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Last week, on a Tuesday with the distinct flavor of summer I had plans to attend one of the most anticipated tastings on my calendar year—the Terry Theise portfolio tasting—unveiling the 2011 vintage offerings of Germany and Austria. This marked one year since I last stepped foot in Hatfield’s on Melrose. The distributors—Winewise—had traded settings, exchanging 90038 for the high profile 90211 zip code that encompassed Red Medicine, current vanguard of the Los Angeles culinary scene and event headquarters, to showcase the magnificent collection of wines.

Bearable traffic and parking relatively close at a metered spot, there was hardly any delay in my arrival. Coins to buy three hours worth of parking allowed me to trot down to the corner where South Gale Drive intersected with Wilshire Boulevard, arriving in my restaurant-best-duds and my camera slung tautly over my shoulder ready to check in. I grabbed a glass and entered a kinetic buzz. There was a healthy turnout, sommeliers, restaurant and retail buyers, bloggers and fellow tradesmen stood shoulder to shoulder huddled over bantam tables bearing ice troughs that held dozens of Rieslings, in the hopes of assessing the newest vintage.

German wines may not be consumer-friendly, with difficult names and even more confusing ripeness scales; it would be an understatement to say that these wines were not fully understood. I study German and Austrian wines regularly and I am still perplexed by their individuality. The difference between three separate Spätlese Rieslings, all hailing from the same blue slate soils and sharing an identical birth year can be staggering. What could I do to share my passion with the consumer? I made the rounds looking to answer that question.

Beginning at the first table, I tasted through twenty-four different trocken Rieslings, bereft of residual sugars, leaving only minerals and the essence of stone fruits in their wake. I rounded thirty-seven wines in a heartbeat, trying my best to keep in line with the wine buyers of the Wine Exchange who tasted with celerity.

I sojourned to the Rüdesheim vineyards, of the Rhinegau, where Tobias Fiebrandt poured eight variations under the Leitz label. I drafted behind the swift pace of my running mates (those two buyers) and tasted the delectable lineup at my own leisure. My palate was pleasantly shocked to a variance of dry to off-dry levels of fruits, minerals and faint herbal notes. My deference for Riesling, no matter how commercially unsuccessful, was dwarfed by our German liaison, inked earnestly with his Riesling tattoo.

From the Leitz table, I transitioned into a heavy assortment of Kabinett wines. With mouth-searing acidity I was particularly drawn to the Jakob Schneider Kabinett Riesling, along with the softer and more attractive Spreitzer Oestricher Lechen Riesling Kabinett (I wasn’t kidding about the difficulty of the names).

I whipped through seventy-four wines before I landed at the manned tables of two different Mosel producers, with German representatives behind the brand standing by to acquaint me with their unique offerings. Selbach-Oster bowled me over with more than one example but I nerded out over the halbtrocken, or officially, the Zeltlinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken. Affording a blend of summer stone fruits that had been rinsed in a zesty lemon juice and spearmint cocktail that was balanced by a nice weight in the mouth and an unrelenting finish. Next door, it was time to taste Meulenhof before departing for the wines of Saar and concluding with the Nahe.

There were too many sterling examples, in all ranges, starring my pricelist repeatedly since there was nearly a winner in every third bottle. After about one hundred and forty Rieslings I took a break, excusing myself from the tight gauntlet of Rieslings. I snacked on a smattering of treats and slugged some water to alleviate the palate before I would even entertain the Austrian flight.

My tongue recovered and I turned the page in my packet (pricelist) ready to begin sifting through the assorted Grüner Veltliner. Unlike the German portion of the tasting, by the time I made it to Austria the crowd was thinning and I found more elbowroom to swig, spit and note comfortably. I would unscrew the majority of the tops, pouring through the miscellaneous wines. Among the similar characteristics there were a few clear favorites; those Austrian whites that showed more finesse in the palate, with notes of celery and cabbage leaves, aspirin and hints of green fruits as they sloshed over my tongue. Between Kremstal and Kamptal I found my favorites, with producers like Nigl and Hirsch surging ahead of their brethren for their drinkability and definition.

After roughly twenty Grüner, I continued to the following stations, each representing three individual producers, two more from Kamptal—Schloss Gobelsburg and Willi Bründlmayer—and the last, for my purposes was Nikolaihof from Wachau. In addition to Grüner Veltliner each of the three producers were showing their Austrian Rieslings—those lithe beauties.

A memory came fleeting when I tasted the Willi Bründlmayer lineup. I had served older vintages of those wines  at the restaurant for a foie festival at the hest of my superiors at Wilshire. It all made sense to me when I put the stemware to my lips.

Palate fatigue had set in around 180 wines, so any tasting notes I scribbled after that would be dubious. I was impressed with the Austrian leg of the tasting this year, something that failed to grab my attention last time… perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind then. I closed my price guide, trying best to remember the question I had asked myself before I had entered at the head of the queue. After seeing a man literally wearing a tattoo that read Riesling, someone with a serious conviction for the grape, I knew that there was a lot more that I could do. The easiest thing though, would be to let people taste them—the rest would naturally fall in place. I thanked the host and my rep, departing for my metered spot before time expired and I journeyed home with flavors that were still sounding loudly, replete with everything I love about summer.

Looking through the aisles of my favorite wine shops I spied an intriguing green one-liter package, dressed simply, with an informative but unassuming label. It was a Grüner Veltliner, a category of wine, not a private label, I was guilty of not tasting often enough. I was drawn to it and became increasingly interested in making this Grüner Veltliner my homework, wanting to know more about the winemaker and bottle’s contents.

Berger—the producer—boldly marked in forty-eight-point font across the poster-esque label was not initially familiar to me. Just south of the dwarfed graphic and varietal name there was the trademarked tattoo of a “Terry Theise Selection, ” an importer responsible for some of my favorite French (mostly sparkling), German and Austrian white wines. It was enough to know two things: The wine would be available through Winewise Distributors for my own wine shop, and the importer read as a guarantee of quality. I purchased a bottle for no more than fourteen dollars, to support the shop and to continue my research.

I chilled the vessel down and pulled up a website where I could glean a little bit more before I tasted. I also selected an album in the interim I thought would be complimentary to the zesty Austrian wine—Lionel Hampton’s Decca Recordings.

So… by the Austrian numbers… when cold enough, I uncapped the crown top, eagerly pouring my first glass, gave my Reidel Overture series wineglass a few revolutions to release more esters, brought the stemware to my nose. I inhaled deeply, picking up a lot of citrus fruits and something reminiscent of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, and drank a sip. Like most of the information I found on Erich and Michaela Berger’s entry level 2010 Grüner Veltliner it wasn’t loaded with complexity but then that misses the point. From nose to mouth, I sipped, closing my eyes, while the vibes sounded in the background; I tasted a melody of fresh Meyer lemon, light minerals and a slightly herbaceous note that reaffirmed that Cel-Ray perfume.

My first Grüner in a while was a great experience, fit for the oncoming inferno of July and August—in Los Angeles—but I wouldn’t relegate the crisp and vibrant Austrian white wine just to the pool or the beach. I thought instantly of its pairing prowess—bevy of dishes like flaky white sea bass or some savory mushroom and herb pastas came springing to mind. For a simple white wine it afforded bounteous opportunities, whetting my appetite for more experimentation with the Austrian varietal and bookmarking it as a candidate for an everyday sipper.

Whether subtlety and adventure meet to rough you up for your own good or are completely absent, everything transpiring on that busy cross section of streets between La Brea and Vine in Hollywood, is titillating, perhaps obnoxiously so. I rarely drive through it, vexed by certain gridlock, and, I feel less inclined to make it a destination outside of burgers safaris (because hamburgers, like most big game, know no boundaries), due to the huge mass of people reverberating in that congested space. But, as fate would have it, in that nexus of clamor and excitement, an ethereal buzz was brewing, less overt, sure to be overlooked on most radars—a Champagne tasting at the Roosevelt Hotel. I was fortunate to be invited to the Winewise Champagne tasting, by the distributors of undoubtedly some of the finest RM’s (récoltant-manipulants)—Farmer’s fizz—in the world.

I looked forward to the tasting, clearing my schedule months in advance so that there would be no way to miss this holy experience. There were esteemed guests in attendance, winemakers, and family representatives of the boutique houses, such as: Didier Gimmonet, Laetitia Billiot, Etienne Goutorbe, Arnauld Margaine and Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy. These ambassadors would be pouring their stock and enlightening the buyers, bloggers and sommeliers as to its worth, as they would circuit the tables; eighty-eight sparkling wines were available for tasting, including some alternatives to Champagne, like bubbles from Greece, Germany and Spain.

I made my foray a little later than the start time, not quite breaking the tape, but fashionably (thirty minutes) late to hide my kid-in-a-candy-store mien. I checked in with the gracious and benevolent host of the affair—Hiram Simon—and quickly armed myself with a packet of information and stemware. The vibe was electric and tastefully casual. Like the Riesling tasting earlier in the year, some of the tables were self-serve while others were attended—even if we are “professionals”, one could presume a unanimous decision to pour liberally with the Vilmart et Cie Champagne.

I rounded the tables slowly, allowing my palate to fully receive the information, as it would undulate from flute to flute. I made it to Pierre Peters, early on, one of many standouts, with a favorable amount of toast, respectful acidity and a luscious combination of dough, mineral and fruit.

I savored my time at each table, paying scrupulous attention to each bottle of chilled Champagne. In what seemed like no time I had gone through the first forty wines, arriving at an assortment of Gaston Chiquet wines—Special Club and all. I was eager to try my first Special Club (Club Trésors de Champagne) wine, which stands as an argument for terroir amongst 26 top-growing récoltant-manipulants.

Beginning with Chiquet then Gimonnet and finally tasting through Hébrart’s Special Club they were a rare treat for me, each bottle unique in mouth feel and structure.

As I tasted through an exquisite flight of wines from A. Margaine and René Geoffroy, it hit me that though a lot of the flavors were overlapping up to this point in the tasting, the texture of most of the wines was changing dramatically. The similarity of tastes could be ascribed to any number of factors, but the most striking differences came from the encépagement (composition of the blend), some were identical, comprised of only Chardonnay, or blending the same percentages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—and the weight and structure… and yet each had a different feel to them. I recognized that this was a monumental breakthrough for me; my tasting notes in the past were often littered with the same adjectives and especially the same accolades but this time I found myself scribbling in new descriptors, writing sentences about how certain wines behaved. The composition-plus-weight-and-structure on the palate was paramount in differentiating all of the quality wines that were being poured as well as adding a serious dimension to my notes because I am not often forced to pay attention to this coupled aspect as I was here, although in hindsight, my other tastings had been leading me here.

The constant rhythm of texture played steadily up to Vilmart—a requisite manned station—this table had some breath-taking examples of bubbles and I was lucky enough to taste the prized “Coeur de Cuvée” before that bottle had run empty.

I had an earned palate fatigue by the end of the eighty-eight wines, but I was comfortable with it, knowing that the experience that I had gained and the intimacy of the tasting reached the zenith for an event of this kind. While Hollywood danced to another tune over the star-studded pavement, with people lining up to take photos with Shrek and Marilyn Monroe impersonators as I exited the hotel, I was spiritualized after having attended the numinous showing of sparkling wines. Divine.

My first documented professional tasting happened almost two weeks ago, and though I am falling behind in chronicling my tasting adventures I have to say I can remember it vividly. Not too long ago I was invited to my first trade tasting that I would blog, by a former colleague from WFM; it was an event that I very much looked forward to attending.

Held at Hatfield’s—a restaurant with a great pedigree—the smaller, upscale event would be a departure from some of the bigger trade tastings I had already attended in the year. Hatfield’s was hosting a German and Austrian tasting provided under the auspices of Wine Wise.

The venue fostered a different vibe; the gathering was smaller—not exclusive—but more intimate, good for discussing the wines with fellow buyers and not one person was rushed or unprofessional, unlike some of the larger tastings (getting shoved or elbowed out of the way for the last taste of Sauternes…happened!). Refreshing. While the gathering was more personable and petite, the wines were ample; over 150 different bottles were available to taste. Just a note, if I included these tastings into my ‘Count’, I would have been done already, arriving at the checkered flag of my Road-to-500 about three weeks ago. Why don’t I count them? I am going to rationalize my behavior by stating that these events, though valuable—in an educational sense—would be cheating form a story-telling perspective. Even if I could type up all the tasting notes from over a hundred wines, no matter how onerous, it would be unfair to most of the wines. Any mass tastings, including a large number of the wines I tasted at the Wine Wise event, deserve more than a technical breakdown—perhaps a novella each. Sixteen wines (as in the most I ever reviewed in my wine class) were pushing it, but I did pay for the class and the wines indirectly, so I guess I feel that those wines that I purchased (in whatever capacity) are to be reflected in the countdown. On to the marquee bout.

The spotlight was beaming lustrously on Rieslings from Germany and Austria but the showcase was not strictly on high acid white wines…, there were reds too, plenty of Zweigelt from Austria. Wine Wise—a distributor that represents the brilliant selections of Terry Theise—was showcasing a bounty of gems from the legendary importer’s portfolio. The wines were submerged in tubs of ice, a wide array of producers positioned in stations, kabinett, auslese, spätlese and trocken were there for the taking. Those terms (besides being difficult to pronounce until acquainted) signify varying degrees of ripeness for the Riesling grapes.

I shoots & laddered my way through the tables, beginning the tasting incredibly nervous; I poured my first wine* into my spit cup (luckily, it hadn’t been used) but quickly overcame my nerves as I rounded the second table. The acidity in the first few wines revved up my taste buds and I was ready to evaluate at that point. I made my way through the tables, tasting in order, trusting there was some logic behind the architecting of one’s passage through the maze. At every table stood exciting wines and after each sip, I would swoosh the liquid vigorously around my mouth and make an evaluation—basically, scribble my notes in a very small scrawl on the paper provided—based on the brightness of the wine, the residual sugar, the flavors (minerals with a squeeze of lime or dried apricots and other stone fruits…) and the way the wine left an imprint on my palate (the finish). There were some deadly gorgeous wines, lithe acidity and a serious persistence of fruit lingering on the tongue. It would be really painful for me to expound upon 50+ wines of merit, parsing that many notables out of the 120 I tasted but, I will list a few that wowed me:

Joh. Jos Christoffel Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese

Merkelbach Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling BA

Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett

Döhnnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Rielsing Spätlese

Döhnnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese

Dr. Deinhard Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad Riesling Kabinett

Leitz Rüdesgeuner Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett

Selbach-Oster Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnernuhr Riesling ”Rotlay”

There were too many Rieslings that I enjoyed, the notes and bouquets were varied and came in different degrees of complexity. What I can tell you honestly is that a measured dose of residual sugar really chimes well with my palate.

After sipping through an endless trove of delicious Riesling and Grüner Veltliner I was not really prepared to sample the red wines, even after a time out, where I casually grabbed a handful of halved figs and grapes (not the ideal palate cleanser but certainly emblematic of summer) and slugged some water. I tried to transition flawlessly into the Austrian red wines but the oak—no matter how faint—really upset my palate. Tastes of meat and wood went wild on my tongue and I was ready to kind of wrap up. After nearly an hour and a half of tasting sumptuous white wines from Austria and Germany, the reds jarred me. I couldn’t get past it and so I was back to enjoying the white wines before calling it quits.

A fraction over two hours and I had tasted over 120 wines, not swallowing more than two full glasses during that time because the emphasis is on introduction and assessment and it would be extremely arduous, simply impossible, to evaluate any wines while intoxicated. I was able to thank my representative for inviting me and talk to a few people before exiting on that warm Thursday. I was sad to think that Rieslings were a tough sell after leaving Hatfield’s and had the privilege of tasting so many of these exemplary wines. I had a realization—not an epiphany—while driving back to the Westside that many people who deny themselves the pleasure of German Rieslings because they are “too sweet” are closing the door on an incredibly exciting varietal, one that can partner with a montage of fantastic foods. This is a challenge to whomever reads this (and may not already be smitten with the zesty grape): Please seek out Rieslings. They deserve your interest.

* Something I was unaccustomed to doing during this encounter, was pouring my own wines. It quickly appealed to me, as I could be as judicious as I wanted, or, perform my own tasting experiments, trying certain standouts side by side and just revisiting wines.

It was my dad’s birthday last week and we decided to keep it simple, paying little attention to the elevated numerical count he was reaching and instead of dining out—our custom in years past—we stayed in and made a real simple and homey meal for him. The dinner was anything but fancy and truth be told it was just a dinner, comprised of blue potatoes, fresh asparagus and some thin cut pork chops sautéed in butter. However it was an ideal time to have a wine pairing and I was inclined to serve a Riesling, firstly because it was HOT outside and secondly because we were going to be eating pork. Lets revisit bin number 274.

The conditions could not have been more perfect for serving a blithe wine with a medium body that could be quaffed carefree, and a qualitätswein fit the billing. A Riesling from the Mosel was called in, specifically, a 2009 Willi Schaefer (one of many properties represented in the portfolio of acclaimed importer Terry Theise).

I chose the Mosel wine because it captured our nonchalance; it was unpretentious. One of the most exalted growing regions in Germany is the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. The area is well documented for producing some of the finest versions of Rieslings (among other wines) known to oenophiles. The Schaefer was not of such esteem but rose to the occasion from humble beginnings. The term Mosel—on a wine label—refers to the major river that takes form in the Vosges Mountains and spans across French and German wine making territories. Mosel is found on the labels in part as a stratification system, breaking down the wines into subsets for quality assurance designations. The term Mosel has endured on the labels as a classification because of the ease in which it is pronounced—the same cannot be said for other common German verbiage found pasted on a bottle.

Back to number 274, it was picked because pork and Riesling are a beautiful couple; not only is the fattiness of the pork abated on the palate after a sip of the bright Riesling but also the vibrancy of fruit and structure of these wines prepares your mouth for the following bites. It was with this foreknowledge I was more than happy to unscrew the top of the Willi Schaefer.

My mother prepared a perfectly executed meal with purple potatoes sharing the jus from the buttered pork drippings and some lightly steamed asparagus. The potatoes were remarkable, the creamiest texture I have encountered in a long time and the pork chops had been seasoned well and were crispy on their outsides. The mixed textures enhanced the meal. Everything was light and easy and wine complimented the grub, deleting the grease and replacing it with effulgent pippin apples and citrus sprits of the Schaeffer. Even the asparagus—an enemy of wine—respectfully bowed down.

The day was a success; my dad had celebrated another year, downplaying the proximity to 60, as I stepped ever closer to my 500 mark with my family—in the best company. Van harte gefeliciteerd, Pap.

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