That is what the sign by the checkout line had written in bright letters. You have seen these. They are next to the “laughter cures whatever” and the “hang in there” ornaments. While waiting for my turn, I got over the reflexive hatred for these vacuous signs and started to think about how today’s pandemic dominated world has changed my appreciation of the things I am grateful about. The compulsive “looking-for-the-silver-lining” guy started to think.
Tomorrow just about everyone you know will be sitting around the table and in a Thanksgiving prayer or reflection, will express gratitude for those things any sentient human being values: health and family. But what about some of the much smaller things that have kept us going during these challenging months? I am talking about the gift of friends around a table with food and wine. I dare impose upon you these thoughts because I suspect we share the sentiments.
Whereas the warmth of a friendly conversation, in person, is something that many of us had taken for granted, these days of confinement taught me that those interactions are the “essential workers” of my wellbeing. During those far in between COVID weeks when we could host outside gatherings with friends, albeit a couple or so at a time, I gained a new appreciation of the power and transcendence of what good company means.
Since I suck at golf, play tennis like an invertebrate, and have the attention span of a mosquito when it comes to fishing, the things that my wife and I enjoy together have to do with food and wine. Mind you, not in a gluttonous way but rather as the means of having others partake in something that brings us great joy. After all, the only happiness that matters is the one that is shared. In food and wine perhaps you, like us, find a canvas onto which we create some of that shared joy. I miss the rhythm of entertaining; thinking of what to cook and the wines that will go with the different courses. I miss writing down a grocery list and the time spent hunting down certain ingredients. I miss my butcher rolling his eyes when I ask for a 2-inch thick cut of meat instead of the 1 ½ inch one that is on display. I miss driving from one store to the other in those culinary quests. I miss how contemplative chopping can be. I even miss my wife’s displeasure with the way I plate meals.
But it is the company that I have missed the most. I miss cooking someone’s favorite dish. I miss being enthralled listening to a great story and learning from others’ latest trip or great meal. I miss the comfort and familiarity of taking our shoes off with our guests and hanging out for as long as it takes to finish that late night fateful glass of Madeira or Brandy…sometimes both.
But it will soon happen again and when it does, it will be in a different light strengthened by recognizing the value of the warmth of being with and for others. I am grateful for the renewed understanding of the value of my friends. Cannot wait to have them over again!
We will be waiting by the sign that reads “Casa Muñoz: Established in 2002”
Back in the days when as a young teenager in Puerto Rico, I was subjected to the immutable social rules associated with the proper etiquette surrounding cotillions. Virtually every 15 years old girl, as the cultural traditions mandated, had a “coming out party”. This was the only time it was acceptable for a girl to ask a boy to a dance. Being that this was at about the time when the movie “10” with Bo Derek had come out (and I know that many of you wore those tight little braids) my grandmother would, divested from all reality, insist that all those girls doing the inviting were “10’s”; whether they had only one eye on their foreheads or else. Oh, and there were many invitations…not because I was all that, but because it got out that I had the grandma who would strictly forbid me to decline regardless of the aspiring debutante’s cyclops status!
This was my first introduction to a points system.
The current prevalent wine point system is evidenced by the ubiquitous tags and other references that seem to contribute to the labeling of nearly every bottle of wine in the market. Where did it come from? While there have been older score systems, like the 20-points rating created in 1959 at UC Davis’ prestigious viticulture and enology department, by far the most popular quotidian ones are based on a 100-points scale. The wine critic who propelled this system into the current wine zeitgeist was Robert Parker. An attorney by trade for 10 years in Baltimore before becoming a full-time wine writer, he founded the bi-monthly Wine Advocate newsletter in 1978. Mr. Parker became the “it” critic after successfully predicting the quality of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. The relevance of his points system cannot be overstated as, to this day, it can make or break a wine brand. There is a clear hierarchy of prices when wines score 90 and above. If you ever receive the chimerical 100 points, you can demand stratospheric prices as your wine enters the pantheon of unicorn wines. His system is deciphered as follows: Extraordinary (96-100), Outstanding (90-95), Barely above average to very good (80-89), Average (70-79), Below Average (60-69), and Unacceptable (50-59). Wine Spectator and others also use a 100-points system with a similar scale and comparable descriptors such as “classic” and “mediocre”.
Tastings are usually done by magazine editors who have assigned “beats” (i.e. regions, styles, etc.). Tastings can be done from barrel (unfinished wine) or bottle. Although they are mostly done blinded to producer and price, some things such as the varietal and vintage are unmasked in order to procure a certain level of consistency and quality in the process.
Even though I am not one to dwell too much on the actual scores (not too keen on the “hey, you’ve got to try this 94 points beauty!”), I acknowledge that there is some value in the process. For one, this is a quick and effective way for a critic to convey an opinion in describing those wines that CAN be compared. For example, while a 92-points Bordeaux blend from Rutherford and Oakville in Napa can be comparable, they will be a different wine from similarly scored Bordeaux blends from Australia. Moreover, they are likely to significantly differ in cost. Instead, I am more inclined to pay attention to the descriptions behind the score but tend to scoff at the overly poetic and extravagant narratives. I mean, what the heck is a “sultry”, “sexy”, and “tight energy” wine? All I know is that while a feather is “sexy”, the whole chicken ain’t right. I’m simple like that.
The point system can also be particularly useful if you were to find a critic who has a similar palate to yours. If you absolutely detest the “taste” of Sherry, a critic who may rate one 98-points is not your palate brethren. In other words, you can have wines that are very well made but that you do not enjoy. Personally, while I am not in lockstep with Parker’s penchant for big and brooding wines, I find a certain affinity with some of the Wine Spectator Italian editors. Just the other night we had a fantastic Chilean blend (Cab and Carmenere) that we loved but it scored a “measly” 88 points.
Bear in mind that when these critics taste, they are considering a certain summation of how that specific wine is supposed to taste and the quality of the product. Therefore, scores do not necessarily measure “deliciousness”. It is similar to when in a dog show the schnauzer being judged is compared to the breed archetype and not to the bulldog down the line.
I find it both fun and useful to rate the wines I drink. For one, it allows me to remember the ones worth buying again and recommending to friends with similar taste. It is a simple, if not sophomoric, 5 points scale that I find reproducible and laden with a common language I can share with my wine buddies: 5 = Wow! Delicious and memorable. A special wine that blew me away. 4 = Good, solid, and interesting wine with complexity. 3= It’s OK. Simple and without much to say. 2 = Drinkable but only if I must. 1 = Undrinkable. Nasty stuff. I think that one can easily drink “4’s” between $15-$30.
In conclusion, although the jarring memories of an unknown dad coming to my house to pick me up on my frayed tuxedo on the way to a disco, the Donna Summers inflected pubescent abattoirs of the times, have forged the way I look at ANY point system, I think that wine scores are valuable if properly understood and applied….like the Paco Rabanne my grandmother insisted I dowsed into my handkerchief in case I had to “give it to a lady to wipe her tears”.
What the hell, grandma…” Love to Love You Baby” was just a song.
Who does not remember Dr. Lecter’s, of “Silence of the Lambs” fame, quip: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”? As it turns out, we share similar taste.
Chianti wine is a red blend from Tuscany, Italy, made mostly from Sangiovese grapes. This unbearably beautiful place is the land of the Renaissance, the cradle of the Italian language (based on the Florentine dialect), and Lorenzo The Magnificent; the pet name I always requested from my wife but to no avail (so sick of her obstinance…). The etymology of the grape’s name arises from the Latin sanguis jovis; the “blood of Jupiter” (aka Jove). Tuscany, since the time of the Etruscans beginning in the 9th century BC, has had wine as a central part of its society.
Chianti’s delimited geographical boundaries date back to 1716 when the Grand Duke of Toscana, of Medici lineage, issued an edict to protect the reputation of these wines by forbidding the use of their name elsewhere. This demarcation subsequently evolved into what today is known as Chianti Classico (roughly the historical area that lies between Florence and Siena) and “general” Chianti. The latter is a result of a 1930’s expansion of the vineyards around the historic/Classico area. The “general” Chianti, at about twice the size of the Classico area, is in turn divided into 7 sub-zones. The Classico bottles are nowadays instantly identified by the seal of the iconic Black Rooster (“Gallo Nero”). Legend has it that during the days of open hostilities between Florence and Siena, the cities decided to settle boundaries by having two knights ride towards each other starting with the rooster’s crow at dawn. Florence chose a black rooster as their symbol while Siena chose a white one. But since the Florentines sought to keep their rooster in a small dark coop for days without food, the morning of the event, as soon as the hungry black rooster was freed, it began to crow well ahead of dawn. This allowed the “black rooster” knight a head start to ride to almost 7 miles from Siena, hence Florence controlling most of the Chianti territory.
Chianti’s wine history went beyond this first ever attempt to protect the geographical integrity of a wine appellation. For instance, in the 19th century Baron Ricasoli established what for years would be the “recipe” for Chianti wines: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo Nero, and 15% Malvasia. Nevertheless, Chianti’s history was one fraught with a stuttering course. The region had to contend not only with the effects of world wars and domestic political turmoil, but also with the ravages of plagues. Alas, subsequent economic downturns were remedied with large investments that resulted in emphasis on quantity over quality. These were the days when the market was flooded with mediocre wines often packaged as “fiaschi”; those now kitschy round bottom bottles partially wrapped in a straw basket. I had one in college covered with candle drippings which, in conjunction with my mullet, I kept around for romantic purposes.
But the production of plonk wines all changed in the 80’s (the BEST decade ever!) when producers started to focus on quality and innovation. Nowadays, some of Italy’s finest wines hail from this appellation. By law, Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum 80% Sangiovese with maximum 20% of the other auxiliary red grapes. On average the wines spend 1-2 years in oak. There are 3 categories of Chianti Classico: 1. Vintage (“annata”) – Minimum 12% alcohol 2. Riserva – Minimum 12.5% alcohol and aged for 24 months 3. Gran Selezione – A new category since the 2010 vintage. These are from the best vineyards with a minimum 13% alcohol and aged at least 30 months. Apart from the Gran Selezione bottles, which can hover around the $50 mark, good Chianti wines tend to be priced in the $15-$25 range.
A nice Chianti typically offers notes of red fruit (sour cherries), sweet tobacco, leather, and the expected hints of oak. On the palate it has good acidity and sensible tannins. It obviously goes well with the foods from Tuscany: roasted meats, red sauces, pizza, and yes…fava beans and liver!
In fact, the story goes that Dr. Lecter’s line is actually an inside joke because a psychiatric patient like him, who would have likely been on medications such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), cannot absolutely ingest those 3 foods…let alone in combination, as they would potentially cause harmful side effects.
“I wish we could chat longer, but…I am having an old friend for dinner. Bye”
Dan, a friend from whom I have learned a lot and who jokes about someday becoming a “life coach with a big neon sign in the heart of Lincoln Park”, unknowingly imparts tidbits of wisdom into every conversation we have. One of my favorites is: “Many people know the cost of things, but a few understand the value of things”. I like to think how that applies to wine.
I’m going to be honest with you. Even as someone who promulgates the gospel of “drink what you like and not what the experts or the market (see cost of a bottle) tell you”, I still have difficulties accepting that the Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Charles Smith is a terrific $10 bottle of wine. But please don’t judge me! Let there be redemption in that I think it’s crazy to pay north of $1,500 for a bottle of Sine Qua Non Grenache (California wine). I mean, is one really 160 times better (whatever “better” means to you) than the other?
I think that a partial antidote to being swayed by the idea that “expensive equals better wine” is to understand some of the market considerations that go into every bottle of wine while bearing in mind that in the final transaction expensive wines are expensive because they can be.
1. Land – In Napa, it’s not uncommon to pay upwards of $400K per acre. If you were to buy the land to then plant vines, you would not really harvest viable fruit until the third year. In fact, it would be by the fifth year that your fruit would be of reasonable quality. Conversely, in Mendoza, Argentina, you can buy a 38-acre boutique winery and vineyard with an irrigation lake and computerized drip irrigation for $295,000! Here’s a quick formula to further geek-out the point: A quality vineyard yield is about 3 tons of grapes per acre. Every ton gives you just above 2 barrels of wine. With each barrel being about 60 gallons (that’s 25 cases which equals 300 bottles), that acre of land will yield about 1,800 bottles (over 6 barrels for the 3 tons). You do the math (hate that stupid cliché).
2. Grapes -Let’s suppose you cannot afford the land and instead want to buy grapes and make the wine either at your own facility or at rented space. If you buy the prodigious stuff in Napa, you’ll be paying over $35,000 per ton. If you subscribe to the industry’s formula that essentially computes that by taking the first three figures of any per ton purchase that’s about what you have to sell your wine for to make the purchase pay off, now your bottle comes at $350. Washington red grapes in 2017 were at an average price of about $1,500 per ton. Just sayin’.
3. Labor – Is your vineyard machine harvested or handpicked? You can machine harvest an acre for $100-$200 whereas if handpicked it will cost about $750 an acre. Unquestionably, the artisanal value of the latter carries over to the price of your bottle.
4. Oak – Being that oak can be the “spice rack of wine making”, its addition is deemed as another layer of complexity. You are not likely to have any oak in a central coast jug wine! With barrels of French oak (more expensive than American oak) you are looking at $850-$3,600 per barrel with the aggravating fact that after 4 -5 uses they are rendered neutral and therefore not useful anymore.
5. Vintages – Some will say that with the advent of modern technology, winemakers can almost mend the shortcomings of certain sub optimal vintages. But even if you don’t believe that, keep in mind that different years are more about different characters than differences in quality.
6. Hype – Here I include “points”, the public buzz, and the concept of “boutiqueness”. For example, the point system, which is merely a score that a certain critic (admittedly knowledgeable folks…albeit ignorant of what YOU find enjoyable) ascribes to a wine will significantly bump up the price of wine once it hits 90. But sadly, the opposite is true as 88 points may render a wine devastatingly “cheap”. But remember that this system does not tell you about the character of the wine. Is a 90 points Cali Chard the same as a 90 points Chablis? “The Prisoner’s” ascend in the American wine consciousness is an example of the power of the “buzz”. This is how it went from a $25 to $45 a bottle. Finally, we are all attracted to the idea of uniqueness and exclusivity. Hence, the boutique wines. Many will develop “cult” followings, such as Screaming Eagle in Napa, fetching over $3,500 a bottle! But here’s the thing: Are the adjoining properties to these “cult wineries”, at often a fraction of the price, truly a fraction of the quality?
7. The other stuff – Cork and capsule vs. screw cap, big bottle with deep punt vs less heavy glass, fancy labels, etc. It all adds up.
So, how to thwart the siren song of “more expensive is better”? For starters, let’s acknowledge that there’s a point when more money does mean better quality. If you don’t believe me try a cheap skirt steak and see what happens.
But after that, the best answer is to know what is that you like in a certain varietal and then later become familiar on how they show in different regions.
I do not know about you but with all the money I will save not drinking expensive wines for the sake of their price, I will open a “wine life coach” office with a big sign in my waiting room quoting Manfred Krankl (the owner of SQN) who has said, "People buy Sine Qua Non. They don’t seem to give a toot where it’s from".
Remember when instead of straight up admitting you wouldn’t date someone because of their looks you would euphemistically say “Oh…he/she has a great personality”?
That has been the fate of Chilean wines up until recently.
Chile, with its geographical uniqueness, has given the world a vast assortment of remarkable wines at great value. But that has also been its downfall. For years, the wines of Chile have been known as “value wines”; wines that are good for the price but without much more to add. But that has changed consequent to the Chilean winemakers who have been hard at work to grow out of the wine “industry” stereotype into a reputation more aligned with the considerable efforts to craft wines of style and substance while still, yes, at great value.
Chile, with its almost 2,600 miles of coastline, has a dizzying array of climates and soils from where different varietals can show their character. However, soil studies have shown that there’s more diversity of soil in the country’s “width” which averages 100 miles. This is essentially a function of a west/east topography which places vineyard sites anywhere from the cool Pacific coast, through the warmer valleys, and up to the altitude of the mighty Andes. In addition to the Atacama Desert to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south, these are the geographical features that to this day have safeguarded the region from the scourge of Phylloxera; the nasty louse that, upon feeding on vine roots, almost wiped out the great vineyards of Europe during the late 1860’s.
Chile is not your traditional “wine culture” country as you would see, for example, in Argentina where people reflexively drink wine with their meals. Instead, Pisco (a local brandy shared with Perú) and beer remain very popular. Whereas Argentina’s wine culture was a byproduct of its immigration, Chile’s wine industry was imported with the Francophile ways of the mining tycoons of the 1800’s. Many of these metal barons, in accordance with their appetite for all things French, ended up bringing back many of the cuttings whose pre-Phylloxera progeny still exist.
Here are some of the Chile varietals that I recommend you try. Most live up to the traditional “value” character of Chilean wines. But remember, “value” does not mean poor quality.
1. Carmenere – Arguably the national grape of Chile. Brought from France where, while now almost extinct, it used to be one of blending grapes of Bordeaux. The grape found a thriving home in the soils of Chile where, when grown and vinified in the old style, it can grow to develop “green” and excessively savory notes. However, modern winemakers have been toiling to stay away from those stereotypical flavors to now produce wines with great structure. This is a great bottle to enjoy with roasted meats and anything braised.
2. Cabernet Sauvignon – If you are looking for the traditional taste of this robust and broad-shouldered varietal, Chile has a great portfolio at a fraction of the price you would pay in California where you do have to pay up to drink the similar quality good stuff.
3. Syrah – Look for cooler climate sites where the peppery and meaty character of the grape shows best. This has become my steak wine!
4. Pinot Noir – This ever-contentious grape (I have found from my classes that no other grape causes more friendly controversy!) shines in those cooler sites. Yup, you guessed it: near the coast, way down south, and up the Andes. These are crafted as more delicate expressions of the varietal when compared to California and even Oregon versions where it can often be marketed as “the Pinot Noir for Cabernet drinkers”.
5. Sauvignon Blanc – If you are looking for something between a New Zealand and California expression of this grape, again check out some of the cooler sites of Chile. Although still with some herbaceous notes, these wines are not as tropical fruit driven.
6. Chardonnay – Want to take a rest from sucking on oak barrel staves? Search no farther than cooler areas such as Casablanca Valley for less opulent expressions of this renown varietal.
I am confident that once you put on your Chilean wine goggles, the once “great personality” K-Mart underwear model will become your Victoria Secret/International Male partner for the night.
(Note: During these COVID-19 days filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and cloistering, I thought it would be a welcomed idea to spend some time imagining beautiful places and their wines. So, here I am daring to send your way my small contribution. It is my hope that it will take you there as much as it transports me when I write these posts.)
Toscana (as I like to say instead of “Tuscany” so I can be particularly douchey) is one of central Italy’s most important wine regions. Its history is illustrious. After all, this is home to Florence, arguably the center of the Renaissance. The beauty of the region, with its rolling hills and vineyards, has been experienced by many of you who read these words. Its virtually perfect climate and unique soils lend themselves to the production of world class wines.
Among one of the most celebrated wines in Italy, if not in the world, is Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello (“little dark one” in the native language) is a biotype of Sangiovese, the celebrated grape of Chianti. In other words, they are essentially the same fruit. Montalcino is a small medieval hill town about 25 miles south of Siena. The historic evidence of this area as a quality winegrowing region has been documented since the 16th century!
But Brunello, with its long aging requirements (in fact, the longest in Italy at over 4 years) is expensive. But fortunately, this “big brother” has a “little brother” that does keep up: Rosso di Montalcino.
At a fraction of the price (just yesterday I bought a bottle which was a 1/3 of the price of its Brunello brethren) a Rosso allows you to also experience a wine made with 100% Brunello/Sangiovese which comes from a zone of production which corresponds to that of Brunello. Why is it cheaper? Part of the answer is that the wine does not have the same aging requirements because a Rosso can be released after September 1rst the year after harvest without mandatory oak aging requirements. Moreover, although both wines are made with similar grapes, these can be cheaper as a function of being declassified fruit (grapes from the Brunello vineyards that did not have a “great” year) or grapes that come from less desirable zones in the vineyard; sometimes a few yards apart. So, is it a lesser wine? The fact that it is a more youthful, lighter, and fruitier wine does not make it “less” as much as it renders it “different”. Remember that differences in character does not mean differences in quality. A Brunello/Rosso is essentially the same concept of the “second wine” commonly seen in Bordeaux.
For puerile minds like mine, while Brunello is the big handsome brother who plays varsity, gets straight A’s, and shows up to parties with his Jeep, Rosso is the younger brother who will kick your ass at Spike Ball, gets lots of B’s, and shows up to the party in the loud Camaro with his shirt half open so he can show-off his big fake gold medallion that says “macho”.
Which one do you want to invite over?
This Christmas season one of the best “grown up” gifts you can give is wine. In addition to wine classes (I had to do it) I think wine lends itself to be just the thing for the vast array of friends with all have. For instance, if you are trying to impress someone, a sure bet is to go by points awarded. Some bottles even proudly display these reviews. The trick is to find that wine over 90 points (some friends may think that anything less than 90 is for peasants) that costs under $25. There are many! If you want to make it unique, writing something on the bottle with a glass marker is always thoughtful. Jokes about the bottles’ punts never get old.
If you think that your wine collector friends do not need any more wines…think again. Many serious wine folks have a cellar full of wines destined for “special occasions” (which drives me nuts because the opening of an exceptional bottle IS the special occasion). A great wine gift is that bottle that they will enjoy without guilt on a Tuesday night with pizza. Try Malbec and Chianti.
Another cool idea that many appreciate for its thoughtfulness is to buy 2-3 bottles of the same varietal but from different regions. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay from Chile, California, and Australia. For the price of these three bottles you may even save some money when compared with that 90-plus bottle your wine snob friends may covet. Another option is to go to a lesser known region and get different varietals from it. If interested in not spending too much try these wines from Washington State: Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah.
Another wine gift that keeps on giving is fortified wine. Who the heck downs a 20% alcohol bottle over dinner by him/herself? Don’t answer. These are sipping wines that will last a while. For example, the way Madeira wines are made is such that they are pretty much indestructible. They used to be ballast for ocean voyages! Ports and other dessert wines are also good options. If you need your friends to be set right after the end of a hedonistic meal, what they need is some brandy. Try Cardenal Mendoza; a brandy from the Sherry region of Spain.
Finally, one last strategy is the “lingerie-wine-bottle” gift. This is that exceptional bottle you will gift fully aware that you will be the one drinking it. But maybe “lingerie” is not the best metaphor as it would be weird to re-gift that. Am I wrong?
Whatever you do, remember to ideally make wine about company over food and conversation. Like it’s been said before, wine is bottled happiness and the only happiness that counts is the one you share.
İFeliz Navidad y Salud!
If you are interested in the rumblings of this blog, chances are that you are a reasonably avid restaurant patron. If so, in the course of eating the good stuff I am sure that you’ve come across those heavenly now-in-season menu “enhancers”: white truffles.
White truffles are fungi (by the way, “funguses” is now an accepted plural) that are harvested in Italy between October and December. They cannot be cultivated. Instead, they are hunted for with the help of pigs or dogs that sniff them out near the roots of certain trees. However, pigs are not the favored truffle hunters as the scent of this tuber resembles porcine pheromones to the extent that the swine go into some kind of truffle eating frenzy. So, in lieu of horny pigs, the folks that dedicate themselves to this seasonal endeavor bring their specially trained dogs to truffle grounds that are often kept as tight family secrets.
The seasonality of truffles and the lore that surrounds them certainly add to their mystique, desirability, and prices. The ancient Romans thought that they had aphrodisiac properties and that they were the product of lighting striking damp earth. I think that one of those assertions may be true…
The scent of white truffles is unique. Some call it “disconcerting”. It’s been described as a garlicky earthiness. They are usually never cooked in order to keep them as pungent as possible. Their shelf life is fleeting and for that reason they ought to be used very soon after buying them. But should you need to store them, do so in the fridge for no more than 2 days while kept covered and dry. There are several cheaper versions from, say China, but these are not considered to be of Italian quality. The town of Alba (in the Piemonte, North Italy) is the center of the tartufo universe.
There’s no denying that white truffles are expensive. Luckily, not much is needed. A gram will set you back about $200. But with your truffle shaver set just right, that will provide enough truffle “coverage” for a couple eating 4 courses each. A reasonable facsimile is truffle oil (there are also fake ones out there). I like it on pizza, omelets, and even in ice cream (yes, white truffle gelato is phenomenal). They can be delivered overnight by reputable purveyors such as Eataly. When wine pairing these dishes, the old aphorism “what grows together, goes together” is fail proof. Try a Barbaresco or some of the Piemonte whites with these dishes and you’ll know what I am talking about.
So, if over the next 2 months you feel the urge to embark on a hedonistic voyage, make sure to order some white truffles. Expensive? Yes, they are. Are they worth it?
Oink, oink (with Bow Chicka Bow Wow music in the background).
In the course of traveling our way through some of the most important wine regions of the country, we just recently spent some time in Paso Robles, California. “Paso” as the locals abbreviate the town’s Spanish name of “Pass of the Oaks” is one of the country’s largest American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). First created in 1983, this central coast AVA finds itself roughly at the midpoint between San Francisco and Los Angeles and about 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Since its inception, these 32 by 42 miles of vineyard acreage has seen a tremendous growth to the tune of over 200 wineries today. “Paso” at about 3 times the size of Napa, used to be one of the largest undivided AVA’s. But this changed in 2014 when it was subdivided into 11 sub-AVA’s to ostensibly allow for the expression of the different soils and microclimates. Some argue that it will be a while before those sub AVA’s really show substantial terroir differences.
Paso Robles is rather hot and for that reason it lends itself to varietals that appreciate a good suntan. This can result in alcoholic wines that can sometimes be a bit on the jammy side. However, the cooler sites that are closer to the west and sit at higher elevations are laden with the diurnal variations (cool nights/hot days) that help preserve acidity. This climatic feature is certainly the case in areas such as the Templeton Gap; a “gap” in the coastal range that allows cool Pacific Ocean wind to flow inland.
Paso Robles had been historically identified with Zinfandel. Nowadays, although this is still a flagship grape, the AVA takes great pride on its Cabernet Sauvignon (pretty big boys with heavy structure), Rhone Blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, etc.), and an irreverent group of interesting blends that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I mean, what are you supposed to do when you grow close to 70 varietals? For instance, it is not rare to find Spanish grapes blended with French, Italian, and Portuguese reds/whites!
The actual town of Paso Robles is small and quaint. If you are looking for a swanky hotel with lots of white in the lobby and staff that greet you with “how are you feeling today”, go back to Yountville. Actually, some say that “Paso” is the way Napa used to be a few decades back. There are no black turtlenecks and slick back hair here. Hotels are few and the gastronomic scene, although flourishing, it still feels personal and the conduit of somebody’s passion.
The wineries are not set up one after the other as you would see down Napa’s Highway 29 (with its satanic left turns onto it!) or Silverado Trail. Although there’s a bit of more driving, there’s virtually no traffic and several of them have restaurants on the premises. The staff is very friendly and engaging. In fact, one of my favorite things was that wine hosts, after a brief introduction, would come and serve a flight of wines and leave you alone to taste with your friends.
For the “wow factor” Daou Winery carries plenty of punch. Beautiful property in a serene bucolic setting that really makes it hard to get up and leave. But for me, it was a very edifying experience to visit Tablas Creek Winery for its historical value. This property years ago struck a deal with Chateau Beaucastel (one of the most prestigious properties in Chateauneuf du Pape) to one by one bring all the 13 CDP varieties they grow in their Southern Rhone vineyards. After many years of quarantines (you cannot just bring cuttings into the country as they may have viruses and other maladies) and propagation, Tablas Creek makes virtually varietal wines from all these grapes. Very cool, I think.
Give Paso Robles wines a chance. I recommend their Rhone Blends and some of the other more restrained reds. It is a beautiful part of the country’s wine world and as it turns out, you can leave your black turtle neck and hair gel for the next time you go to the area between Rush, State, and whatever east-west street to the south you think defines its third leg.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I had the good fortune of an invitation to spend a wonderful weekend in Michigan with several fun and irreverent couples. In the course of seeking age appropriate entertainment for this wine loving crowd, one of the more enlightened moms” (who, ahem, also happened to be a Hinsdale Wine Academy graduate) set up an appointment to visit a local winery: Wyncroft Wines.
And then…I was blown away.
Soon after arrival (by appointment only…as they are not into bachelorette parties or any sort of other parties that mandate veils and rubber phalluses), upon turning at the small old graveyard that guards the ornate wrought iron gates that open into the botanical garden that introduces visitors to the property, we were met by the co-proprietor and wine maker, James Lester. James immediately engaged us with a charismatic earnest way about him that betrayed the fact that he was once a theology student. His magnetic personality was punctuated by the “this guy is cooler than me” head of wavy grey hair that added further gravitas to his commentary. After genuinely asking about our provenance and wine interests, James proceeded to talk about his property and passion for wine in almost spiritual qualities.
Unbeknownst to many, Michigan shares similar latitudes with some of the great wine growing regions of France. In addition, the temperance provided by Lake Michigan, the pedigreed plant material meticulously grafted to local rootstock, and uncompromising almost cult-like devotion to the vines’ life cycle result in the type of measured grape yields per acre (similar to what you would find in Burgundy) that produce quality fruit that can only be destined to make remarkable wines.
James is a true “garagiste”. For real. His operation takes place in the confines of a garage now converted to a winery. This is where the work of his staff of four (including him and his friendly wife/partner, Daun) begin the vinification process. There you will find his de-stemmer, lab, fermenting vats, barrel room, bottling area, and the most “legit” tasting room I have ever enjoyed.
There’s no denying that, as James floods the room with his enthusiasm and hospitality, his wines are made to taste even better. But let’s be clear. These are serious dry wines which are a far cry from the fruit bazooka plunk that many southwest MI wineries make to please the “Coca Cola Palate” crowd. His wine portfolio is honest. James is not looking to coax his young vines to make wines they cannot. Yet he has lofty plans for these “youngsters”: He has a true-to-form Bordeaux blend, a Burgundy-esque Pinot Noir, a steely Chardonnay, lively Rieslings, and even an ice wine that I recently paired with a Baked Alaska (yeah, baby!)
If you are a wine aficionado and would like to partake in both an educational and hedonistic experience, I encourage taking the just over 2 hours drive from Chicago for a revelation that will feel like a wine-world apart.
And who knows, maybe someday someone in France will say “I can’t believe how these wines taste like Michigan wines”!
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.