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C M J GThe world of wines is a lot bigger than my grocery store buying days let on. Working at a top-notch restaurant in Los Angeles, one with a serious wine program, has afforded me a privileged view of some of the greatest producers almost nightly. I learn every shift, with my own piecemeal understanding of new and legendary winemakers crashing in sets of waves; sometimes, like last Thursday, being a sizable break that sets you tumbling.

The closing ceremonies of the sommelier staff are always the same, breaking down stations, polishing, cleaning and restocking before our nightly bonding unwinds in the cellar, after we’ve clocked out. We gather round the samples that our wine director has amassed, from guests and salespeople, or we’ll taste some interesting leftovers from service that night. Often the wines are just footnotes that don’t carry much over the late night chatter.

Last Thursday, however, was a themed evening on Burgundy, and a night that made quite an impression. It was hard not to be wrapped up by a vertical tasting of Ghislaine Barthod (my introduction to the estate’s Pinot Noirs from Chambolle-Musigny), but another producer had me stammering over its beauty. A Premier Cru Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet, with which I was unfamiliar, its label simple and not letting on much more than it would be of a certain quality (as Premier Cru designates).

The Chardonnay was lemon hued in the glass and led with a developing scent of citrus, golden apple, smoke and a surplus of chalk. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, rather a slow transmission that took hold. I was revved up by the mouth-filling body (medium-plus), the luscious texture of a complex range of flavors that brought out more pear and apple under fresh-squeezed lemon, a little wood spice and a lot of chalk like two blackboard erasers smashing together violently on my palate while retaining mouth-watering acidity. It was overwhelming. Each sip surpassed the previous, and by the end of the night I had consumed more than my fair share.

I kept harping on it, until the wine director clued me in on the price of the Chardonnay from Jean-Noël Gagnard’s Les Caillerets vineyard ($100 a bottle). My ignorance had been helpful in demonstrating what a Premier Cru was capable of, without being influenced by a staggering price tag or prestige of the family and their vineyard holdings.

After that night I did my homework and saw the family’s vast reach in the village of Chassagne-Montrachet. I also read about the fickle and warm vintage from which I’d tasted (2011), and weighed my own chances to ever taste more of this wine again—to make sure it wasn’t a fluke—as few places carry the wine in California. It’s the constant reward of schooling, the unexpected storming of one’s taste, that makes for such a draw to the job. Introduced to a great wine of Jean-Noël Gagnard through the auspices of my wine director, the din of guests subsided and the after-hours repartee fading, the sea of wine becomes the night.

PB Veo 07 I might come off as an inkhorn when talking about wine, especially since I ‘ve had to immerse myself in books to fill in the gaps, but the other elements of service and sales will often help round out my delivery. When I regurgitate information, it’s to solidify my own foundation—not to be pedantic—and share a discoverer’s excitement for producers carrying on long…centuries-long, traditions. In my studies one producer has always stood out even without tasting the wines; in Umbria, a land renowned for truffles and Sagrantino, among other things, Paolo Bea is the cognoscenti’s king. The modest family history and their felicitous wines are always well regarded. Perhaps it was the winery’s labels that conveyed epochs of the vintage and treatment of the grapes with such transparency that had first attracted me. Whatever the connection, I had stockpiled numerous vintages of Paolo Bea.

A sommelier acquaintance had prodded me to try the Beas immediately and was incredulous of my never having opened a single bottle while having bought so much—the thought was incongruent. And in a reflex, I purchased more, this time the 2007 Rosso de Veo, which had been described to me as the younger vines of Sagrantino; more approachable and a glimpse of what was cached.

That night I joined the 70-90% of consumers said to drink wine the same day they purchase it, removing the foil of a relatively inexpensive bottle at forty-seven dollars (!), with surgical precision. The glass and carafe were left to air out for a while.

A shimmering garnet, opaque in the stemware, casting a developing scent of boysenberry jam, lavender, balsamic reduction, cedar and worn leather. Dry and powerful, a formidable medium body, with round, prevalent tannins (medium-plus) and acid to match, that flooded the palate with blackberries, dried herbs and sweet spices.

The youthful and robust table wine had put things in perspective and had eclipsed studying in a sip. One seven-fifty isn’t enough to change my approach to learning about wine, but it does suggest that there need to be shorter intervals between books and tasting, whenever possible. Grand Cru and First growths welcome, as is any wine from Paolo Bea!

de Forville NebI pulled deep from within my Italian stable searching purposely for a gem that would pair with dinner. Food and wine are a constant tune, sounding like a soothing set of guitars on April’s song. I turned over enough hibernating bottles to disturb sediment and finally found it.

An unassuming candidate in my grasp, cool to the touch, I carried over a bottle to the dinner table to ready it for the shock of serving. I had decided upon a 2007 De Forville Nebbiolo from the Langhe. The bottle’s Delft-like crest, coupled with the importer seal made me feel at ease for the duty of pairing with a simple dinner of steak, baked potato and asparagus.

The pedigree alone would help this entry-level bottle be worth the wait; a producer known for their Barbaresco would obviously know how to coax a starter Nebbiolo into something special. Once it opened up, an effusive, developed perfume unfolded like a James Joyce novel. One of dusty raspberry, mushroom, pepper and a charming hint of country funk (a tolerable amount of brettanomyces) that made you feel you knew where this was going. The Nebbiolo continued to show off layers in an elegant medium frame that carried with it a fresh dose of tart cherry followed by a briny component (olive juice) and leather. Over the course of dinner this wine became something much bigger than it had let on.

Even the unruly asparagus snapped to as they were quelled by the sagely Nebbiolo—undoubtedly out of respect. It was a stunning wine that possessed enough acid to clean a mouthful of creamy potatoes and melted butter, while obviously working to enhance the seasoned filet.

I suspect that the wine was flat on, reaching its zenith somewhere in the middle frame of dinner and it really wouldn’t have mattered what had been served with it, from rabbit and roasted vegetables to a bowl of ramen. My Italian inclination was paying dividends just as the dinner and music had arrived at their natural cadence.

Sotanum SI wouldn’t consider myself a Syrahist by any means, but to start this year I’ve already had a couple of bottles that are forcing me to reconsider that position. At a sample party, most recently, I pulled the cork on a 2006 Sotanum that outshone the rest.

A gathering of friends, bearing accessories (cheese, crackers and meats) and eager palates, arrived to help deplete old samples that had been collecting dust. We began with a couple white wines meant to abate the heat, before moving into the heartier reds. Halfway through the charcuterie board it was time to bring out something more interesting (and not a sample), enter Sotanum.

It was a bottle that I had purchased long ago, intrigued by the story of Les Vins de Vienne. Sotanum is a tip of the hat to Roman tradition, comprised of 100% Syrah from the periphery of the Northern Rhône (beyond Côte Rotie), made by a collective of experienced winemakers—at the time four of them—from the Rhône Valley, intent on restoring and farming ancient vineyard sources—another saga in itself.

This wine made a statement; I altered my oral chemistry (ate sopressatta) to accommodate the bold flavors of that Syrah as it began with a dark musky scent of smoked meat, olive brine, tobacco and plum—a textbook nose. With ripe, fine tannins, a body like a plume of smoke, nervy acidity and a sturdy finish that encouraged conversation.

Surrounded by six empty bottles, talk centered only on Syrah; Sotanum changed people’s opinion that night, erasing the bottles that came before it and bringing out a Syrahphile in all of us.

Sivi GrisAs sure as I have a pumpkin in my living room (still)…I was certain that Pinot Gris would not be the subject of my next entry. However a rash of warm weather, an intriguing Slovenian producer and a little Hall & Oates made for the perfect recipe.

Not that I am too cool for the grape, or a big fan either, but after being tasted on it for my primary job as a buyer I was stopped in my tracks. At home it wielded that same attention-getting effect.

Unlike most Pinot Gris/ Grigio, Kabaj  (Ka-Bye) hails from an exotic locale—with regards to traditionally accepted winemaking regions like Trentino Alto-Adige or Alsace—Slovenia. Kabaj’s Pinot Gris is engrossing with its luminous burnt orange glow in the glass that is achieved by extended maceration (two weeks on the skins). This technique, most often employed on red wines, also enhances other aspects of the wine like body and texture. This isn’t a typical Pinot Gris.

Sivi Orange I pondered its attributes over a re-run of Hello Ladies, stopping on the theme song (a favorite) a little while longer while delving into the wine. A moderate bouquet of nectarine, sourdough and lemon curd was interesting on its own, but this wine offered a lot more in the mouth. A round medium-body, almost creamy in character but with attractive acidity (medium-plus) that left a squeaky clean finish of cranberry-cherry tea, candied orange peel, dried apricot and toasted baguette. Despite the plush palate that finish was direct and snappy—this was a slam-dunk with my less daring meal of chicken breast, cauliflower and quinoa.

I am not sure if Kabaj changes how I feel about the varietal because I don’t come across many like it, but this puts Slovenia on my tasting map as well as showing me what’s possible for a varietal I’ve been skirting. It was a delicious reminder and a great way to beat the unseasonable heat.

Cop BakIn 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.

d OstertagWhy 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.

General TsoStrewn 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.

egg egg noodlesChilling 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.

Ecard VVFive 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.

Rose AbstractSipping 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.

ConfidenteThe 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.

Tyler Chardonnay 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!

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Wine of the Month

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