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Taking a Risk on Rosé

You know the feeling: You’re in an unfamiliar wine shop, say you want a good rosé for a picnic, and the salesman shows you to a nearby shelf, which has a grand total of six offerings. You don’t recognize a single bottle, so you ask for a suggestion, and the guy just points to the most expensive. Now you’re at sea, because he appears to know very little about any of the bottles. What to do? How to pick? This happened to me just recently, except that I had one additional piece of information: The shop, which is called the Oxbow Wine Merchant and is situated near downtown Napa, is owned by Peter Granoff, a master of wine and master sommelier with an astonishing depth of knowledge. And it’s a very classy store, with a fabulous cheese counter, a tasting bar, and an appetizer kitchen.

So even though Granoff’s salesman wasn’t much help, Granoff’s own spectral presence encouraged me to take a risk—and not on the $32 bottle, either, in part because that was too obvious, and in part because it wasn’t right for my occasion. I was just going to a casual picnic, and I didn’t want the wine to feel like a big deal.

I grabbed the absolute cheapest rosé on the shelf, priced at $13. My theory was that Granoff simply would not offer so few rosés without making sure that every single bottle was a good find.

Goodness, what a lovely wine! And what a lovely glow it gave to an evening picnic with my sister, her family, and my parents—who, incidentally, had brought a rosé from yet another retailer (and importer) one certainly ought to trust. That would be Kermit Lynch, and his terrific summer picnic wine is described below.

Peter Granoff’s Bottle: 2007 Floresta Empordà

Grapes: 50 percent Garnacha, 42 percent Merlot, 8 percent Tempranillo
Producer: Pere Guardiola, Catalunya
Region: Spain
Aging: N/A
Alcohol: 13.5 percent
Price: $13
My Tasting Notes: Darker in color than many French rosés, this wine jumps into your nose with berries (in a good way, I mean), and has a racy mineral finish. It was sensational with all the random charcuterie I brought to the meal, the duck rillettes and pâté and so on.

Kermit Lynch’s Offering: 2007 Mas Champart Saint-Chinian Rosé—Languedoc
Grapes: 60 percent Syrah, 20 percent Mourvèdre, 20 percent Cinsault, all from steep, terraced hillside vineyards in the western Languedoc
Aging: Cold-fermented in stainless steel, then aged on the lees for 90 days
Alcohol: 13 percent
Price: $14.95
My Tasting Notes: Much paler than the swarthy Spaniard above, this is all about crisp fruit and warm evening shadows. Not much of it out there, unfortunately: Fewer than 300 cases were produced.

Global Wine Brand Anyone?

We consumers have an impossible array of wine choices among all the varietals, regions, and, most of all, individual wineries. How could anyone keep track? It’s a problem for winemakers too, because the competition for shelf space has become crushing.

In any other industry, you’d expect consolidation to solve the problem. Think of shoes: Once upon a time we had village cobblers. Now we have Nike, Adidas, Puma. A great deal of consolidation actually has happened in the wine industry, but generally not in terms of brands; big companies like Constellation Brands and Diageo buy smaller wineries and wring more profits out of them by consolidating certain aspects of their operations. And sure, these big companies shut down unprofitable wineries, or tell a newly acquired one to drop certain bottlings. But by and large, this hasn’t had much of an effect on the number of labels out there, nor on the confusion those labels cause.

One way that people have sought to deal with this is by learning about the tastes and predilections of specific wine importers—in the case of foreign wine, at least. Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher are both names a person can trust in French wines, for example, so a consumer might look for their names on an unfamiliar bottle.

Oriel “365” Prosecco

Now we’re seeing the beginning of another way. Oriel is the brainchild of John Hunt, who founded the Seattle Coffee Company chain, sold it to Starbucks, and later founded Obongo, a software company that was acquired by AOL Time Warner. Hunt is an entrepreneur and brand genius, and with Oriel, he’s on to something interesting.

The company offers a line of small-lot handmade wines from all over the world, and from a great range of varietals, all under its label. That way, if you’re interested in tasting a Spanish Priorat, and you trust the Oriel brand, you’ll feel safe buying the Oriel Priorat—or Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, or whatever. And rather than simply buying wines made by other people, Oriel is sourcing its own grapes and making its own. The company insists that part of its vision is to emphasize regional distinctiveness. It also aims to keep prices reasonable by cutting out importers and wholesalers.

I tasted Hunt’s “Jasper” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and was genuinely impressed. It was an excellent wine, and for $30 it was fairly and appropriately priced. I’ve also tasted Hunt’s “365” Prosecco, and found it likewise terrific.

Now, I’ll admit that the Oriel concept makes me think—I like the homey, oddball quality of the wine world, with all its small producers, though it’s confusing. If the future looks more like Oriel, where there are fewer wine brands, each with a far greater range of offerings, it could lead to homogenous wine styles. So that wines from around the world might continue on the trend of tasting ever more alike. Thus far, however, that does not appear to be what Oriel is up to, and I also think that, in marketing terms, it’s a brilliant move. Consumers already stick
with producers they trust—locally favoring this Santa Barbara Pinot Noir maker or that Côtes du Rhône château—so it’s easy to imagine them sticking with a trusted producer that happens to make wines all over the world. In just the way you might settle on a given label of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you could settle on a given maker of, well, just about every kind of wine you’d ever want to try.

In Search of Pairings that Sing

Once again, I let my love of wine run away from me, and once again my daily consumption got beyond the bounds of the healthy toward chronic hangovers and weight gain. So I’ve had to put wine back in its place: back at the dinner table, and back in modest quantities. This means, however, that I want every glass to sing with the food, and that wine pairing is something I’d like to understand better. The basics are clear to me, of course, but I’m coming to realize that there’s a big difference between pairings that don’t suck and pairings that sing. The Don’t Suck pairings merely work fine together, so there’s no clash; the Sing pairings create this dynamite synergy between the two taste experiences, the way a dab of aioli can electrify your bouillabaisse. One plus one equals three.

But man, it’s hard to pull off. How many times have you asked a waiter or sommelier to recommend a wine to pair with a particular dish and received only a passable match? How often has the match been thrilling?

Anyway, to grow my repertoire in this regard, and come to understand it better, I’ve begun cooking from a great book that’s been around for a while: Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier’s Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food, by Evan Goldstein, with recipes from his mother, the first-rate chef Joyce Goldstein.

Foray number one, for me, was a dazzling success. The recipe was a pairing “for opulent, fruit-forward chardonnays (new world style),” and the dish was roast lobster with tarragon-lemon butter. I didn’t have lobster, but I adapted the dish for halibut, essentially pan-frying the fish in a mixture of canola oil and tarragon-lemon butter. Then I slathered the halibut with more of the butter before serving. It was absolute magic. I mean that. The single most effective pairing I’ve ever had, and perhaps the only time I’ve found a wine of that style to marry exquisitely with food.

The wine, incidentally, was from Frank Family Vineyards.

Last Friday Night’s Wine Orgy

Last Friday was the kind of night this wine-lover lives for, with one exception: the absence of my wife and kids. They’d gone up to Napa early for the weekend, and I’d stuck around so I wouldn’t miss the Saturday farmers’ market at the San Francisco Ferry Building. An old friend called, Jon Pageler, who does North American communications for Diageo, the wine and spirits giant. Jon got me into wine in the first place, years back: Every time he opened great bottles, I was the guy in the room who swooned. Over time, he hooked me up with wine-education junkets, to kick-start my wine-writing career, and helped me get deals on good wines, to build a small cellar.

Jon lives in Manhattan now, so it was great to hear from him, and also to learn that a bunch of our old crowd was game for a dinner together: Clara Jeffery, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine; her (male) domestic partner; treasured old friends Kate and Jamie. One thing led to another, all very last minute, Jon bought a bunch of beautiful dry-aged rib-eyes, and we cooked up a feast at my place. Nothing fancy, just big, bad steaks and tons of wine and a home, so we could linger and drink all night. When Jon arrived early, I had a great excuse for poking around my makeshift wine cellar and pulling out fun bottles—anything he wanted, was the idea.

Jon’s curiosity took us to a Prosecco I’d just received in the mail, a flight of massive Peter Lehmann wines from the Barossa, an even more massive Piña Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (“I love mountain fruit,” Jon said), and a Pine Ridge Fortis, which was flat-out astonishing, a huge and complex red that started strong, burst into glory around the midpalate, and trailed off into lingering reverie.

“Oh God, it’s been too long since I had a serious Napa thing,” Jon exclaimed, tasting the Fortis.

But the wine I want to call out just now is the curious outlier in the group, the one white, the Prosecco. I love Prosecco; cheap ones are often just fine, and they’re a great way to start the night off on a sparkling note, while keeping the price point casual. But this one was better than that: It was downright attention-grabbing.

Caposaldo Prosecco VSAQ Brut
Grapes: 100 percent Prosecco
Aging: Not relevant to this wine style
Alcohol: 11.5 percent (blessedly low!)
Price: $14.99
My Tasting Notes: As I’ve said, I’m a big Prosecco fan, but this might be the best one I’ve ever had. Now, I’ve never done an exhaustive tasting of the varietal, but I’ve only occasionally been truly knocked out by a Prosecco; I’m usually just quite pleased, on my way to a nice buzz, enjoying the light and refreshing quaff. This wine, though, had us all refilling our glasses—even Jon, who kept putting down his various reds, pausing in his comparisons, and picking up the Caposaldo bottle to imprint the label on his memory. I wouldn’t want to speculate on various fruits and flowers, so I’ll just say that it was beautifully dry, bright, bready in a nice way, and balanced, with subtle complexity.

Learning to Love a Local

I went on an Alsace tear recently, tasting my way through several dozen examples of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris (no Muscat yet, and not for any good reason). Along the way to falling in love with these wines (if you haven’t yet, you must, because they are like no other whites, and tend to be great values), I was reminded of something curious: I’ve never liked these varietals much from new-world sources. Pinot Gris, sure—as Pinot Grigio, it comes in plenty of harmless versions from all over. But Riesling and Gewürztraminer? I don’t have the kind of encyclopedic alcoholic experience to be able to claim that I’ve tasted the great range of these wines from the New World, so don’t think I’m trying to make an authoritative statement about them. I’m just saying that, in my limited exposure, they’ve never amounted to much. As often as not, they’re terrible. But suddenly I’m hitting some nice surprises. Both of these varietals can produce wines with a fabulous combination of floral fruitiness and firm acid: the kind of wines that drink well on their own, but also pair with foods that other wines shun. And to find that kind of unusual action out of Napa and Sonoma is surely a treat. One, a Gewürztraminer from Gundlach Bundschu, I’ve already covered; here’s another, a Riesling from the Three Thieves of St. Helena, California, the marketing-savvy guys behind those wine TetraPaks. This particular wine, labeled Firehose (they make a Gewürztraminer under this label too, also nice), is being explicitly positioned to enjoy with spicy food—the sample even came with a pack of hot chili powder and a recipe, to show off the wine’s prowess in taming culinary fire. And while this choice would doubtless shine in that setting, I liked it an awful lot with herb-grilled chicken. It struck me as the best example yet of how these varietals can deliver terrific, refreshing, low-priced wines.

2007 Firehose Riesling
Grapes: 88 percent Riesling, 12 percent what they’re calling “Premium White Varietals” (meaning what? That it’s a hash of other random stuff?)
Aging: N/A
Alcohol:12.8 percent (not bad)
Price: $9.99!
My Tasting Notes: Fruity and floral, but plenty crisp enough to be bright and bracing. There’s a lot to love here, a lot to savor on a hot night.

It’s Not About the Wine

The introductory wine notes to the new cookbook from Philadelphia’s Vetri—which Mario Batali has called “possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast”—carry a surprisingly sweet observation. The book is called II Viaggio di Vetri: A Culinary Journey, penned by Executive Chef Marc Vetri and a writer named David Joachim, and it won’t be published until this fall: October, to be precise, and I’ll be sure to remind readers at that time. But I’ve just received an advance proof, and I find the book so appealing that I want to spread a little early buzz, in part by repeating an anecdote from Jeff Benjamin, the restaurant’s wine director.

Benjamin’s telling a story about a first trip to Italy, with Vetri, and how his biggest wine-related lessons were unexpected ones—about the importance of human relationships, for example. One lesson that emerges, in more than one form, might be described as putting wine in its place: Through Benjamin’s encounters with Italian wine experts, he is reminded that wine is just wine, a supporting player in the joy of a meal or event, not the whole point. To illustrate this idea, he describes a large gathering for a restaurant meal, and how he fretted intensely over the choice of wines. It was a very wine-savvy crowd—producers, experts—and he wanted to get it just right. But something funny happened: One couple had brought their new baby.

“Everyone was eating, laughing, drinking, reminiscing, and marveling at the baby. The wine tasted fabulous with the food. But at that moment, the most important beverage on the table was the little boy’s bottle of milk. This evening was Julio’s moment to shine, and the wine merely served to enhance the moment.”

Poststructuralist literary theorists tell us that a reader makes every text anew; a text exists, in a sense, only through each independent reading of it. This particular reader, in this particular case, sees Benjamin’s own yearning for recognition, his very human ache to have these people acknowledge his fine selection and savor it. This reader sees, also, the humbling moment of discovery, of accepting that This Just Isn’t About Me. The baby bottle, then, is not sentimental; it’s not a claim that mother’s milk is somehow superior to wine. The baby bottle is pedestrian, generic, and intentionally so; it is a symbol of what binds that evening together, the center of social energy. And perhaps this reader sees the anecdote in that light because it feels so familiar to me: In all of my entertaining, cooking, and putting out good wine, a part of me aches to be acknowledged, to have somebody say that the food and wine are wonderful, perfect. But I’m always happier when I cling only loosely to that yearning, and put my heart instead wherever the mood and conversation are going. I’m always happier, in other words, when I share in the night.

A Pleasant Chardonnay Surprise

Chardonnay has such a curious status, if you think about it: running the gamut from some of the world’s most-sought-after whites, like high-end white Burgundies, to some of the most ridiculed, like overly oaked California Chardonnays, which are now chic to hate. So it was fun, recently, to find two reasonably priced new-world Chardonnays—both from overseas ventures owned by the Jackson family, of Kendall-Jackson—and to like them a lot. Each was a smooth, well balanced wine, without the food antipathy of excessively oaked versions. The first comes from Yangarra Estate Vineyard, in the sandy soils and slight elevation of Australia’s McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, and well south of Barossa; McLaren Vale is better known for Grenache (in fact I very much liked Yangarra’s Cadenzia, a Grenache blend), and doesn’t have much Chardonnay. But this one works. The other is from Calina Reserva, and is not an estate wine, meaning the fruit is bought on contract from other growers. But the Casablanca Valley is one of the best for Chilean Chardonnay, and like McLaren Vale, there’s a cooling coastal influence.

2007 Yangarra McLaren Vale Single Vineyard Chardonnay

Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Aging: Stainless (and they mean it, apparently—it’s on the label)
Alcohol: 13.5 percent
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
My Tasting Notes: Nothing extreme or exotic, just a very accomplished wine with a nice balance of acid and Chardonnay softness.

2007 Calina Reserva Chardonnay Valle de Casablanca Chile
Grapes: 100 percent Chardonnay
Aging: 9 months in used French and American barrels (2 to 5 years, mostly for viscosity)
Alcohol: 13.5 percent
Price: $8.99
My Tasting Notes: This one just struck me as a very good value. Seventy percent of the wine goes through malolactic fermentation, which I think of as a de-acidifying fermentation—and you can taste it in the creamy, rich quality.

Wine in a Bottle-Shaped Can

I’ve always liked my red wine on the cool side, and I’ve especially liked red wines that seem to encourage it, like Beaujolais. Now I’ve found one that downright begs to be cold—right on the bottle, in fact. Although it’s not in a bottle; it’s in a can. Or, rather, a bottle-shaped can. And, frankly, a ridiculous-looking one. If you inspect it closely, you can see that the can has a “chill spot,” a cute little dot that changes color when the wine’s cold enough, like certain macrobeers have. It also is decorated with silly, whimsical dots containing the words “very fresh” and “very fruity,” along with a picture of a young woman like you might see on the cover of a chick-lit novel. But the truth is that, despite myself, I like this absurd can/bottle. I like it in part because of the “get over yourself” silliness of it; and I like it because I’ve tasted so many good box wines recently that my prejudice toward the classic old 750-milliliter is breaking down. I’ve also read a lot about the vastly smaller carbon footprint of these new containers: They’re lighter and make shipping less expensive and less fuel-intensive. Most of all, though, I like this wine because I honestly think it doesn’t suck a bit. It’s a fun, cold quaffer that would go great with simple foods, or with a hot night and a chair on the porch.

2006 Mommessin Beaujolais Grand Reserve Red
Grapes: 100 percent Gamay
Aging: Get real
Alcohol: 12 percent (old school!)
Price: $14.99
My Tasting Notes: See above

Drunk on Blackberry Wine

Up in Napa again, for the weekend, I felt summer on the way: the tall spring grasses fading from green toward gold, the grapevines in full leaf, and the blackberry vines now budding with green berries. Last weekend’s rainstorms were gone on by, radish blossoms peppered the empty fields with their white and purple petals, and the odd orange poppy hung on in the better-watered bottom lands. In a few weeks, there will be enough blackberries to spend entire days out picking—I’m going to need an inflatable raft to get to one of the bushes, but I’ll find a way. And I have an idea of what I’ll do with the surplus. Preserves, of course, and perhaps a little freezing, for winter pies, but even more fun will be the blackberry wine I want to try.

The recipe comes from the just-published River Cottage Cookbook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The author of The River Cottage Meat Book, Fearnley-Whittingstall lives in an English country home as a sort of full-time food experiment for his BBC cooking show. He farms, he fishes, he forages, he kills livestock and eats it. And, apparently, he makes wine. The recipe couldn’t be more simple: Pour two quarts of boiling water over four pounds of blackberries, mash the berries a bit, and let the whole thing sit for a few days, stirring every once in a while. Then create two and a half quarts of flavored simple syrup using sugar and the juices and zests from one orange and one lemon, as well as water, and add this to the pot. Now add one packet of baking yeast moistened with warm water, and put the whole thing into a demi-john fermentation jar at room temp for as long as it takes to become hooch. (Two to six months.) The next move is to rack the stuff—pour the juice off the sediment—and let it age for another six months before bottling. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Nonlame Food Shopping in Napa

I spend a lot of summer weekends in the Napa Valley—my wife’s parents have a place outside the town of Napa—and for years now I’ve been struck by the sheer lameness of the food-shopping scene. It’s astonishing: In the national epicenter of the food-and-wine lifestyle, with so many spectacular restaurants and literally millions of food-and-wine-obsessed tourists, the grocery situation has generally been on a par with Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1970. Even the Saturday farmers’ market in the town of Napa has been an embarrassment: Several weekends last summer I counted exactly zero organic vendors. (I hear the Tuesday market is better; also, on other weekends, I did find one or two organic stands.) By and large, the stands were just conventional Central Valley monoculture farmers asking boutique prices for supermarket produce.

To make matters more curious, this farmers’ market happens in a parking lot across the sun-bathed street from Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, & the Arts, a huge and classy-looking building that promises to celebrate everything I hold dear, but that is somehow utterly impossible to engage with. The front of the building is an impenetrable monolith, and once inside you feel like you’re in the glorious lobby of a grand new museum, except you can’t figure out where the galleries are, nor why you would ever come back. As a result, the place hasn’t done especially well.

Enter the Oxbow Public Market, directly next door to Copia. Modeled after the celebrated Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, the Oxbow Public Market opened in mid-December, and does in a single stroke what neither Copia nor the Napa farmers’ market accomplished in years of trying: It creates a must-visit destination for enjoying the food-wine synergy of Napa. On both of the last two weekends, throngs of tourists and (more important) locals stood in long lines at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, a spin-off of the great little diner in St. Helena housed in the market. Also inside its airy and beautifully designed food hall are vendors with everything we’ll ever need to eat and drink the way we want to eat and drink on Napa weekends: terrific seafood, all-natural meats, organic produce, and killer coffee from the ridiculously good Ritual Coffee Roasters. A Hog Island Oyster Bar is on the way. The Model Bakery, also based in St. Helena, is making great breads and desserts and full breakfast plates to be eaten on outdoor picnic tables. A true cause for celebration is the Fatted Calf shop, offering first-class charcuterie and specialties like duck confit, along with raw pastured meats and pastured chicken and eggs from Soul Food Farm, the current favorite of many high-end restaurants.

Most fun of all, and most deserving of a detour to see Oxbow, is the Oxbow Wine Merchant. The brilliant sommelier Peter Granoff—partner in San Francisco’s excellent Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant—was manning the register the other day, and he walked me through the offerings. In a big open space, with large windows and outdoor patio tables, this is much more than a wine shop. It’s a wine shop with a wine bar, a kitchen making wine-friendly light eats, and a first-rate cheese shop. Drop in for a bite and you can put together a sensational picnic, enjoying it on the spot.

The economics aren’t entirely there for Oxbow yet—it doesn’t have anything like the daily foot traffic of the Ferry Building. And it’ll need Napa locals to get serious about shopping there, which will put pressure on the alarmingly high prices (which are, no doubt, in turn driven by rents, and by the sheer economics of Napa real estate). But the new Westin Verasa Napa—an upscale condo-hotel complex—will soon open across the street, as will a Ritz-Carlton resort. Throw in the wholesale redevelopment of downtown Napa, with the beautiful riverwalk promenade opening up, and this once-dowdy town, long the back-lot service center for the wine industry, will be on its way to becoming the center of retail gravity for the entire valley. Given that I weekend nearby, and much prefer cooking to dining out, I consider this a great thing. I bet it will help Copia, too.