Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What's In A Label?

I couldn't help but laugh at some of the recent stories I've read about about the outrageous wine labels out there that are catching consumers' eyes. Imagine, spending good money on a wine because of a creative or amusing label. How ridiculous.

Wait a minute! I guess I've done that, too. You see, for years now I've had a weakness for Marilyn Merlot. I admit it. I cared not what was in the bottle. But I sure do love those labels bearing classic photos or drawings of Marilyn. I mean, it's Marilyn and it's wine. Of course I'd buy Marilyn Merlot.

My first Marilyn was a 1994. It wasn't bad either, though clearly overpriced for the quality of the wine. I've been collecting bottles of this guilty pleasure ever since.

Think it's just an idiotic guy thing to do? Well check out the estimated value, according to Nova Wines, which makes the product, of some of the older Marilyn bottlings: How about $2,750 for a 1986 bottle of Marilyn? Or, how about a 1985 bottle of Marilyn valued at $3,750? Kind of makes you wish you had been that shallow way back when.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Joy of Aging

Wines, that is. We live in an age of instant gratification, and there are so many wines out there that are so fantastic when young that it's awfully hard to wait on them. But this weekend proved what a memorable experience awaits when you age the right wine.

Some friends served up a terrific beef entre that required some special full-bodied wines for companionship. Both wines served were kick-ass good, but the real star turned out to be the oldest -- hope for those of us approaching 50?.

My wife and I brought the first wine served, a marvelous '97 Tenuta Friggiali Brunello di Montalcino. Since the '97 vintage was an exceptional one, these brunellos have a lot of aging left in them. But they're tasting pretty darn good right now. The Friggiali showed rich aromas of leather and earth on top of black fruit and anise.

Made from sangiovese grosso, brunello, as far as I'm concerned, is the true "super" Tuscan. A big wine that comes by its complexity and brawn honestly -- no cabernet needed here. Its chewiness was just perfect with the Italian beef dish.

Next, we poured (we really should have had a drumroll for this one) an '85 Opus One. This was really an exciting moment. If you're not familiar with Opus One, it is one of the truly elite Napa Valley cabs (primarily) commanding well over $100 a bottle. Opus was born in 1979 as the result of a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It's been netting great reviews ever since.

I've tasted Opus One twice before at special tasting events, but in both cases the wine was young. I had never tasted a properly aged Opus One, and certainly never with the chance to linger over the wine in such a comfortable setting. It did not disappoint.

At first it was lovely but restrained, with flavors of cassis and cedar showing nicely. It was extremely silky on the palate, which made it very difficult not to gulp it down deliriously. But Tom, who brought the wine from his cellar, was on guard and cautioned to me to wait a bit before trying it again.

The experience was amazing. Within 15 minutes or so, it began to show more complexity. Now I was taking in aromas of earth, leather, cocoa and even a bit of smokiness. 10 or 15 minutes later I picked up a bit of coffee grounds, a trademark of many Pauillac wines, though this is strictly a Napa product. It was an absolute joy to mark the wine's stunning complexity, fully revealed only with the help of patience and regular attention.

The Opus was so smoothly textured and devoid of any rough edges, we all agreed it's either at peak or just starting its downward trek from the summit of greatness. But if true, it should be a long, slow descent. This wine still has lots going for it.

The real joy of the evening was getting to enjoy what aging can do for a wine with great potential. The Opus was so rich and smooth, it should come with a special sin tax. May we all age so well.

Friday, March 24, 2006

X-Rated Vintage

As I've blogged before, I believe wine guru Robert Parker has earned the benefit of the doubt. So, if he says he didn't know the wine he was awarding 91 points recently was an Italian red produced by porn star Savanna Samson then I believe him. When you taste blind, it's all about the wine.

In fact, I have a feeling that lots of young tasters now may be going blind as well.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Shot in the Dark

It's mid-week. We're sitting down to a light dinner and a glass of wine. While having a glass of wine in front of me instantly makes the day brighter, I approach it with just a bit of apprehension. I can't help it...and I'm not alone.

Wine enthusiasts everywhere know the feeling well. On the weekends, we tend to eat better and drink well. We reach into our cellars for those wines we know will deliver the character and body that will pair up well with classic dishes, like tenderloin and an estate cab or loin lamb chops and a grand cru Burgundy. They're reliable.

But the middle of the week is a time for lighter meals and lighter wines. Value wines. Often they turn out to be great for the money, and great complements for the mid-week salad meal or omelette. But often they disappoint. They can be just a little too thin, a little too one-dimensional.

There are some reliable low-end wines, but it's fun to try new things. So, I'm always on the lookout for new recommendations, and almost always ready to risk the disappointment. Still, after a long day at the office you want to be elated, not deflated. So, tonight, I raised my glass with a slight bit of uncertainty. I really wanted it to be terrific, but didn't dare expect too much.
I put my nose to the glass -- whoa!

Even when wines under $10 are good they don't tend to be full of surprises, but this was amazing. I got lots of black fruit. A really dark, brooding character with aromas of tobacco, smoke and black licorice. What an eye-opener! It was a Spanish red, the 2004 Tikalo Albaliza.

This extraordinary buy, at about $8, is made from 65% tempranillo and 35% garnacha. Though hailing from an area known for high yields, Bodegas Tikalo managed to pack this wine with dense flavors and intense aromas through strict vineyard management techniques. Interestingly, this wine gets no time in oak. It really is a tribute to what modern winemaking practices can achieve.

Though the wine came recommended by a local wine shop, I still can't help but feel that many of the low-end bottles can be a bit of a shot in the dark. This one hit the bullseye. The only thing I didn't like about it was the plastic cork, but at least my corkscrew survived the encounter.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

You've Got Mail -- Not

If you've ever toured wine country, be it California, Long Island or abroad, then you know the joys of bringing back a few bottles to help you relive the good times you had while walking the wine. And, if you can find a few more bottles back home or have them shipped to you from the winery, you may continue to relive the memories for years.

While many of us are forever hunting for hard-to-find wines from small, high-quality producers, it also is fun to get one's hands on some special bottlings from some of the bigger wineries that don't get circulated widely. For example, we've enjoyed Etude pinot noir for years. But while visiting Etude last June, I was really knocked out by the Etude heirloom pinot noir -- a more complex and interesting pinot not found in Connecticut.

I carried a couple of bottles back home and was optimistic that I might soon be able to get more, since Connecticut in 2005 liberalized its wine shipping laws in the wake of the now famous U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Etude salespeople estimated they would be shipping to Connecticut in just a few months.

Ever since we got back from our trip, I've been getting the Etude newsletter. So, excited by news of the new heirloom release, I decided to call and place my order. You've probably guessed where this going -- despite the change in Connecticut laws, Etude still is not shipping to Connecticut. The problem, it seems, is that any winery that wants to ship to Connecticut and many other states first has to get licensed in those states. And, Connecticut has such a lengthy and complex set of requirements that some wineries are still wrestling with the details while others have thrown up their hands and said, nuts to this.

To top it off, Connecticut is charging $1,000 for a license. If every state took this approach, then any winery that wants to ship out of state is looking at potentially spending $49,000 just to get out of the gate. Obviously, this is not financially feasible for small wineries with limited production. Getting access to the wines of highly regarded but small producers -- who often have too little volume to be represented by the large wholesalers who control wine distribution in most states -- is the whole point of movements like Free The Grapes. So, overly complex and expensive licensing requirements can have the same essential impact as an outright ban, which seems to me to be a subversion of the new law.

Some of the folks in the business I've talked with say this is no accident. A way of giving the powerful wholesalers something under the table while consumers celebrate a moral victory that is, in truth, full of holes. Are these regs a deliberate attempt to discourage widespread licensing of out-of-state wineries? I can't say for sure, but it tells me there's still lots more work to do. The effort to truly "free the grapes" is far from over, and consumers are going to need to continue working their legislators for true access to cult wines.

In the meantime, slow progress continues to be made. Of course, you can get the latest at Free The Grapes. Bloggers also are watching developments closely. Tom Wark's Fermentation is relentless in covering this story in states across the country. New York Times writer Eric Asimov had a pretty good piece in the Times this past week about changes in wine shipping laws finally being felt in New York. So, there's reason to hope, but I won't be expecting any wine treasures in the mail anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Wine Times

If you've read any other wine bloggers today then you probably know that The New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov has started a wine blog called The Pour. The winosphere is abuzz. Like others, I would say the more the merrier. But I would caution against getting overly excited about the addition of any particular voice.

One thing I've noticed of late is that newspapers everywhere seem to be adding blogs, about one thing or another, to their websites. I used to work in newspapers, so I still follow the business a bit. But you don't need any particular expertise to know the business is in trouble. Traditional readership is way down.

Consequently, newspapers have been trying to build online readership and are desperate to tap into the blogosphere. Part of the strategy is to establish their people as the more credible, the more informed of bloggers to be found. That, potentially, drives readers to the newspapers' websites, driving online advertising. Asimov, just by introducing himself to the blogosphere, had 95 comments, last I looked.

Nothing wrong with all that. But it makes me think of a graduate seminar I took last fall on blogging. One thing we all discovered together was that journalists rarely make the best bloggers. Great blogging is inherently personal. While it's important to know something about the subject at hand, being able to provide a provocative, genuine, from-the-gut insight is so much more resonant than sharpened prose and reportorial chops.

Asimov seems to know that -- he vows to avoid clinical tasting reports and terminology in favor of the personal experiences associated with tasting great wines with family and friends. Sounds great. Mr. Asimov probably has a wealth of such experiences to write about. But I plan to keep in mind that there is just as much to be gained from the rest of the blogosphere, from the countless others who are passionate about wines and whose collective experiences we grow richer from every day. We don't need no stinkin press passes.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Primitivo Instincts

I came away from one of my favorite local wine shops yesterday delightfully surprised by a varietal I had previously dismissed. The primitivo served up as part of the tasting Saturday was a last-minute substitute for another wine that failed to arrive. It proved to be good fortune for me.

I typically would not search out a primitivo, since the last time I tried one (about 7 or 8 years ago) I was unimpressed. But after trying the Torre Salento Primitivo 2002 at just $11, I have added this southern Italian red to my list of terrific value wines.

I should not have been surprised. Recent research shows primitivo is a kissin' cousin of zinfandel, and we all know what a terrific varietal zin is. In fact, we've learned in the last decade that zinfandel and primitivo are both clones of the same Croatian grape, crljenak. They're probably more like brothers than cousins, so one might expect the same flavors from primitivo that one associates with great zins. It's something I doubt many zin producers celebrate, since primitivo historically has been unexciting and cheap. But much better versions are now being made, and it's still inexpensive.

The Torre primitivo I tasted showed lots of plum and black cherry with a hint of cocoa and spice. Similar to a zin in primary flavors but with stylistic differences. It's not quite so fruit forward as many California zins, but that's not a knock. I like its slightly earthy character and dry, dusty tannins. No doubt about it. This is a terrific $11 wine that offers proof of why many Americans are increasingly turning to imports for their value wines.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Blue State, In More Ways Than One

Living in a blue state is mostly a good thing, but not when it comes to being able to buy wine. Connecticut, you see, is still saddled with what is known as blue laws, religious-based restrictions on fun and commerce on Sundays. These archaic laws leave many locals frustrated as hell and others scratching their heads.

It's a wonder that these laws have survived this long. Since Massachusetts loosened up its Sunday liquor sales restrictions, Connecticut is pretty much isolated in this respect in the Northeast. Connecticut wine stores near the state's borders have got to be losing out. But it's the wine and liquor store owners who are the big obstacle to change. Turns out lots of mom and pop stores like having their Sundays off, and they like the fact that the state provides a level playing field -- because everyone has to close for the day.

The state legislature was considering a small step toward "normalcy" with a proposal that would have allowed wine and liquor stores to open on Sundays for the holidays -- Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve fall on a Sunday this year. But even this gentle relaxing of current restrictions proved too bold, as the bill failed to get out of the Assembly's General Law Committee this past week.

Having once worked in a wine store, I have a lot of sympathy for the owners of small stores. They fear that having to open on Sundays means they will face additional costs without additional revenue because sales likely would not increase -- the same amount of sales would be spread across seven days instead of six. However, even if this is true, Connecticut retailers and legislators are trying to hold back the tide. Like it or not, retailing has changed in the past 20 to 30 years -- consumers expect to be able to shop through the weekends.

Connecticut's remaining blue laws are archaically routed in a religious tradition that is at odds with today's consumer preferences. Blue laws are, in a word, anti-consumer. Right now, the legislature seems pretty focused on its retailing constituents. But today's busy professionals require the entire weekend to get their errands and shopping done, and, of course, to walk the wine. Legislators can't ignore them forever.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Dream On

Forbes.com is featuring a fun piece right now called "$100 Wines That Are Worth It." Of course, you may not agree with every choice (I don't), but you'll have to admit that most of these wines are likely to evoke either warm memories or intense longing.

I've had a few of these wines and found them to be truly wonderful. One or two, however, I really wonder about -- are they really worth $100 and up? For example, the Caymus Special Selection is just about always damned good, but I've had just as good for a lot less. And the Gaya Barbaresco is also a great wine, but $150 worth? I tasted a Gaya alongside a Giacosa Barolo once (not on the Forbes list), and the Giacosa blew it away.

But, I'm quibbling. Browsing through the Forbes slide show is a lot of fun. Like window shopping on 5th Avenue. You can argue with their choices all you want, but guaranteed you'll wish you were doing a taste test right now.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Thousand Flowers

The vast majority of wines, whether you know it or not, are blended. Blending is a celebrated success in Bordeaux. But most Americans, I suspect, remain unaware that the varietal they enjoy from California, for example, must contain only 75 percent of the grape identified on the label.

There are, however, well-known exceptions. Many of the meritages from California are rich and delicious new world examples of the classic red Bordeaux blend. In the world of whites, there are some famous examples of chardonnay blends, like Conundrum.

Unfortunately, I've never been able to get my arms around this particular wine. I know Conundrum gets good ratings and many people love it, but I've always found it to be a bit muddled. Maybe it's my own peculiar tastes at work. But I always felt like the chardonnay was battling, rather than integrating, the other varietals for dominance.

Fortunately, the folks at Hop Kiln in Sonoma County have found the right formula to tickle my palate. They make a blend of chardonnay (38%), gewurztraminer (27%), riesling (22%), and sauvignon blanc (13%) that's called A Thousand Flowers. And, it sells for only $13 a bottle.

Some friends of mine discovered this intensely floral wine a few years ago while touring Sonoma County. They shipped some home and then introduced us to this great find. I was captivated but resigned to the probability that, as an east-coaster, I probably wouldn't see this wine again for years to come. I'm delighted to say that I was wrong. Hop Kiln wines, including some terrific zinfandels, have been available in Connecticut stores for at least a year now.

The Thousand Flowers remains a favorite. The 2004 has aromas that are lush with flowers and tropical fruit and apples, so much so that you expect to encounter sweetness with the first taste. But, instead, this unique wine achieves a nice balance, like a fine Alsatian. While the chardonnay contributes a nice richness, I think it's the gewurztraminer and to a lesser extent the riesling that carry the day here. That's probably why I like it so much -- it does not taste like a confused chardonnay.

Do yourself a favor and give Thousand Flowers a whirl. It's such a wonderful break from vinous routine at a pretty terrific price.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Yakima Walk

Yakima Valley's Rattlesnake Hills (Washington) has just been granted AVA status, which is very cool, indeed. Actually a hot place, but cool wines.

We were there in '03, having decided to turn a trip to Seattle into an extended tour of Yakima Valley and Walla Walla wineries. While the wines of Walla Walla were the real knockouts, I developed a healthy respect for many Yakima area wines, such as Claar Cellars. And, we had a wonderful picnic lunch at Silver Lake, an experience that rivaled many Napa wineries.

One of the joys of walking the wine, in addition to stumbling across great wines, is the odd and unusual things you see along the way. Check out one of the cool sites we saw in Zillah, heart of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Seems a local with a profound sense of disgust and a great sense of humor decided to make his own statement about the Harding adminstration's Teapot Dome scandal. Hence, the Teapot Dome gas station was born in 1922.