If you’re an avid reader of lady magazines and blogs, you will recognize this frequent piece of shopping advice: don’t wait until the last minute before a big event to buy your super-special outfit. Desperation shopping rarely leads to good decision-making.
The same holds true for wine. One of the biggest differences I notice between the JV and the varsity wine drinker is that the former is much more likely to buy a wine just for a specific meal or occasion, whereas the latter picks up a bottle that interests her, whether or not she knows when or how or with whom she’ll drink it. To continue the fashion analogy, the same thinking that prompts someone to buy, say, a pair of crystal-studded pair of Giuseppe Zanotti platforms
with no clear idea of where she’ll wear them is what compels someone like me to buy a bottle of late-harvest Gewurztraminer here, a half case of Lambrusco there, and why not some Poire William while I’m at it? Just like the most fashionable person you know has the perfect outfit for everything from a summer BBQ to a night out with Beyoncé, the hard-core wine lover has just the right thing to serve her finicky mother-in-law, as well as the ideal bottle for her too-cool-for-Cab sommelier friend. If you’re looking for New Year’s wine resolution guidance, I’d suggest you adopt a similar stance and do as the fashion mags dictate: if you love it and can afford it, buy it.
We all have our prejudices. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a “thing” against Amarone. Too big. Too overwhelming. Too difficult to match with food. I appreciated that it’s a bit of an oddball wine, made in an oddball fashion — the grapes are dried before they’re fermented, concentrating the flavors in the wine — but that was the extent of my admiration.
I had the chance to challenge my opinions a few weeks ago, when I was invited to a tasting of 2001 Amarones made by some top, family-owned producers. These are wines that need a lot of time to develop, so even the 2001s were a bit rough around the edges. As a whole these wines are big, tannic, and dry. They also feature some unusual, striking flavors(the phrase “chocolate covered craisins” made more than one appearance in my tasting notes). I loved the chance to taste these wines. I loved hearing about them from the people who made them — or, at the very least, the sons and daughters of the people who made them. The 25-year old son of one producer said his father only just started letting him pick the grapes for their Amarone, because it requires so much expertise and care.
I admire these wines more than ever…but I just don’t like them. They don’t move me. Nor do I see how they would really fit into my life — I don’t think I’d enjoy them much on their own, and there are plenty of other big, intense wines I’d turn to for food matching first. So basically, Amarone is the vinous equivalent of this:
I mean, amazing shoes, right? I just can’t see myself wearing them.
If you follow wine media, you probably saw this article on Bordeaux from New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov. If you didn’t, here’s the quick summary: the cool kids don’t like Bordeaux. It’s too Robert Parker. Too corporate. Too expensive. In our quest for the newest, the most “natural,” the most biodynamic, the most idiosyncratic wines, the stodgy châteaux on the banks of the Gironde seem hopelessly passé.
I get it, really I do. But. Wine lovers rejecting Bordeaux is akin to Americans hating on George Washington. It’s an integral part of wine’s history, its mystique, and its hold on our imaginations. Plus a lot of it tastes really, really good.
I was fortunate to experience this first hand a few weeks ago, when Snooth Editor-in-Chief Gregory Dal Piaz opened a few choice Bordeaux for a group of wine writers. The line up included:
1986 Cos d’Estournel (a little stern, but likeable)
1989 Cos d’Estournel (velvety and seductive, if a bit hollow)
1986 Lynch-Bages (corked, alas)
1988 Château Meyney
1989 Château Meyney (my favorite of the bunch – well-balanced, highly drinkable, and remarkably fresh)
1990 Château Meyney
No single wine was perfect, but each offered a snapshot of what Bordeaux can offer: elegance, balance, structure and, of course, longevity. Old-fashioned virtues, I guess, but ones that every wine lover should learn to appreciate.
Besides, without Bordeaux, what would the cool kids have to rebel against?
Back in grad school, I wrote a paper on the “dop” system. During apartheid, South African vineyard workers were regularly paid in alcohol. The results were predictably horrific. While no longer as common as it once was, this practice still exists. Its consequences are, quite literally, passed on to future generations: many farm laborers are women, and the Western Cape suffers from one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.
I thought of all this a few weeks ago, when Human Rights Watch released a depressingly familiar report on human rights violations in South Africa’s wine industry. It was a hot topic among wine people when it came out (see, for example, the post and comments here) and as I followed the debate, something struck me: this was the first time I’d ever heard wine folks talk about the people who actually work in the vineyard. We spend a hell of a lot of time obsessively analyzing pretty much everything else, from rootstocks to yeasts to soil composition, so our silence on this topic is notable.
And it’s not an insignificant point, especially for Americans. According to the Oxford Companion, “few reasonable observers would dispute a claim that [California's] clandestine, 600,000-member Mexican labor force constitutes CA’s greatest asset in the competitive arena of international fine wine production.” This workforce is not only large and hard-working, but also incredibly skilled and efficient. (No wonder producers were able to replant to Pinot Noir so quickly after “Sideways” came out.)
And if we’re really serious about the whole “natural wine/great wine is made in the vineyard” thing, then we need to talk to the people who are actually doing all the vine- and grape-coddling we wax rhapsodic about. The more I drink and study wine, the less I care about a given winemaker’s “philosophy” (talk is cheap) and the more I care about execution (how exactly does grafting work, anyway?) As wine writers and educators, my compatriots and I owe it to you to delve deeper here — and as wine consumers, you owe it to yourself to understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into your glass.
So it looks like Recession #2 might be upon us soon, people. With my own personal double dip recession in effect, what with the new twins and all, I’m kind of freaking out. One thing I am not worried about, however, is my wine consumption. There are all sorts of relatively painless ways to economize on wine, which I will kindly share with you:
1. Box it up. There are some good box wines out there (even the New York Times thinks so), and ounce for ounce, they represent a great value. Serve it up in this adorable “vin de maison” carafe so people will think you’re charming, not cheap.
2. Ditch the glass. Yes I know, many restaurants have amazing wine-by-the-glass selections. But how many times have you gone out with a friend, drunk a few glasses between the two of you, and realized you could have gotten more wine, for less, if you had just ordered a bottle? Find a happy compromise on a wine you’ll both enjoy and opt for the full bottle.
3. Put a cork(age) in it. Bring your own bottle and pay the restaurant’s corkage fee, usually around $25. Of course, this makes the most sense when you have a pricier bottle to share. If you want to bypass the corkage fee, I’ve found that Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants are pretty flexible about letting you bring your own booze. Another option: scout out brand-new restaurants that don’t have their liquor licenses yet.
4. Try something new. A lot of the wines at the fringes of the wine store (ie, not California, France or Italy) can offer really great values. Portuguese whites are cheap and super-refreshing, and sherry is, pound for pound, one of the best value wines around. It’s also high in alcohol and served in smaller portions, so if you’re entertaining, a little goes a long way. Grab that can of Planter’s peanuts in the cupboard, fish out those olives from the back of the fridge, ask a friend to bring over some dried sausage or cheese, and call it a tapas party.
5. Be honest. Now is not the time to pussyfoot around. Tell the wine store salesperson or the sommelier exactly how much you want to spend. You may feel cheesy about it, but being straightforward will actually make their job a lot easier.
6. Free tastings. Every wine store worth its salt has ‘em. They’re a great way to new wines and avoid disappointment. (Even a $10 wine is a crappy value if you don’t like it.) If you taste something you like, make sure to tell the salesperson, so she can recommend similar wines in your price range.
7. Befriend a pregnant or nursing wine blogger. OK, so this one is a little specific. But when I was pregnant, and during my brief breast-feeding phase, I was mostly tasting, rather than drinking. I relied on friends to finish the bottles. I’m just sayin’, don’t be afraid to be opportunistic.
Now that I’m a parent, nights out are going to be very few and far between. Which means every evening my husband and I do get to spend out of the house needs to be pretty damn special. Of course, the food and wine should be excellent. But more than anything else, it needs to be an opportunity for me to feel like a bona fide adult. One who has made the effort to change out of spit-up covered yoga pants and, for a few hours at least, has no desire to discuss poopy diapers or sleep schedules or how expensive Enfamil is. (Very, by the way.) I have vivid memories of my mom at her vanity table, spraying Private Collection on her wrists and putting on her pearl and diamond earrings. This lady was getting ready for a night out. There would be drinking, there would be smoking, there would be adult conversation, there would be all kinds of grown up goings-on I wouldn’t understand. It was mysterious, and thrilling.
The thing is, if I wanted to have a night like that at a restaurant in New York City in 2011, I would have no idea where to go.
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A favorite topic these days among wine folk is alcohol level — that is, are wines getting too alcoholic? Blame climate change (remember, warmer weather=riper grapes=more sugar=more alcohol), blame Robert Parker, blame the American palate, blame Fox News, but many think that the end result is too many wines with elevated alcohol levels. (Check out this post on alcohol levels and balance in Pinot Noir for an informative, if inside-baseball-ish, take on the matter.)
It’s true that overly alcoholic wines are no fun to drink: they’re not great with food, they lack subtlety — and they can make for an unpleasant morning after. But I wonder if people are making too much of the matter, with a slightly obsessive focus on the alcohol percentage number. That number can be helpful, but fixating on it can be misleading. Context, as they say, is all. Last week, I opened up a 14.5% Rhône blend from California that hit you like a blunt instrument: it was dull, massive, and sure to cause a headache. It was an expensive wine, a gift, and I weirdly felt obligated to finish it. Drinking it (over the course of a few days, of course) felt like a chore. Tonight, however, I cracked open a 14.5% Rhône blend from Australia that had me wanting one more sip, then another, and yet another. Sure, it’s a big wine, but it wears its size well, and with elegance. It’s the difference between:
I’m all for less of the former and more of the latter, but it’s the artistry and the effort, not the number, that makes the difference.
In an amazing feat of self-deception, I got through my more or less wine-less pregnancy by telling myself I’d be back in full force once the boys were born. Well, nursing means I’m not doing much drinking these days. (Although I am doing a lot of eating. Good Lord, breastfeeding twins works up an appetite.) And it’s not like I have time for much leisurely wine drinking or tasting or blogging these days. Or much leisurely anything, for that matter.
However. When I got an invitation to meet Michel Chapoutier and taste his Bila-Haut wines two weeks ago, I simply couldn’t pass it up.
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One of my favorite classes in college was an intensive study of Plato’s Republic. All we did, all semester, was read The Republic. Delving deep into one work was incredibly satisfying, and a great antidote to all those broad-but-shallow survey classes I had to take. (Alas, aside from the Allegory of the Cave, I remember nothing.)
Attending a vertical wine tasting, at least a good one, always reminds me of this class. A tasting of the same wine from multiple vintages, a vertical gives you the chance to focus on subtlety, meaning and nuance the way a “hey, let’s compare 40 Italian whites” tasting never can. When the wine in question comes from a single vineyard, and is made from a single variety, the experience is that much more enlightening. And, of course, when you really enjoy the wine, well, that’s what makes it fun.
Which is all to say I had a lot of fun last week at a vertical tasting of Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon at the Brooklyn Wine Exchange. Kronos Vineyard is one of the oldest vineyards planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley, and producer Cathy Corison has been making wine in Napa for nearly 4 decades. I’ve had her “regular” Cabernet Sauvignon before, made from grapes sourced from vineyards around Rutherford and St. Helena. But this was my first shot at tasting wines from Kronos Vineyard, which she owns.
We ran through six vintages, with the refreshingly low-key Corison giving us the chance to taste and make observations on our own before sharing her insights. She says she’s looking to make wines that are “powerful and elegant,” an intention that comes through loud and clear. Not surprisingly, the younger vintages (2004 and 2006) show off their power more readily, with prominent (but not overwhelming) tannins that indicate these wines are ready to go the distance. They would be lovely to drink now, but if the 2000 and 2002 are any indication, why not wait? The 2000 was my favorite of the night, with mellow fruit aromas (think plum and blackberry), spice and herbal notes, and excellent structure. “Balance” is a word bandied around quite a bit in wine circles, and it’s a concept frequently discussed but rarely encountered. Corison’s wines, the 2000 in particular, exemplify the word: there’s no oak jutting out obtrusively, or alcohol or tannins to overwhelm the palate. Everything works together as one cohesive whole.
Corison loves her wines with lamb. If I were a)drinking more and b)able to spend $138 on something non-baby related, I would definitely pick up a bottle of the 2000 from Brooklyn Wine Exchange to accompany a nice leg of lamb for Easter dinner. Alas I am neither a) nor b) these days, so I leave it to you all to snag one of their few remaining bottles in stock.
Happy NYC Natural Wine Week! Brought to you by natural wine importers/specialists Jenny & Francois, this event is now in its 7th year. NWW showcases wines made with minimal intervention at various wine retailers and restaurants across New York City. While I have some quibbles with the natural wine movement — particularly the fuzzy definition of what natural wine actually is — it’s undeniable that there are some terrific, thought-provoking natural wines out there. (There are also some natural wines out there that smell like my husband’s softball uniform after an extra-inning mid-August playoff game in Central Park, but I digress.)
Here are two of my favorite producers showcased this week:
Adorable couple Coralie & Damien Delecheneau make still and sparkling wines in Touraine and Montlouis, in the heart of the Loire Valley. I liked all of their wines, but my favorites were the sparkling white and rosé, both of which had me dreaming of summer. Not just the weather, mind you, but my post-pregnancy life when I will actually be able to drink immodest quantities of insanely refreshing wines such as these. The white, Le Nouveau Nez, is made from Chenin Blanc. It’s softly fizzy, with some subtle citrus notes, and would be great to drink all on its own. (As in, without food — not by oneself. This is a highly sociable wine.)
If you have a keen eye and a little French, you’ll also note the cute play on words here:
“Nouveau Nez” means “new nose” but is also a homonym for “Nouveau Né” — that is, “newborn.” And that purple splotch on the label’s upper right hand corner is actually the profile of Coralie & Damien’s first baby. Coralie and I had a nice little chat about babies. (Note: being very visibly pregnant is a great conversation starter at a wine tasting.)
I also enjoyed their sparkling rosé, Rosa Rosé Rosam. One’s interest in this wine, I’d argue, would be directly proportional to one’s love of strawberries, as this is the vinuous equivalent of that fruit. Not in a sickly sweet, fruit wine way — just that this wine has the same appealing sweet/tart balance and subtle, slightly flowery scent as a great strawberry. Astor Wines has some of last year’s offering in stock, but as this wine is all about freshness, I’d recommend waiting for the next version, set to arrive soon. A little patience required — the wine has yet to be disgorged (that is, taken off its lees), hence the cloudiness:
I also loved the wines from Els Jelipins, a microscopically small producer working in the hills of Catalonia. Gloria Garriga (below — again, adorable) and her husband Oriol Illa may be running a tiny operation, but they have big ambitions.
Their reds are made from the ultra-obscure (and entirely new to me) Sumoll grape, have brilliant purity of fruit, and are somehow intense and subtle at the same time. The 2005 had sold out the day of the tasting, but look for the 2006 to hit the U.S. sometime in the next few months. For all those wine peeps who like to deride American taste in wine, take note: when I asked her if they sold a lot of their wines locally, she shook her head vigorously. Spainiards, she said, preferred to stick to the tried and true varieties and regions. “You Americans,” she said, “are much more open.” Cheers to that.