Monday, May 29, 2006

The Age of Riesling

I just read an article by a wine writer in Michigan with whom I am in complete agreement when it comes to rieslings. While many people justifiably love German rieslings, I adore Alsatian rieslings and believe a lot more people would become riesling drinkers if they started with the stuff from Alsace.

I know rieslings, German and otherwise, are beginning to take off here in the U.S. According to recent reports, riesling is the second-fastest growing white varietal in America. To be sure, riesling has already its share of obsessed supporters. But this growth has been a long time in coming.

For myself, I've always regarded German rieslings as something to have with Indian food or Thai. I know I've probably sold it short, but I prefer drier wines with my dinner -- most American do as well. In my three years in a wine store, I probably sold a dozen or so bottles of German riesling -- a fraction of the number of bottles I sold of other white varietals.

But Alsatian rieslings have a lushness and complexity that continue to astound me, in a style that I prefer. They're not really sweet, but often not entirely dry either --perfect with food. They also usually have an incredible bouquet. Unfortunately, too few people think to try an Alsatian wine with dinner. If they did, I'm convinced riesling would be a favorite of so many more people.

I get to thinking more about riesling, and pinot gris too, this time of year because it goes so well with a number of summer dishes we enjoy, such as chicken and bean sprout salad, chicken kabobs with a honey dijon glaze and asparagas quesadillas. It's so incredibly versatile when it comes to pairing with food. And, it ages so well.

Randall Graham likes to say the "heart has its rieslings." That anyone so accomplished could be driven to such bad puns is a testament to the power of riesling to drive one to distraction.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Wine, Tea and Chimpanzees

I really got a kick out of this story about monkeys and apes at the Budapest zoo being fed red wine because it's so good for their health. Can there be more compelling evidence of the health effects of wine? I mean, they're not going to splurge on wine for the apes' recreational benefit!

While some bloggers have had fun with the story this week, one detail in particular caught my eye and reminded me of a recent experience. According to news reports, the apes are enjoying their wine as part of a cocktail mixed with tea. Not that I'm advocating this strange brew in one glass! But it is interesting that a healthy primate lifestyle these days is supposed to include both red wine and tea.

I've been attending wine tasting events for more than 16 years, but recently I attended my first tea tasting event at a fabulous tea shop in Higganum, Conn., recommended by my friend Emily. As our impassioned and knowledgable hostess covered the basics of tea, I was impressed by how many similarities there are between the tea-tasting and wine-tasting experience.

For one thing, terroir matters in tea as well as wine. For example, in higher elevations tea grows less vigorously but with more complexity than tea grown in lush valley locales. But, as with wine, the artisan processing the tea leaves exercises great control over the final product. Unlike wine and its hundreds of varietals, tea basically comes from one plant, camellia sinensis. The variety of tea produced depends on the handling of the leaves and the degree of oxidation that is encouraged before packaging. Black tea, the most strongly flavored, is the most heavily oxidized.

Also, tea tasting itself is more or less like tasting wine. After noting the color, you let your nose take in the aromas so that you can judge the character of the tea and mentally compare it to others you've had before. We tasted and compared:

  • Ancient Snow Sprouts, a rare green tea from China's Yunnan Province
  • Golden Xuan, an oolong or semi-oxidized tea from China's Fujian Province
  • Assam Supreme, a black or fully oxidized tea from India

As we tasted, our hostess made the connection for us between wine and tea as agents of optimal health. A healthy lifestyle, she argued, should include tea in the morning and afternoon, and wine with dinner in the evening. I have been enjoying teas for several years now, but I have now vowed to make tea an even more regular part of my diet, as is wine. Estate teas or loose leaf teas contain oils that help promote good health, an effect that is minimalized, unfortunately, in most of the tea made from tea bags found on your supermarket shelf. She referred to this tea as "tea dust."

All of this may seem like a long side road from a story about some Hungarian apes. But for those wine drinkers who are excited by the health-promoting properties of red wine, in addition to the sheer fun of enjoying good wine, you should be checking out good teas as well. Hell, even Budapest baboons know that!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Restorative Power of Pinot

It was a tough weekend and early week. An I can't-believe-this-is-happening-to-me injury and a trip to the emergency room put quite the damper on winetasting activities, not to mention our anniversary. But some wines I ordered from a wine broker out west arrived recently, and, once again able to imbibe, I am now feeling restored.

I was a little nervous about trusting good wines to any transportation service, but it's been cool around here lately and the wines appear to have arrived in perfect condition. In fact, I'm happy to report the Copeland Creek Vineyards '02 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is absolutely fabulous.

The first thing I noticed about this wine in the glass was its lovely soft red hue. So many wines today are so fully extracted as to give them an inky color, something many American consumers have come to expect. Since wines need only be composed of 75 percent of the varietal specified on the label, many winemakers blend to achieve a richer color. Yes, even pinot noir makers use syrah, for example, to add color.

In looks, this wine reminded me more of a $25 Burgundy than a California pinot. But if this concerned me at a glance, the nose blew those uncertainties out of the water. I was enraptured by an intoxicating perfume of raspberies, rose petals, cinnamon and a hint of oak. Truly a delicious wine.

So, why did I flinch for a second or two at the color? I suddenly realized how easy it is to get seduced by a particular style of winemaking, what many think of as the Parker style. Nothing wrong with such wines, but we can all benefit from the occasional reminder that there's more than one path to quality and greatness.

I'm tempted to say that this wonderfully aromatic pinot is definitely a pure varietal expression of the grape, but I don't actually know that Copeland Creek is unblended. I'd be surprised if it was blended. Especially considering winemaker Don Baumhefner's insistence on the importance of traditional winemaking methods, low yields and terroir in his wines.

So, my spirits were lifted in so many ways by this wine. Not only am I back in the winetasting game, I'm enjoying a taste of the Sonoma Coast not easily found around here. At $30 a bottle, the Copeland Creek is not a cheapie, but no more than I'd expect to pay for a small-production, high-quality pinot. Small price to pay for restoration, indeed.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Going for Broke

The call went something like this.

"John, hi, my name is XXXXXX, and I understand you're interested in wines."

Groan. A wine broker. I've heard from them before. I've actually done business with a couple in the past and...let's just say we parted ways before long.


Unlike some people I know who manage never to stop anything they think from gliding to their tongues and out of their mouths, I seem to have a Hepa word filter lodged between my teeth and say few of the things I'm thinking.

"...and we help people just like you experience some fine wine from some of the small, artisan winemakers you may not get to see very much of where you live. Tell me, what kind of wines are you most interested in?

The conversational device is obvious, but it's hard to resist -- unless you're used to being rude. I mean, I like to talk to just about anybody about wines, so I'm inclined to give her a few minutes at least.

"I'm always on the lookout for really great pinot noirs, especially those that exhibit a lot of complexity from places like Russian River or Santa Ynez. And, I'm always on the lookout for great zinfandels or syrahs from winemakers I don't normally see around here."

"Well, we get wines from so many different winemakers at any given time. What brands are you..."

I'm wondering if I'm now getting in too deep because as soon as I hear about some of the small production pinots I could be trying, I could be done for. It's happened before. After our first Napa Valley tour in '99, I got my first wine broker call. Napa wines delivered right to my door? What could be wrong with that? Well, I found out one day when I arrived home from work to find a case of wine sitting on my stoop in 20-degree weather. I had been assured this would never happen. I sent the wine back and severed the relationship.

I took this lesson to heart and spent the next several years trying to forget about the boutique wines I would never see, instead scouring the local stores for the best of France or Italy or Australia. But then Wine Spectator published my letter a couple of years ago. It was an ego boost, but the major fallout was the telemarketing bullseye I suddenly discovered on my back. I was called by no less than four or five wine brokers, all duly impressed by my letter. I stood firm for a while, but finally I caved and placed another order.

I got a shipment or two no problem. Then, despite intense assurances that they would monitor weather conditions and never leave a delivery out in adverse conditions, I one day arrived home to find a case baking in 88-degree weather. They swore they were diligent and read back to me their detailed instructions. But the long and short of it is, most delivery people don't mind the detail and the brokers can't control many essentials.

So, nothing this woman had to say was going to get me to cave, right? But when I heard about the pinots she had available, all caution was thrown to the winds. I ordered a case of two different boutique Sonoma pinots. While I'm excited on the one hand, I'm also nervous. I just can't get past the feeling that something will go wrong, that wine brokers should be avoided at all costs.

But I'm also thinking that other people must do this kind of thing all the time. Plenty of people belong to wine clubs and get regular shipments in the mail. Am I the only one who's had bad experiences and remains gun shy?

I'd love to know what other people out there think of wine brokers. I'm already thinking I don't want to talk to my new broker in July or August. Am I being paranoid or justifiably practical? What is the collective wisdom?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Don"t Believe It

I've spent half my life wishing I was raised in or around wine country, but now the bureaucrats of Jackson County, Oregon, are trying to spoil the dream. They're trying to tell you and I that it's not all it's cracked up to be. Hmmm. I think I smell an overly extracted PR job fermenting.

Having financed and developed new tough (farm) love brochures, they're trying to convince us that people are moving to wine country with little appreciation for the hard realities of the farming life. That may be true in some instances, but do they really build such a convincing case that we can't suspect them of ulterior, bridge-drawing motives? Let's look at their case.

  • Farming is full of dry wells. OK, dry wells are not exactly common around here, back east, but we're having record flooding right now. Let's see, dry wells and cases of lush pinot noir or flooded basements and ruined cabernet.
  • There's cougars on the prowl in them thar fields. OK, we've got black bears and coyotes, that have returned to the state faster than anyone could have imagined, making snacks out of our cats and small dogs.
  • You've got to put up with the sound of wind machines whenever there's a frost danger. Well, I'm sure my brother, who had a house next to the airport, would have gladly traded wind machines for DC-10s. Of course, how many people live on top of airports, but, come on, how many people live on top of wind machines.
  • Septic problems are common. Tell that to my friend who was told two weeks ago she has to shell out $15,000 for her septic repair.

    I'm sorry, but my fantasy life is just not going to go down that easily. They've got a good thing going out there in wine country, and I'm not going to believe otherwise. My Field of Dreams, my Walk in the Clouds, live on.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Utility Vinfielder

What better way to wrap up a semester than with the sound of a muted pop? I just finished up a semester this week and decided we should celebrate, just a little, with some sparkling wine.

Pursuit of a master's while working full time is a strain, at times, so the return to free weekends is welcome indeed. The break is also good for blogging -- perhaps you noticed the blogging slowed to a crawl in the last couple of weeks? I needed to get a final paper off my plate. Dont get me wrong, the courses are fun, but so is finishing. And, I'm sure my wife feels like celebrating the return of a less stressed and grumpy me.

So I dug into the cellar and came up with a bottle of Pugliese blanc de blanc brut. This sparkler from Long Island is nicely done, a toasty, refreshing wine that can compete with many of the better low-end sparklers from California or Europe. We picked up a few during a tour of some Long Island wineries a couple of years ago.

My wife especially loves the hand-painted bottles, a specialty of Pugliese sparklers. So, they manage to deliver a quality product in a very attractive package. Not all the Pugliese wines were what might be called memorable, but they really seem to do a great job with sparklers.

As we ate I was reminded of how good sparklers and Champagne go with sushi, or a lot of other foods with some serious spice or even heat. In fact, sparkling wines are so versatile they're like a great utility infielder or outfielder. You definitely want a couple on the bench because you never know when you'll need one.

I've given this advice to friends, but I'm reminded that I often don't take my own advice. I often wait for a special occasion, like everyone else, to open a good Champagne. I'm vowing to do better. We can always use more sparkle in life.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Retail Lessons

I was hit with a wave of nostalgia this week when I saw online that the wine store where I worked for several years had been sold to new owners. Since it was only a part-time job, you could say selling wine was only a bit of moonlighting for me. But it left its mark.

First of all, I learned to have a great respect for wine retailers. Everyone needs to earn a living, and wine retailers are no differerent. But most I've come to know are in the business because they have a passion for wine and want to share that passion with others. There is a lot of money being made in wine these days, but for the most part the mom and pop store owners are not the ones getting rich.

Secondly, I can't think of a better crash course in everything vinous than the experience of selling it. I learned so much in such a short time. Let me cite a few examples:

  • No matter how much you think you know about wine, there's always so much more to learn. Until I had to sell them, I had no idea how many quality varietals were available. The real point is that wines today are generally made with such quality and consistency that there's never been a better time to experiment with variety. I learned to always try the offbeat. Don't play it safe if you ever want to learn.
  • Tastes are, in the end, a personal business. A wine can get 91 or 92 points, but if it's a style that people are not familiar with, or comfortable with, they still may not like it. I can recall a number of times when customers returned bottles of Burgundy, or syrah, or a Rhone blend because they were sure the wine was "bad." After tasting, I knew (and others in the store confirmed) that the wines were not bad at all. They simply were very peppery or acidic, and as such were alien to the customer. But, as they say, the customer is always right so we rarely argued.
  • Many people fall in love with brands, just as they do with jeans or soft drinks. We had customers who wanted cases of Silver Oak cabernet each year when it became available, no matter that we had different cabs that could beat it for less money.
  • A lot of Americans like residual sweetness, though they eschew overtly sweet wines as unsophisticated. No matter that German rieslings have a premium reputation worldwide. Yet they often reach for cabs or chards that sport (unadvertised) just a bit of residual sweetness, puffing up the fruit-forward character of the wine.
  • Wine knowledge is sexy. I never failed to be surprised at how often my single, young coworkers were able to turn their wine insights into dates with attractive young customers. Not that this was at all important for this married man, but I wish someone had shared this gem when I was 22.
  • Full spit buckets and fruit flies are decidely unromantic.
  • Getting a deep discount on wines made it all worthwhile.

Most of us can really benefit by having a good relationship with a local wine shop. While I once worked in a store and regularly read wine magazines and columnists, I still rely on my favorite wine retailers for insights on new stuff and new vintages. While wine retailers generally believe in the quality of everything they sell, you can get a nod toward the really exceptionally stuff or have it held for you when the proprietor knows you and your tastes. You don't have to work at a wine store, just talk to the proprietor as though you did.