Straight from the Vine -- Archives
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When one considers something as venerable as wine, two generations seems rather paltry. Forty years isn’t very old for a vine, and it’s nothing but a quick glance compared to the 5,000 years human beings have been seriously turning grapes into commerce. Nevertheless, the knowledge base of humankind has advanced rapidly since 1970, and wine is no different.
It may be helpful to set the stage. In the early 1960’s there were only a few hundred U.S. troops in Viet Nam, and they were still called “advisors.” At that time nearly half the wine consumed in America was called “Port” and/or “Sherry.” JFK and his dazzling wife were in the White House and setting fashion around the world. Zinfandel was the most widely planted “premium” wine grape in California. The Civil Rights marches in Mississippi and Alabama were just beginning to happening, and 60% of the grapes crushed in CA for...
The Fat and Lazy Wine Distributor Full-Employment Act of 2011.
Inter-state shipping of wine to consumers, usually called ‘direct shipping,’ is an enormous controversy in this Age of the Internet, and has been a simmering controversy for thirty years. The latest effort is a bill (HR 5034) introduced to Congress by William Delahunt (D-MA) with 139 co-conspirators. Judicial Committee hearings begin 29 September 2010. Eventually the matter will be settled by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile numerous politicians collect campaign donations from big wholesalers in many states by carrying water for them in the form of legislation against Direct Shipping. “Inter-state shipping of alcohol facilitates under-age drinking,” is their common refrain. What a crock! Air-freight shippers require an adult signature for alcohol deliveries. I’m not sure gun shipments can say the same. How many sixteen-year-o...
Historic dessert wine from Constantia in South Africa. Brilliant!
Muscat highlights in a nose balanced between floral and ripe white peach. Yellow green color with no browning whatsoever. Dense flavors with refreshing acid finish. Perfect for a lemon custard cake. Tasted in Fine Wines of the Southern Hemisphere class at Fort Mason.
Even with the attention lavished on South Africa by the World Cup soccer matches, few people realize how accomplished the South African wine producers are. Founded at a time when New York City was still called New Amsterdam, the wine industry at the Cape of Good Hope flourished while Californios were still fermenting in cowhide bags. Sweet wines from Constantia were the toast of the Russian court during the late 1800’s, where they competed quite favorably with France’s Ch. d’Yquem and with the best Ri...
Intense color. Middleweight. Tar and plums, with cocoa and flowers around each corner. Hope current popularity doesn’t screw it up.
Malbec is au currant. It is selling briskly during a recession when most wines are retrenching. It goes great with a big hunka’ red meat, and confers a gaucho image which understandably appeals to salarymen everywhere. Dr. Roger Corder, a British pharmacology researcher, even says Argentine Malbecs are particularly rich in the polyphenols which help protect against artery disease. Good news when you’re having a big hunka’ red meat. And really good Malbec can be had for less than $25. Sign me up!
The success of Argentine Malbec on the U.S. market over the last four years is the envy of wine producing regions all over the world. Wines of Argentina says they sold 628,000 ca...
Great fruit aroma clearly announces CA, and the wine is magic when paired with a crispy, roasted version of the CA State Bird.
There isn’t a huge amount of Grenache planted in California: about 7,000 acres in 2008 (down from nearly 11,000 acres in 1998), and 85% of those acres reside in the Central Valley (predominantly Fresno and Madera Counties). Hence the image, which artistic CA Grenache will eventually have to overcome, of sickly sweet swill labeled Grenache Rosé which was sold in bowling-ball-shaped jugs much prized by ‘60s-era hippies for making terrariums. Still, the enduring legacy of the Rhône Rangers in California has begat some new, green buds on the gnarly, weathered Grenache grapevine.
Napa has less than 35 acres of bear...
Expensive viticulture, ribald personality. Can wines truly reflect both? Does Pinot Noir really need to improve over 8 years in bottle?
Gary Pisoni is a wonderful incarnation of a colorful, eccentric lineage of wine personalities in California. They go back a long way, and they’re legendary. Agoston Harazthy, who claimed to be a Hungarian Count, and reputedly died in Nicaragua while trying to cross a crocodile-infested stream on a small tree limb. Paul Masson, who delighted in hosting sparkling wine baths for actresses at his Saratoga mountain winery during the waning years of the Victorian age. His successor, Martin Ray, who sold shares in his winery (Mount Eden) to investors, then denied them access to the property, while pricing his wines at three times more than any other examples on the market. Dr. David Bruce (a...
Shaded canopy begats a very strong herbaceous nose. Bottle-age gives great complexity, which plays out against an evergreen background. Serve with flank steak and Chimichurri sauce.
1998 Wynn’s ‘John Riddoch’ Cabernet Sauvignon is from Coonawarra in the state of South Australia. Many people consider Coonawarra to be Australia’s finest Cabernet district. It is about a day’s drive south of Adelaide, and perhaps two day’s drive west of Melbourne. In short, it is way-the-hell-and-gone away from civilization. The first time I visited, in 1980, the only pub in town was still divided into separate men’s and women’s sections ~ smoke in either. Of course that was nearly two generations ago. The point is Australia has a very mea...
Class comparison of 1994 and 1995 vintages. Clear advantage to 1995. Better acid, much more distinct bouquet. Steak house wine.
Beaulieu ‘Georges de Latour’ Cabernet Sauvignon is a classic of the American landscape, and has been for a very long time. Originally crafted by the legendary Andre Tchelischeff, from grapes grown on Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench, the wine was famously aged in 100% American oak. That gave the wine a considerable relationship with Bourbon ~ also aged in American oak, as is Australia’s most expensive wine, Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. What more could any cowboy want? Big slab of corn-fed beefsteak, and to wash it down, a drink that smelled like Whisky Sour and pipe tobacco. Made in America, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Modestly expensive, but not rare. For a long time, Beaulieu made 25,000 cases of the ‘Private R...
The 2008 Fess Parker is intensely fruity, concentrated in the mouth, loaded with honey-butter overtones, AND under $20. Match to fried chicken and yams with pineapple.
In class I often extol the virtues of Sauvignon Blanc by pointing out there are several world-class examples priced between $15 and $19. I then exclaim, “There’s no such thing as world-class Chardonnay under $20!” And I do believe that statement to be true. At least it used to be. Which is not to say there haven’t always been a handful of eminently pleasing Chardonnays priced under $20. It is just that competition amongst Chardonnays has always been so much more intense than it is in other white wine varieties. In America, Chardonnay outsells both Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Sauvignon Blanc individually by a factor of four or five. Good Chardonnay can easily command $20 to $40 a bottle, and great Chardonnay commands $50 to $100. The only reason for a winery...
High elevation. Great natural acid. Super at age twelve. Very long. Nose of honey and Babcock peach. Match this wine to spicy tuna roll with sweet mustard and tempura flakes.
California can do world-class Riesling. Not many, and not every year. Still, a handful of producers have proved the potential over decades. The hardship is their best examples are better with six or seven years of bottle age. And consumers just don’t get that concept. The result is a cohort of soda-like, eminently forgettable Rieslings from the rest of the CA pack aimed at the mass market. Riesling should not be a mass market wine. Let the masses drink Pepsi. Or Arbor Mist.
Wine Tasting Class
The 1996 Madroña Riesling (winery owned by Stanford Alum, Dick Bush) was tasted in a Varietal Series class, which are held the second Friday evening of each month in Nevada City, CA (see
No longer a bargain, but damn the best ones do taste great. Merle Haggard could drink Zinfandel, and still have credibility. Serve w/ pork. No utensils; sleeve napkin. Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleadings I denied…
Zinfandel prices have risen dramatically since the early 1990’s when the first one costing double figures appeared. Higher prices mean more expense can be lavished on artistic production. That means better barrels, but it also affords the opportunity to harvest by hand with several passes through the vineyard.
Zinfandel has large clusters, and it is notorious for ripening unevenly. Many people believe the grapes need to get past 24ºBrix to exhibit the variety’s signature boysenberry aroma. But that much sugar pretty much guarantees alcohol in the high 15’s, and acid that will require a considerable sup...
Ribald annual Fort Mason fun 30 Jan with 10,000 party-goers, close to 1,000 wines. Take a taxi.
Zinfandel is so very California. It’s an immigrant, like so many other residents. It has flourished here, like so many other immigrants. It’s unique, yet it can appear in many guises: from chilled, blush-colored quaffers to inky black, semi-sweet after-dinner head-bangers which just invite everyone to leg-wrestle. For decades its most prevalent form was cheap, honest, workingmans’ red wine sold in half-gallon jugs (big discount if you brought your own jugs). Zinfandel goes great with slow-cooked pork, and even better with the blues. In Europe Zinfandel has done for American wine what Levis did for pants.
Vietnamese, but with meat. Very sophisticated food. Break out a quality French wine. Red Burgundy would be especially useful.
Bodega (website, 415-921-1218, on Larkin – two doors uphill from Eddy, medium-priced with a couple temptations to splurge) may sound like a noteworthy California seafood place. That’s actually Hayes St Grill, about eight blocks away (owned by the very talented food writer, and Stanford alumna, Patricia Untermann). When I tell you BoDeGa is a Vietnamese restaurant, you may immediately think of plates filled with vegetables. That’s not entirely untrue, but it’s helpful to know the translation from the Vietnamese language: Bo = beef; De = lamb; Ga = chicken. Vegans can eat at Bodega, but they can’t get uppity.
Let’s not mince words here. If you insist on ordering beer to drink w...
From the Côte de Beaune. Modest color, but tightly refined nose w/ floral highlights. Beautiful oolong-like finish. Good value for around $80. Duck leg confit in a salad with pomegranate seeds.
Both Volnay and Montelie can represent pretty good bargains in a Burgundy market which seems to be continuously hyperventilating. This wine from an under-hyped vintage, nevertheless comes from a very highly-regarded 1st Cru vineyard, and perhaps Volnay’s most illustrious producer. Like a tall, slim woman on a Parisian boulevard, this wine is both elegantly understated and eye-catching at the very same time. It makes you feel grown up, at a young adult price.
SF’s Mission Dist. Ceviche on a plate, like salad. Spicy: Chenin beats SB. Great beef heart. Take ultra-ripe Cab.
There are eight or nine Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco ranging from Limon and La Mar on the high-priced end, through Mi Lindo and Mochico in the mid-priced category, to El Perol and Piqueo’s in the bargain basement. There is even a chain: Fresca. But restaurant prices have more to do with location, leasehold improvements, and faddishness than they have to do with service and food quality. A place I like on the lower end of the price scale is a nicely appointed, but distinctly unpretentious, small spot on Mission St, three blocks south of Cesar Chavez (www.inkasrestaurant.com, 415-648-0111). Inka’s doesn’t have a wine list yet. Take your own; they do have nice enough glasses. D...
Older bottles of prestige White Burgundy can be risky; this one was sublime – a memory like a night on the rug in front of the fireplace with a lover you’ll never see again.
About $225 in a retail store. Tasted in a class at Fort Mason comparing quality levels of Burgundy.
Employing older White Burgundies in class is always an adventure. They are very expensive, and most American consumers have never tasted an aged Chardonnay. So even if the wine is in impeccable condition, which is by no means guaranteed, chances are good a large portion of the audience is going to find it ‘strange.’ And then individual personality kicks in. Some percentage of the audience is going to naturally define ‘strange’ as negative.
Personally I’ve always been a big fan of Chardonnays picked a litt...
Bio-dynamic since 2001. Wild yeast. Attractive feral nose with black cherry robe. Minced squab and plum sauce.
At speaking engagements, British wine writer Clive Coates likes to joke about Burgundian vintners, “You know, they’re all peasants.” Clive is not being disparaging. He is colorfully illustrating the manner in which Burgundians are yoked to the land. Wealthy, well-educated, well-traveled vintners from Burgundy still spend months of every year in their vineyards pruning, pulling leaves, replanting, and harvesting. This close relationship to the soil may help explain why Burgundy has so many organic and bio-dynamic vineyards. Heaven knows, organic grape growing is not easy when rain is likely to fall at any time during the Summer.
Domaine de la Vougeraie was organized by Jean-Charles Boisset and his sister Nathalie in the 1990’s to consolidat...
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