up and we were good to cruise back up to the bustle of LA.

After my friend left back for his home in San Francisco, I was inspired to continue the countdown, popping a few samples with friends the next night, including a bottle of Curtis Winery 2007 Heritage Cuvée (#135) from Santa Barbara with a mixture of darker fruits, oak, spice and a little bit of alcohol that singed the nostrils. The wine had a nice texture and good balance between fruit and spice that stemmed from the Mouvèdre, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault cohort used in its making. On a separate night I had unscrewed a bottle of 2009 Kings Ridge Pinot Noir (#134) that showed textbook coloring and flavors that were really true to the varietal and especially accurate to fruit from Oregon. I was not blown away but I appreciated the accuracy and looked to bring a couple bottles into my shop for the entire package—label et al. Continuing with the samples I revisited the Cielo Farms Honey Pie (#133) with some friends, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Muscat which proved to be the Malibu version of Caymus Conundrum. Again nothing too awesome, but it was more than serviceable.

Then there was a family dinner, which featured a bottle of Cain Cuvée (#132) from Napa Valley. We let the bottle breath before dinner, resting it to show better than it might have had we popped and poured it quickly. Giving the Bordeaux blend a fighting chance to show itself, the dry red wine proved a fit accompaniment to my mother’s chateaubriand with standard fixings. It was full, with a lot of fruit and savory notes that help balance the dinner and highlight elements in both.

And then there was Thanksgiving, the apex of food, where tradition was observed and recipes were elaborated upon in the retelling. Knowing that there would be some minor improvisations to the feast I employed four bottles of wine with the purposes of living lavishly on the day of thanks and having something to pair with every course. I got off work late and travelled with another friend—writer of DetroitonLion—to Long Beach to sup with my family. We popped the bottles beginning with the 2009 Fleurie from Domaine de la Chapelle des Bois (#131) that served as a firm handshake, readying our palate for the bounty of food. We quickly transitioned into a glass of 2009 Foxen Chardonnay (#130) from the Tinaquaic Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. The Chardonnay had moderate straw coloring with an intense (as much as a non-aromatic varietal could have) bouquet of candied green apples, white flowers and some orange zest. It was a nice riposte to the creamy squash soup and after the primo piatto came the main course. We segued into the 2009 Evening Land La Source from Eola-Amity Hills (#129) in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. That wine was delightful, portraying a delicate nature juxtaposed with a focus and intensity on the palate that most Pinots do not possess. It was on another level and lived up to the reputation that it had garnered.

For dessert we poured our last wine of the evening, a Monbazillac from 2001 by the Comtesse de Berlan (#128). The wine looked of a gold bouillon, with heavier fragrances of stone fruit, honey and nuts. The wine had lost some of the over-bearing sweetness and adopted much subtler flavors. It quarreled with the spice of the pumpkin soufflé a bit, but it showed well for a wine that had aged a decade.

Each wine experience is different, sometimes there are similarities or overlapping flavors that make the wines tough to sift through but it is the good wines that have an ability to transcend the ambient noise, making their presence felt. As I continue blogging and tasting into the future I am certain that there will be those bottles that can define the moment they were served and ameliorate everything. My inability to select the perfect adjective for each wine, neither elucidating nor getting my finger on the essence of the wine is the very thing that makes some of these bottles so special. They cannot be defined easily. I had a couple of those wonderful moments on my latest go-round and have had a lot on this trip to five hundred but here’s hoping there will be many more. Proost!

Desperately clinging to the notion of downing (actually tasting and learning) Five Hundred bottles before the year expires, leaves me in a great predicament. I have tasted a vatful this year, omitting over three hundred bottles on my drinker’s journey, while documenting 350 plus wines allotted room on the countdown, yet, I find myself scrambling to realize the original goal. With the concentration of a college student the night before a term paper comes due, I am resolved to accomplishing my Five Hundred Wine mark, tipsy or not, with the same spirit Paul Newman asserted he could eat 50 eggs. In an effort to bushwhack the count, I recently took down six bottles of wine between Spain and South America, beginning in Argentina and finishing in the “old world.”

Argentina Malbecs are nothing new and they seem to be going the way of Australia’s Shiraz, with offers streaming in every day everyday to buy ‘new’ Malbec littering my e-mail, and a ton of samples poured/handed off by wine reps eager to show me their latest value red from Argentina.  I am not really against the palate exposure but I must admit that there is a bit of overlap in the wines, brooding concentration, inky purple juice with rich dark fruits that taste great and hammer the buds, as they are not so for the light touch in their tact. I have to say that this was the case with the last two Malbecs (2009 Altocedro and 2010 Altos Las Hormigas) I tasted from one of the local distributors, neither bad, but both were one and the same. They both shared properties that made them as enjoyable as they were nebulous—with respect to one another.

By comparison, a rare, different tasting experience emerged when I had a bottle of 2008 Manos Negras Argentinean Pinot Noir. Malbecs? Sure, but Pinot Noir? It wasn’t surprising to me that this bottle shared the concentration of its paesanos by bottle, as much as a thin-skinned grape could. The Pinot was tasty, and I could see it assuming the role of crowd pleaser but a definite departure from its Burgundian roots. A little jammy.

It was refreshing then, to finally taste the Montes Alpha Carmenère (my wine of the month in October), a wine that stopped me in my tracks, uninhibited and quick to flaunt its unique attributes. Chile’s champion grape made a lasting impression in this incarnation. Most notably, the wine possessed a great mouth feel, tannins that were grippy and chalky—a rare duality, while balancing the rest of the requirements to make a great bottle of wine. I tasted the bottle with a rep first, before running out to buy a couple bottles on my own. The gorgeous weight and sublime structure of the Carmenère had me chanting ‘Chile’ incessantly, like a soccer hooligan, by the end of the tasting.

I rounded out my Spanish themed drinking with a couple wines, white and red, from Spain. The 2010 Vivir, vivir (sic) from Ribera del Deuro, tucked in north central (Castile and León) Spain, was serviceable but the Viura from R. Lopez de Heredia stole the show. Aside from the beautiful golden color of the aged Viura (2000), the oxidized nose of the white Rioja was one of the most exciting of its kind that I had encountered. I buried my nostrils deep into my glass, reveling in the rich and layered aromas of mushroom, nuts, minerals and other intangibles. The effusive nose was only surpassed by the intensely tart flavors that exploded in my mouth. It was luscious and rich but it was oxidized leaving me to issue this disclaimer: Please be advised this is not a grassy Verdejo from Rueda or a mineraly Chardonnay from Chablis but a style of wine that is beholden to its classic producers from Rioja—there are those that still keep their own drumbeat in Rioja to this day. The oxidized Viura loses all fruit, leaving behind bracing secondary and tertiary notes and flavors that can be quite surprising. A lot of depth and nuance.

My tasting bore mixed results: the Altocedro was a nicer Malbec than I would give it credit for, but Cahors in Southwest France still holds the crown for great wines of this kind. The Pinot Noir was eye-opening, jam aside, while the Carmenère was mind-blowing, and the Viura stood tall for the old world. All things considered, it was a good showing. And I inched ever theatrically closer to the 500 mark with #138. Will he make it?! Tune in next time.

My thesis for the current year has been Beaujolais, dedicating most of my allotted B-time in wine studies to Gamay… by learning all of its intricacies, from Cru to carbonic maceration. My love affair with this French red started a couple years ago but came to a head last Christmas when my parents purchased a case of Morgon from Marcel Lapierre—his last vintage—as a gift for me. That bottle changed the way I viewed Beaujolais forever and has been a guiding moment I hope to recapture. I have been so taken with Beaujolais, that I often try to orchestrate countless tastings amongst my wine groups and random friends around this star, championing the wine for its subtle complexities while maintaining a nonchalant deportment—as if I weren’t sad to be overruled! It’s a wine that I can count on to fit for most occasions like lighter poultry dishes, charcuterie (goat cheeses and cured meats) or even, sans food, as a drink sidekick with a good group of friends. Last week was no exception; I decided to host a group event, tasting through a flight of Beaujolais in the hopes of better understanding the Gamay grape and cinching up any loose bolts in my argument.

As a precursor to the tasting, I had purchased a bottle of 2009 Dupeuble Beaujolais (#148) to enjoy just days before my group would meet. Whetting my appetite, the wine was silky in texture and replete with red fruits and earthen characteristics. To pass the time, I read about Morgon and the legendary Côte du Py, a site geologically comprised of decomposed rock on a hillside within the greater appellation of Morgon—one of ten Cru appellations inside Beaujolais—the better to confidently present the wines I would be serving.

After the pleasurable amount of prepping I felt ready, nearly mastering my appellation, with knowledge just shy of a vigneron in Morgon, I was ready to say something about my selections. My choices fell safely under the umbrella of Kermit Lynch and his impressive catalog of Beaujolais producers that read like an all-star lineup. I was ready, until I learned that someone would be bringing a wine that might overlap with one of my selections. I amended the list on the fly, going with a preordained backup, this time from a different importer.

The day had arrived and the tasting commenced with a slight hiccup, one of the members had to cancel just prior to the event (this seems slight but when the group is comprised of three people it is kind of a big deal). We carried on, opening all the wines we had and ready/conferring on the drinking order. Beginning the night was a wine from Chenas, specifically a seven-fifty of 2009 Potel Aviron (#147). The red wine was extracted and deep, with candied fruit and cherry up front. The wine packed moderate tannins, boosted by medium body (deeper and fuller than expected), a little oak and long finish of cherry. It was an excellent bottle of wine and the most affordable of the set.

The following Beaujolais hailed from Morgon. A bottle of 2010 Jean Paul Thévenet’s Vielle Vignes (#146) was a little lighter than the previous Chenas in all senses of the term. The coloring was a transparent ruby that yielded dusty notes of licorice, leather, and hints of red fruit. On the palate there was a bit of curve, vibrant cherry appeared unannounced, jolting our palates. The wine was softer, less extracted with a light body and softer tannins, moderate oak and a lasting finish of Bing cherries. The previous bottle of Chenas dwarfed the body of the Morgon, leaving us a little underwhelmed and illustrating how crucial the tasting order can be.

Very quickly we transitioned into our final Beaujolais for the night, from the 2009 vintage (the heralded vendange) but sharing terroir. Bottled by Dominque Piron, sourcing the fruit from the mystical Côte du Py (#145) inside Morgon.  The wine poured a deeper garnet in the glass and had a limited amount of aromatics. In the mouth though, the wine was much more expressive, yielding a blend of strawberry and minerals, with firm (gripping) tannins, moderate acidity and leaving a long finish.

I learned that there was a noticeable difference in concentration between vintages; both 2009s shared richer, fuller palates that the 2010 did not wield. It is not to say that the 09s were so much better but it would definitely be easier to make a case for cellaring them. I was ecstatic about the showing of each Beaujolais, but then that was to be expected. Before the night finished, as was customary, I had ordered Thai food to serve with a chilled bottle of 2009 Bollig-Lehnert Kabinett Riesling (#144). The Thai carton contents were consistent and delicious for take-out—not quite Sapp Coffee Shop good—nevertheless, it was an enjoyable meal. The Riesling, though not the focus, was a destined partner for the spicy Thai food, the bracing acidity meshed brilliantly with the capsaicin, and the apple and mineral flavors chimed brightly on the palate to provide a refreshing surge after each bite of spicy shrimp in black bean sauce. A great segue.

The Cru wines had worn their stripes proudly, showing their finesse and structure, manifested into variegated notes of dusty fruits and earthier tones. The tasting provided a lesson on vintage, easily being able to discern the differences between the two younger years. As the holidays approach, Beaujolais becomes sine qua non of my (any) Thanksgiving dinner and while I am not yet to ready to close the books on my research I can tell you that these affordable Cru wines will continue to appear on the countdown.

With Halloween behind me and a miserable Ducks road trip safely in the rearview mirror I cannot help but start looking forward to greater food-centric holidays and the prospect of watching my favorite hockey team string together a few wins. I am certain that good food and wines to match are going to propel me through my countdown as the year winds down, and as far as the Ducks—no promises. With all the looking ahead though, it would be hard for me to forget the festive party I attended (at my apartment) a few Fridays back, and the three wines I uncorked for the spook soiree.

My roommate has always been a fervent calendar observer (he maintains that it is only at Halloween and Christmas but, I must attest, his adherence and excitement are constant), planning ahead, decorating accordingly and throwing a dedicated bash. When I came home, late from work, to his party, this was no exception; everyone clad in costume from Occupy Wall Streeters to Where’s Waldo’ers. Myself, I was a stranger in my own home but I was armed with the treasures of a wine salesman, plentiful samples for just such an occasion. In my possession were the wines of a Malibu Winery—Cielo Farms—from the Saddle Rock AVA, wines that I was familiar with only by name. I was excited at the promise of something great. A believer in local.

As the night began, a co-worker joined me and I promptly uncorked the 2009 Malibu Rouge (#151) and poured generous measures of concentrated vino into our beakers. Relying only on Halloween lights, it was difficult to discern the hue of the wine, so, we made use of our other faculties to assess its quality. The young wine had a bouquet of luscious dark fruits and little else. The Malibu Rouge was soft (smooth tannins) and full-bodied with extraordinary amount of fresh fruit that spilled over the tongue—very rich. It was a hedonist’s delight.

Getting into the spirit of things I opened another heavy bottle from Cielo Farms, with fruit sourced from Napa Valley under the moniker Moulin-Rouge (#150). Without knowing what fruit constituted the blend it would be hard to tell what exactly I was drinking, or the order of the bottles, but I was happy with the results. The Moulin Rouge had a bit more going on on the nose and in the mouth. Ripe fruit, coffee and some smoke exposing itself, with refined tannins, a little heat (from alcohol) but everything seemed to be in proportion.

I took a required break, the alcohol on both Malibu wines tipped over 15%, and its effects were beginning to show—we were drinking, not just tasting. Enjoying the party and some of the spread—compliments of my roommate’s girlfriend—I ate a fair amount of the savory items that were laid out on the table. An hour elapsed and I had aired out. The group was on the verge of a séance and I thought it a good time for a bubble break. A quick reprieve before things got creepy. The NV A. Margaine Champagne (#149) was the pinnacle of the night. The Premier Cru Champagne yielded decidedly nutty and toasty notes. The sparkling wine had a terrific mousse as I poured at an angle into my makeshift flute. I shared this wine with everyone who wanted some; there were a few takers but most people passed—a real shame. I take every moment I can to enlighten others on the prospect of bubbles outside the sphere of influence cast by Veuve Clicqout. The A. Margaine was delicate and racy with bright acidity and soft almond and golden apple flavors that sounded long after the last sips of the Grower Champagne.

The séance-insistent crowd subsided and the talk turned mundane. After a serious amount of wine I was ready to take things easy and enjoy the remainder of the shindig before retiring. I knew full-well the quality of the Champagne I had selected and was happy to create a few converts along the way, but the more surprising were the samples from Cielo Farms. The genuinely local wines were a hit, with an uncanny fruit-forwardness that made them dangerously easy drinking. I am still looking ahead to brighter days as a Ducks fan but I have to say that Halloween is growing on me.

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Wine of the Month

Roumier Morey St. Denis 'Clos de la Bussiere' 2008

Eatery of the Month


Jesse's Camarones Restaurant

Musical Accompaniment

Glenn Kotche’s ‘Ping Pong Fumble Thaw’  by The Brooklyn Rider Almanac