Saturday, September 23, 2006

DiGrazia Vineyards

If Chamard Vineyard is consistently rated tops in Connecticut in reader polls and in the eyes of some critics, DiGrazia Vineyards is one of two or three state vineyards that seems to compete for the number 2 slot. A number of wine writers have reviewed them very favorably, including The Wall Street Journal.

But, unlike Chamard, I had never been to DiGrazia before our recent visit. I was especially curious to try these wines. The vineyard has made its reputation chiefly on its high-quality sweet wine, not exactly my preference stylistically, except when it comes to certain dessert wines. DiGrazia is supposed to do some good ones. I was optimistic also because DiGrazia is one of the older wineries in the state -- they planted their first vines in 1978 and opened for business in 1984 -- and my experience has been that the wineries that make the best wine in Connecticut have been around the longest.

The Facilities
DiGrazia is located in the southwest part of Connecticut, not terribly far from the New York line. When you first pull into the winery, the area looks a little more residential then you might expect. But the compact property is lovely, with a beautiful patio area for sitting outside.

Inside you'll find a long tasting bar, but with the gift store and tasting area really occupying the same space, you're likely to find it a little crowded, especially on weekends. The proximity to New York and DiGrazia's good reputation makes the winery popular with out-of-staters as well as locals.

One advantage of the compact size is that setting out on a tour with the winemaker requires a walk of only about 12 feet. There's no doubt it's compact, but it also is a true, unpretentious winemaking atmosphere. I suspect most people would not mind the close quarters in this case, so I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 score.

The Staff
While tasting at the bar, we interacted with two different pourers, one a young, pleasant woman who was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, the other a white-haired man who turned out to be owner Paul Digrazia.

Digrazia is a good example of why it's so much fun to try wines at the wineries. A medical doctor, DiGrazia is a true character. He doesn't exactly bubble with enthusiasm, but he does churn with passion. It's easy to see he loves to talk about the story behind the grapes in the vineyard in any given year, and about the antioxidants in wine that help make it one of the most beneficial foods you can consume for your cardiovascular health.

But, as a doctor who's been around for a while, he can be impatient with less than interesting questions or those who don't pick up on his subtle hints or directions. But I never meant to imply that good service is about getting a bubbly Chamber of Commerce speech. It's about being exposed to true passion for wines. You get it in spades when Dr. DiGrazia holds court about his wines. He's the real deal. And, his accessibility earns the staff here a 5 out 5 score.

The Wines
DiGrazia offers one of the largest selection of wines of any winery in the state -- 14, according to the wine list. A large number are either dessert wines or blush wines. $5 will allow you to taste six wines of you choosing.

Most of the wines here use hybrid grapes, and many of the dessert wines use fruit other than grapes. While not normally my cup of tea, these wines have such a good reputation that I was not at all worried. But I made sure that I selected whatever dry wines were offered (to fairly compare vs other Connecticut wineries), and I skipped all three sweet blush wines.

Winners Cup $15.99: This dry white made from vidal blanc was tart, rather unpleasant. Lacking any real ripeness.

Wind Ridge $15.99: This wine is billed as a light, semi-dry seyval blanc. It was a little sweet, but I thought the wine had nice apple aromas and balance.

Meadowbrook $15.99: Called a medium dry vidal blanc, but the wine is made with late harvest grapes and it shows. It's a pleasant wine that is richer in style than Wind Ridge, but definitely sweet.

Fieldstone Reserve $15.99: The only red wine on the menu that is not a dessert wine, it's billed as a dry wine. But don't let that fool you, it's sweet, almost prune-like. Not anything I'd find enjoyable with dinner (sorry didn't get the grape).

Yankee Frost $24.99: Now we're in dessert wine territory. A late harvest vidal blanc, it's supposed to be complex. Not bad, but not great -- a bit like white Welch's.

Blacksmith Port $24.99: Made principally with Marachel Foche, this ruby port-style wine is very, very good. It's very concentrated and enjoyable. I had it once before, and it was even better than I remembered.

DiGrazia definitely makes some nice wines, particularly if you like sweeter wines. But I would have to say that I was just a little disappointed in the wines that were billed as dry or medium dry. It's the limitation of hybrid grapes, and the lack of as dry, hot weather in recent years, I would assume. But they do know how to make good dessert wines. I give the wines a 7 out of 10 score.

Overall, a trip to DiGrazia is fun, and you're guaranteed to learn a few things. If slightly cramped, the winery has great atmosphere and some good wines. It is a shame that they are not able to work with some quality vinifera. I rate the winery overall 16 points out of 20.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Chardonnay Wars

Can't we all just get along? Maybe not, based on what I read over at Avenue Vine. Seems that the oaked chardonnay people and the unoaked chardonnay enthusiasts are at each other's palates, er, throats, now and then.

The problem is one generated mostly by sanctimonious wine columnists and authors who try to make their mark with overly extracted language and tannic opinions. Have to admit fans of well-oaked chardonnays have taken a beating at the hands of some of these guys.

Even wineries themselves can come on strong. Marketing to one group unintentionally can come at the expense of the other. Oak-free chardonnay? Sounds like it's on a par with MSG-free Chinese food, sulfite-free wine and hormone-free beef. Must be better for you, right?

Well, oak-aged chardonnay fans sometimes have to explode. And, I don't blame them. I'm not a huge fan of those really big California chardonnays that are delivered to your palate on a boat of oak. I do like one now and then for sipping with friends because they do create quite an impression. But the most beautiful, balanced expression of the grape is, in my opinion, white Burgundy, and we all know the vast majority are aged in French oak.

The oak-free chardonnays do often present an interesting and enjoyable alternative taste, usually built around pleasant green apple aromas. But chardonnay is never more delicious than when artfully married with French oak in the hands of a true master.

People just need more balance in their lives and white Burgundy has it. But, if that isn't enough to quiet the restless masses, I've noticed that more and more wineries I'm visiting out here in the East are offering both an oak-aged and a stainless-aged chardonnay -- something to please every taste. I know the same is true of California and other wine-producing areas.

So what's all the shouting about? Has there ever been a better time to enjoy a good chardonnay, whatever its pedigree?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Chamard Vineyard

I really looked forward to this particular stop on the Connecticut Wine Trail so that I could look more critically, more rigorously at a local wine I know well. I've been to Chamard Vineyard several times and I've had their chardonnay more times than I can accurately recall. It's the Connecticut wine you're most likely to find in any given Connecticut wine store, and Connecticut magazine readers consistently rate it the best Connecticut winery.

So, I've been anxious right along to really put Chamard to the test, to taste the wines carefully vs other wines, not just from Connecticut but from the best wine producing areas. It's been quite a few years since I've been to Chamard. Would there be any sign of laziness, of them going downhill?

The Facilities
Established in 1983, Chamard is one of the older wineries in Connecticut. They also boast one of the older, nicer tasting room facilities in the state, having built the stone structure in 1988. Guests have been actively encouraged and treated well here for many years.

You enter the property via a long driveway that takes you right through a vineyard, always a great device for getting visitors in the mood to taste the wines. But the real difference here is the elegant surroundings that will greet you once you step inside the building.

It's hard not to get the impression that they poured a lot of money into their facility, from the rich wood accents to the fieldstone fireplace and antiques. You get the feeling that you walked into a country club or a wealthy individual's country home rather than a winery.

But if successful at striking an upscale mood and visual impression, I think Chamard is less successful in practical terms. Despite the size of the structure, the tasting room itself feels a bit cramped on a busy weekend. They have a tiny winetasting bar that forces people to struggle for space. Consequently, they try to distract visitors with a quick tour before allowing them a turn at the winetasting bar.

Don't get me wrong. The tour is informative and fun, but if you were planning on a quick tasting, forget it -- at least on a weekend. In a way they are victims of their own success. But I'm surprised they insist on doing things largely the same as they have for 20 years. It's time to at least rearrange their space and open up the visitor space. But, not a huge complaint. If you're game for a classy environment in which to taste wines, Chamard is at or near the top. I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 score.

The Staff
We were fortunate to be hosted by an individual who, though new to Chamard, is an extremely knowledgeable gentleman with many years of retail experience in the wine business. He took us on our tour and poured our wines when it was time.

He was an engaging, informative and passionate host with the ability to ignite in others a burning enthusiasm for the wines. He was a perfect ambassador for wine country.

If you don't already know it, Chamard was owned forever by the William R. Chaney, chairman of Tiffany's in New York. However, the winery was sold earlier this year to the Jonathan Rothberg family. I'm happy to report that the commitment to doing things right is still very much in evidence. Not many local wineries can afford the facilities and the talent that Chamard employs. But it's nice to see that those who have the resources don't skimp when it comes to providing the public with an optimal experience. I give the staff a 5 out of 5 score.

The Wines
With 40 acres, Chamard is far from the largest winery in the state but they are unique. You will hear a lot while at Chamard about their microclimate -- they are only two miles from the ocean. This maritime influence makes for a milder climate than the rest of the state, and it really does show in the fact that they grow only vinifera here -- no hybrids! I don't blame them a bit. The results show their microclimate is as good as it gets in Connecticut.

Still, as I said, Chamard is not a huge estate, so up to half the grapes in their wines come from Long Island, home of arguably the best red wine grapes in the Northeast. Whatever their source, these wines are an absolute pleasure to taste. And, tasting here is COMPLIMENTARY. Truly. This is getting so hard to find, since even the most quality-challenged wineries in Connecticut are now charging.

Pinot Blanc 2005 -- This was a lovely, balanced wine that shows very nice pear and citrus aromas. This wine gets no oak.

Chardonnay (LI) 2003 -- 40 percent of the wine gets oak aging, while the rest does not. The blend shows classic apple aromas and a hint of banana, with a crisp finish.

Estate Chardonnay 2002 -- Made from local grapes, 60 percent of the wine gets oak aging, while the rest does not. It shows in the creamy texture and appetizing vanilla flavors. Delicious wine.

NV Rose -- This fun wine is a blend of cabernet franc and pinot noir. It has a light strawberry nose, and finishes dry and crisp. A nice summer quaff.

Barrel Select Reserve Estate Chardonnay 2002 -- This is a big chardonnay that was not part of the tasting, but I just had to buy a bottle and try it. Lots of spicy oak and vanilla, that may come on a little strong for delicate meals. But with a little time, I think this will soften into a delicious rich wine.

The only disappointment was that Chamard had just run out of its most recent vintage of cabernet franc, which meant that there were no reds available for tasting. Definitely a bummer, but I've had their cabernet franc and merlot in the past and know they are of good quality. The only complaint I've ever had with a Chamard wine is their cabernet sauvignon -- yes, they make a small quantity. Definitely underripe, as are the vast majority of cabernets in the Northeast. Most people won't even try them -- nor should they.

Considering the terrific quality of the white wines and knowing how good many of the reds have been in the past, I have to conclude that Chamard still is a great place to visit in Connecticut for great wines. The quality here is easily on a par with Long Island and Washingtion state, even less expensive California. I give the wines a score of 9 out 10 points.

In many ways, Chamard remains the great local success story, showing what's possible for the wine industry in Connecticut. Consumers should not miss out on a chance to visit Chamard. They have a lovely setting and great wines, and they know how to treat you right. And, tastings are complimentary -- can't beat that. Chamard gets an overall score of 18 out of 20 points.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ice Sage

This is a conversation I had recently after opening a wonderful Austrian ice wine.

"Do you want to try some ice wine?"

"No, thanks."

"Why not?"

"I don't like sweet wine."

"This isn't like the cheap sweet wines you grew up with. This is a special dessert wine that's rich and concentrated and it has a nice acidic zing at the end that gives it balance."

"Just a little."

"...Well, what do you think?"

"It's not bad."

"Want some more?"

"(fast forward) I don't like sweet wine. I just can't take them seriously."

Young people today have an advantage over many of the rest of us. Many are entering adulthood with at least some appreciation for a wide variety of wines from all over the world. No wonder, wine is frequently covered in mainstream media today. Older generations, however, came of age when the American wine industry was still in its infancy, and fine wines were hard to come by outside of major metro areas.

Many such people remain convinced that any sweet wine must mean cheap California stuff like they had in the 1960s, or Blue Nun. It's hard to overcome that kind of conditioning. Some have never tried a dessert wine of any kind, after many decades of fine dining.

This pains me because I have a real soft spot for great dessert wines of all kinds. Ice wines are among the very best, in my book. There's so many great ones these days, it's absolutely criminal that anyone would deprive themselves because of some old notions.

A couple of days ago I opened a Riedenhof Kadlec Lyss Doux 2000 ice wine, made from gruner veltliner, and fell instantly in love. This is serious ice wine, with lovely almond and peach aromas and good balance. It has the sophistication of a good German ice wine, but goes for about half the price at $35. Who could possibly not like this stuff?

I've written about a few ice wines lately, mostly as a result of sheer infatuation. I know port season is just around the corner, and I'm savoring the ice wines while I can. But I think many people still need to be coaxed into allowing themselves to like these wines -- I'm trying my hardest.

I know ice wines don't come cheap -- they're very expensive to make and produce very small quantities. But forget the past and splurge on an ice wine. La dolce vita is right.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Gouveia Vineyards

Part of the fun of exploring Connecticut wineries is encountering the unexpected. Last weekend, we were amazed to discover a truly unique and enjoyable setting at Gouveia Vineyards in Wallingford. It's the kind of magical spot that can help turn your winetasting outing into an exilerating experience, if awesome vistas are your thing.

But, if it sounds too good to be true, of course you know it probably is. The problem is that the winery has been open to the public for only about two years. And, the growing pains are evident. Gouveia has a ways to go in some respects, but with experience and a location-to-die-for there's hope that this winery may someday live up to its true potential.

The Facilities
Gouveia is located on the open crest of a hill that provides winetasters with a 360-degree view of some lovely Connecticut scenery. There's a beautiful pond with a wide deck on the near-shore for sitting and soaking up the views. In another direction, you can look out for miles over rolling hills and woodlands. There truly are gorgeous views in every direction; one hardly knows where to look first.

The winetasting room is located in a beautiful new stone building with a steeply pitched roof that is crowned with a widow's walk -- a trademark of many an upper class coastal or river town home. Trust me, you'll want to move in.

Inside, the facility is probably the most perfect I've encountered yet in Connecticut. There's a lengthy oak winetasting bar for sampling wines, and plenty of tables spread out if you're more inclined to linger over a glass. With a stately stone fireplace adding to the charm, there's plenty of space in which to move around or just relax. And, move around you should because in another room (perfect for functions) you may find some nibblies to snack on.

Then there's the back deck, perfect for taking in some of the views I mentioned earlier. There's no doubt about it -- my favorite location so far in which to enjoy Connecticut wines. I give the facilities a 5 out of 5 score.

The Staff
Gouveia is such a great setting, it struck me as an outright shame that anything might spoil the experience. But it did not take long.

Our pourer was without a doubt the most disappointing individual we have encountered on the Connecticut Wine Trail so far. Without being outright rude, she was terse and completely unexcited about the wines she poured. How could we but feel the same?

Question after question was met with a one-word answer. She looked bored out of her mind and inconvenienced-- or was it the sandwich at a nearby table that grabbed her attention? I just couldn't understand why she's in a people position when she has all the enthusiasm of a teenager on an outing with parents.

Now, I freely admit the limitations of my scoring system. Restaurant reviewers usually visit a restaurant at least three times before reviewing it so they can put anomalies in perspective and get a better picture of patterns and routines. I don't have that luxury. Because of limitations on time and money, I visit each winery just once. I could have a completely different experience one day vs another, but that doesn't make our experience any less valid.

There it is. My one experience in this case made me wish I was somewhere else. I give the staff a 2 out 5 score. Another pourer nearby who seemed much friendlier was the only thing preventing me from handing out a score of 1.

The Wines
Gouveia offers the usual lineup of white vinifera and hybrid-grape wines, but I was surprised to see they also offer a couple of reds made from vinifera. This should be interesting, I thought. I plunked down my $6 tasting fee and was off.

Chardonnay Oaked $16: This chardonnay gets 12 months in oak, producing some nice vanilla and spicy oak notes. However, it has a acidic finish most Americans probably are not used to. I liked it.

Seyval Blanc $14: This crisp, slightly lemony wine is supposed to be one of their biggest sellers. I found it simple and pleasant but not distinctive in any way.

Chardonnay Steel $15: Aged entirely in stainless steel, this chardonnay had the acidic, lemony finish I expected but not much else. Not an entirely pleasant chard.

Stone House White $14: This sweet wine blends chardonnay, seyval blanc and vignoles that is simply, well, sweet. Not for me, but it might appeal to white zin drinkers.

Whirlwind Rose $14: This blend of cabernet franc, chardonnay and seyval blanc has a blush color and a pleasant raspberry nose. It's a bit sweet, but not a bad effort.

Stone House Red $17: This red wine blends merlot and cabernet franc with some of the winter-hearty hybrids that are so common around here. I was surprised and delighted by really nice plum and berry aromas, but reality set in when I tasted it. The fruit just dies mid-palate. Disappointing after sniffing those aromas -- perhaps a different blend or a better vintage would make the difference.

Merlot $19: Not a bad effort at all. Made principally with purchased grapes, I'm sure, this merlot has a medium body with nice blackberry aromas. A lot less jammy and sweet than California merlots, but still a pleasant wine.

Overall, I thought Gouveia wines show promise, but many are underripe and lacking any kind of finesse. I rated these wines a 6 out of 10.

Gouveia may need some time to develop more sophistication and character in its wines, but it has the facilities and setting to make this a real destination right out of the gate. Need a place to just get you in the mood for wines or to just relax with a drink and a stunning view? This could well be what you're looking for. I can only hope that they will continue to learn and develop the fruits of their 140 acres. And, that they work a little more with their staff on presentation. I definitely want to come back in a couple of years. My total score for Gouveia, 13 points out of 20.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Wine School

While some people seem to think bloggers are pajama-clad nerds who don't get out much, I'm here to tell you that the bloggers I know are overworked professionals who like to go home and write about something they really love. But, sometimes, it does sort of feel like you don't get out much.

In the world of wine blogging, that's an online death sentence because you've got to get out and explore, try new wines in new venues. Well if blogging and working for a living can be tough at times, try blogging, working and going to school at night! Here's how much a couple of my classmates from the last two semesters have been looking forward to new classes.

No, I'm delighted to say I'm taking a semester off. That means a lot less stress for the next several months, guilt-free blogging and, gasp, recreational reading! It also means getting out more to wine events and winetastings, so, so important to staying nimble in the wine blog world.

One of the things I most hope to do is study up with a friend of mine who does advanced winetasting classes. Trust me, these are not your basic learning how to slurp sessions. In fact, these classes (last one was three years ago) provided the only occasions I've ever experienced for tasting Penfold Grange, 2000 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, etc. So, with any luck, I should have some fun things to report on this fall.

Right now, I'm doing a little advance studying, checking out the finer qualities of a vidal blanc ice wine from Newport Vineyards in Rhode Island. I found this wine while we were vacationing at the Rhode Island shore recently. It's oustanding, very much like a fine Niagara ice wine. Not quite the balance of a German ice wine, but intoxicating aromas of peach merangue pie. Mmmm.

Yeah, I've got a tough schedule of studying ahead. And, I'll be happy to share my notes.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Heritage Trail Vineyard

You're not likely to find another winery in Connecticut that says 'New England' more than Heritage Trail in Lisbon. The sights on the wooded property, the smells of damp barn board and a cozy wood fire took me back to childhood visits to my grandparents' farm in Maine. No wonder, since the winery is housed in an 18th Century farmhouse and property that was neglected for years before being revived by owner Diane Powell, a practicing psychologist.

What she has accomplished is truly noteworthy. But this stop on the Connecticut Wine Trail also reminds one of the wine-producing limitations that New England represents.

The Facilities
Rustic and quaint immediately come to mind when you step inside this old farmhouse with its antiques and old wood floors. It's almost as though you stepped inside a colonial-era tavern, rather than a winery. But the ambience is completely authentic, not effected.

The tasting bar is of sufficient size and character to make the experience of tasting wine enjoyable. And, the tasting area merges into the gift store, which includes a variety of both wine and farm product gifts. It's a little small, but not overly confining.

The nicest feature is probably the sundeck or porch, where tasters can sit and enjoy views of the lawn, woods and pond. Overall, the facility will not remind anyone of today's typical modern winetasting facilities. But Heritage Trail goes with its strength, which is a nicely maintained rustic farmhouse. I give the facilities a 3 out of 5 score.

The Staff
One of the advantages of visiting a truly small winery is that you stand a lot better chance of meeting the winemaker and/or owner. In the case of Heritage Trail, we got to meet both in the person of Dr. Powell, who poured all of our wines.

You get an insight from the winemaker that you just don't get from other staff, no matter how well trained they are. Dr. Powell not only gave us plenty of information about the wines we tasted, she also gave us a personal perspective on the joys and agonies of winemaking in New England. "It's heartbreaking when you plant vinifera and they die," she said. Such losses are not uncommon in New England thanks to bitterly cold winters.

This level of intimacy earns Heritage Trail a 5 out of 5 score for staff knowledge and enthusiasm. But if you want the chance to meet and talk with a winemaker, act soon because Heritage Trail is up for sale.

The Wines
Heritage Trail is located in the eastern part of the state but well enough inland that it does not benefit from Long Island Sound's moderating influence. Consequently, as Dr. Powell noted, vinifera struggles to survive. What you'll find principally at Heritage Trail are wines made from hybrid grapes that do better in winter but which fall short of vinifera (or European) wine quality standards.

Tasting at Heritage Trail will cost you $4 a person, but the price of the tasting will be applied toward the cost of any wines you buy. This, in my opinion, is the absolute fairest means of charging for winetastings, but hardly anyone in Connecticut does this.

Quinebaug White -- An off dry white made from vignoles, cayuga white and horizon grapes that shows some lemon and spice aromas but finishes exceptionally tart. Could go with citrusy light foods, but not a finesse wine by any means.

Sweet Reserve -- Made with 100 percent vignoles, this wine showed much differently from '04 to '05. The off dry '04 was a bit grassy and pleasant, while the '05 was sweeter with a hint of dried apricot. Pleasant but light wines for summer quaffing.

Chardonnay -- This classic vinifera wine was my favorite. Made mostly with New York fruit, the wine is fermented in glass and aged sans oak, which means all you get is pure apple-like fruit with just a hint of residual sweetness. Malolactic fermentation gives it a creamy mouthfeel, for a pleasant light to medium-bodied chardonnay.

Shetucket Red -- Made from a hybrid called rubiana, this red had some tart cherry flavors but lacked body and complexity. Just not my cup of tea, or wine.

Facing numerous challenges, Heritage Trail does a good job of making wines. But I'm afraid most people will not find the overall tasting experience up to the standard enjoyed by some other area wineries. I give the wines a 6 out 10 score.

While the wines are not among the best in the state, Heritage Trail still offers an enjoyable wine-tour experience, especially if you like the ambience of Connecticut's colonial past. And, there's no doubt that the opportunity to meet and talk with a winemaker will make for illuminating, enjoyable conversation. Heritage Trail's overall score is 14 out of 20 points.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Five Foods, and Wines, to Enjoy Before You Die

I've been tagged with a meme by Trish over at Vin Vini Vino. Actually, it's more of a chain letter. But in any event, bloggers have been asked to pile onto a post over at A Traveler's Lunchbox with their own lists of five foods that they would recommend others have before they die.

I don't do chain letters, but how can one resist a chance to talk about great food? But, since I'm a wine blogger, not a food blogger, I'm going to post about five foods AND wines I wish everyone could try once before they die. But I have to say right at the start -- man, this is hard. Just five?

1. The truffle dinner
at Peppercorn's. This was an absolute eyeopener of a dinner. This Hartford restaurant came up with five different small dishes that each featured truffles in some different way. Each dish, from shaved truffles over pasta to truffle-crusted fowl, exploded with rich, forest aromas that bordered on sensory overload. I know there are more creative, nuanced restaurant dishes out there, but the point is everyone should get to experience the complexity and mystery of real truffles in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing.

2. Homard L'Orange at Chez Bernard in Montreal. I'm so tempted to list lobster in butter at any no-frills lobster pound on the coast of Maine. It belongs on the list. But this French preparation of lobster, about 15 years ago, absolutely blew me away. It was so incredibly rich and creamy without overwhelming the lobster. The citrusy notes provided perfect balance. Could have been gloppy, but it was perfect.

3. White clam pizza at Pepe's. This thin-crust pie is probably the best ambassador anywhere for the Neopolitan-style of pizza, and has been featured on the Food Network. All the pies are great here, but the clam pie is on another, stratospheric level. The clams are awash in a sea of garlic, olive oil, oregano and parm cheese. The secret is two-fold: always fresh clams (never minced from a can) and a crisp crust done perfectly in a coal-fired brick oven. It's the meal food writers Jane and Michael Stern said they would pick for their death-row last meal. I might agree, it's roll-your-eyes-back good. I've tried lots of clam pizzas and nothing else is close.

4. Turtle soup at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. I've had a lot of good soups in my time, and we had so many great foods in New Orleans, but I've never had a soup as unique as Commander's turtle soup. It's rich beyond belief without becoming a gummy stew. It's an amazing display of savory meatiness that could easily make an entire meal. I bought a CP cookbook and took it back home with me, but I found this soup impossible to duplicate. Some friends of mine who chatted up a waiter there learned the stock is made over a period of days -- I'm sure that has something to do with it.

5. Mom's French-Canadian meat pie. My mom made so many great dishes -- inspiring my love of cooking...and eating -- when she was alive, but this elaborate meat pie stands out in my memory as perhaps her most distinctive and original. She used three kinds of meats, carrots, potatoes and peas in an absolutely delicious, herb-laced sauce in a flakey crust. It was such delicious, rib-sticking comfort food. I wish all my friends could have tried it so they know exactly what I'm talking about.

Giacosa Barolo '89. This may be my favorite wine ever from my own cellar. To say its complex is like saying Venice is wet. I never before encountered such depth of earth, leather, truffles, moss and tar. An intense, intense wine.

Hermitage La Chapelle. The Jaboulet '96 I had was loaded with earth, mushroom and leather aromas. Recent vintages haved not been nearly as good, but the complexity of the '96 still amazes me.

Cristal Champagne '89. I don't think I've ever had a Champagne as intensely yeasty as this one. It was like burying your head in a bowl of bread dough.

Well-aged vintage port. I've had a lot of 20- to 25-year-old vintage ports, but nothing has ever compared to the Croft Vintage Port '63 I once had. It was almost 35 years old at the time, and I was rewarded with a velvety smooth mocha, blackberry, dark chocolate sensation. Vintage port is so great it's easy to look past the tannins and still enjoy it, even if a bit young. But if you can wait, oh man, is faith rewarded.

Burgundy Echezeaux. I feel bad about not picking any California here -- I've had so many great ones. But when it comes to my absolute favorites, Europe just happens to rule. California would make a top 10 list, however. As for Echezeaux, I've never had Romanee Conti, but the ones I have had are both fresh and complex. Intensely perfumed. Can't go wrong here, and, yes, I hope to have a Romanee Conti Echezeaux before I die.