Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way we want it to, or plan it to. Sometimes it gets away from us. One of the compelling things about wine is that it is not only about the bottle, or the grape: wine means something. Without wine, at least for me, I would lose one way to look at and appreciate life.
I don’t usually like jazz covers of pop songs. To me, they’re the epitome of elevator muzak. But now, on my second glass of 2009 Robert Craig “Affinity” Cabernet Sauvignon (approx. $45), this version of “Yesterday” by Lee Morgan is sounding pretty nice.
That doesn’t do Lee Morgan justice. Great bop trumpeter, much better at his chosen profession than I’ll ever be at anything I do, probably!
As for the juice: a “Bordeaux blend” that is more California than France, consisting of 86% Cab Sauv, 6% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 2% Malbec, and 1% Cab Franc. Wow, when was the last time you had a Bordeaux blend from Bordeaux that had Malbec?
It’s nice to be back on an actual college campus.
I am typing this from Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street in Princeton Township, NJ, where I am visiting my former roommate Alex who is now making a name for himself at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. All around me are people who are younger than me and much older than me: young students with nary a care in the world and gray-haired professor types. They’re nursing coffees and perhaps hangovers caused from Princeton football’s drubbing at the hands of the Yale Bulldogs yesterday. As I’m a Cal alumnus, this is a feeling I know all too well, but unlike the people keeping me company I at least am not suffering from a hangover despite sharing two excellent bottles of wine with Alex.
Those few of you who have kept up with my blog know I love Ridge Vineyards to an absurd degree. To me Ridge represents the best of California winemaking, and its wines are never disappointing. I might disagree with a few of them, but much more often I love them.
Ridge is well-known for its Zinfandel, but it made its mark on the wine world by making the legendary “Monte Bello” Cabernet. Monte Bello was selected as one of the California Cabs to go head-to-head with Bordeaux in the now-legendary Judgment of Paris of 1976. Their 1971 Monte Bello came in fifth and was the second-highest rated California Cabernet in the tasting, not bad for a wine made only nine years after the start of the winery. More tellingly, however, a re-enactment of the tasting was conducted in 2006, and the 1971 Monte Bello came in first, beating out all other California and French wines!
Considering sparkling wine is like considering heaven and hell. On the one hand, you have sparklers that barely qualify as wine–Andre and Cook’s come to mind–while on the other hand you have Champagnes that will take you to the sky (related to price). I haven’t had too much sparkling wine in my life, which is a shame because they are fun, well-made, and, as many are coming to realize, are absolutely terrific with food.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to a trade tasting of the sparkling wines of Schramsberg Vineyards, a venerable California sparkling wine institution located in Napa Valley, at Marcel’s in DC. I had had their wines once or twice before, but was never in a condition to remember too much about them. With this tasting I was in luck, however, because not only would I try a number of Schramsberg’s wines but would also participate in a blind tasting of Schramsberg wines and the finest French têtes de cuvée (prestige cuvée) wines.
Yikes! A blind tasting at a trade event? I felt outclassed, but I decided I would drink more than I spoke. I rolled up (on foot) to the tasting in my black suit (featured in my previous post) and heavy black backpack (at least it matched my suit!) and was greeted with a glass of Schramsberg’s Brut Rosé, which had pretty strawberry and peach aromas that were mirrored on the palate.
We were then led to long tables, where I sat next to David (the proprietor of the excellent Pearson’s Wine & Spirits in Glover Park) and the wine director of the Ritz-Carlton. The phalanx of glasses reproduced above awaited us, as well as scoring sheets:
Hugh Davies, son of the founders of Schramsberg Vineyards, gave excellent commentary and production notes throughout the whole tasting.
For the first flight, which was the blind tasting of the Schramsberg sparkling wines and the Champagnes, the idea was that we were supposed to rank the wines from first to seventh and determine if we could which were blanc de blancs and which contained Pinot Noir, and which were the Californian wines. These are my transcribed notes from A to G:
- A | aromas reminiscent of white Burgundy–hazelnut and lanolin. A long finish but a noticeable burn. | MY RANK: 6
- B | thin bodied and high acid, with notes of green apple. | MY RANK: 7
- C | wow! Clover honey and bread, tart but rich. Really freaking good. I thought this could be the oldest wine in the lineup, and could contain Pinot. | MY RANK: 2
- D | some aroma I couldn’t place… more of the Burgundy, maybe… really evocative and old-smelling. Well-balanced, with tangerine notes. | MY RANK: 1
- E | gentle floral aroma, with lemon curd. | MY RANK: 5
- F | a rich color which made me wonder if this was an older vintage. Burgundian aromas, with a round, full taste evocative of papaya and tropical fruits. I thought this might contain Pinot. | MY RANK: 3
- G | pineapple on the nose, less fruit-driven and more hazelnut on the palate. | MY RANK: 4
It’s tough being a student in DC sometimes. Unlike LA or Berkeley or NY, DC seems to have a dearth of good, cheap food. It’s sorely lacking in great street food (although there are a number of food trucks nowadays, like Wonky Dog and the Fojol Brothers) and has barely any serviceable $10-$20 dinner options. It does, however, have some excellent high end restaurants like, oh I don’t know, Citronelle.
So it’s nice to find a solid restaurant with well-executed food and great service. Firefly fits the bill perfectly. In a nutshell, it’s a wonderful place to have happy hour drinks with a few friends or take a date: it’s cozy without seeming small, social without being loud, and as comforting as a warm woolen blanket. It is a bit more expensive than it looks like it should be, but still worth the price.
Mary Kate and I went to Firefly for dinner this past weekend and it did not disappoint. We started with a cocktail each: she had the grapefruit spritz and I had the tarragon fizz. The grapefruit spritz was a glorified greyhound and a bit too sweet for my taste. However, the tarragon fizz was right up my alley, with tarragon-infused vodka and St. Germaine, fresh lemon, and topped off by sparkling wine. It was garnished with some sliced tarragon and was pleasantly herbal; it was a nice aperitif.
The Amtrak is not so bad. Actually, it’s very nice except when it’s delayed, which is a matter for Part Three. At the time, however, I knew nothing about flooded tracks and two-hour delays; I only knew how nice it was to be riding a train up the coast as the rain fell around me.
My destination was Santa Barbara, where my former roommate (and current Princeton grad student) Alex would pick me up. That first day and evening, including a wonderful dinner at Bouchon, will be the subject of Part Two of this series.
I’d like to talk about Stolpman Vineyards, a winery located in the Ballard Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley. If you might recall, my friend Billy had brought a bottle of Stolpman, the excellent 2007 L’Avion, to a tasting at Mission Wines we attended two weeks ago. Alex had planned a late morning of tasting, so we went to Los Olivos to look around. You might recall, if you were in Southern California, that the weekend of December 18 was rainy as heck. This made driving a bit precarious but also had the unexpected benefit of clearing Los Olivos of nearly every other tourist and taster. Alex and I basically had the town to ourselves.
We started with a light repast at Corner House Coffee, where freshly-brewed Peet’s awaited us and we could play a few rounds of Hive while we dried off.
I have quite a few entries to post, including some from a very nice wine tasting trip up to Santa Barbara, but I will post this one first. I had purchased a bottle of 2002 Chateau St. Jean “Cinq Cepages”, a wine composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot from Sonoma. While one could think of this as a meritage the people at CSJ classify it as a Cabernet because of the high percentage (at least 75% in any given vintage) of that grape in the blend.
I was very excited about this wine, having had it shipped from invino to my home back in California.
We opened it up yesterday for dinner, which was New York strip steaks topped with caramelized onion, creamy mashed potatoes, and a nice green bean, tomato, and feta cheese salad. True to form, I opened it up about an hour before dinner to drink while cooking. Very dark, saturated color. On the nose there was prune and blueberry, and herbs. When my mom tried it she said it tasted salty–I agree: there was sort of a cured olive aspect to the wine. I got the prune and berries, along with tar, tobacco, licorice, and stone–nicely integrated, soft tannins. It had a long finish, resolving to lighter red fruit notes.
You wake up one morning and you realize that two and a half years have passed. And yet, this time did not just fly by: it was full of wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) memories and experiences, and with friends and family.
Of course, this being a wine blog, the time was also filled with some excellent wine.
I type this from sunny California. It is literally sunny (yesterday was 77 degrees, today is going to be 80), with uncharacteristically perfect blue skies through which you can see the San Gabriel Mountains. I just flew in from DC on Saturday and have already had some great Chinese food–great Mexican food awaits.
Bookending my flight: Life by Keith Richards, which I highly recommend; two finals, courtesy of law school; clinic work, also courtesy of law school; drinking, courtesy of my nascent alcoholism; and a few bottles of wine had on either side of the continent.
The first bottle I want to write about is the young 2008 Roger Belland “La Fussière” Maranges 1er cru (Ansonia Wines, $22). This is almost criminally young, but despite that (or because of that…?) it is tantalizingly good. The nose on this is incredible, just exploding from the glass with strawberry and red fruits. It has pronounced acidity and not too much tannin, and it is very lean and juicy. It is a pretty expression of Burgundy, fruit, not funk; berries, not earth. This is reminiscent of good Beaujolais cru.
Contrast that to this bottle right here:
The 2008 Meiomi “Belle Glos” Pinot Noir (Pearson’s Wine and Spirits, $20ish) is a blend of Pinots from California’s Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara counties. I had had it before at Mission Wines in South Pasadena, but that was years ago. All I remembered was that it was a quality wine but one I didn’t necessarily want to purchase again. I tried it again at Pearson’s with Heather, and again it was not impressive–except that there was something about it, some Mickey Rourke-like spark that kept me from writing it off. There was some funk hiding beneath the tired waves of old fruit that made me wonder if this had something else to offer. I told this all to Larry, the pourer, who said that this bottle had been open since the day before and that he would open a fresh bottle (so nice of him, right? I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND Pearson’s to anyone with access to Glover Park). The new bottle: wow! What a difference! The tired waves of old fruit were rejuvenated and became supple cascades of ripe plum and jujubes, offset by baking spice and underlined by that funkiness I had tasted in the first bottle. Substantial body and great tannins to balance the acidity. Very fragrant nose.
After an unconscionably long hiatus (I blame finals and other end-of-the-year miseries) I am back! “Back” applies in two ways: first, I am back to posting this blog, where I intend to write posts weekly over these 14 weeks of summer, and second, I am back in California.
I will be in California for five more weeks, after which I will be headed back to DC for a few days, and then eight weeks in beautiful Wilmington, Delaware, known in legal circles as one of the locations of the Court of Chancery (where I’ll be interning) and known in pop culture circles as the nameless setting of Fight Club. Hopefully during this time there will be wine, wine, and more wine. If this past week has been any indication, there will be plenty of that this summer!
I have to write a few posts, one of Deep Sea Wines (which was gracious enough to send me two bottles to review), another for a great product known as the Wine Diaper (it’s probably not what you think it is), and yet another for a book by Matthew Frank entitled Barolo. And, I’ll have to write about a very wonderful evening at Founding Farmers in DC at which a bottle of Riesling figured prominently–that’ll be coming soon. All of these will take place in good time, but before I do I wanted to “clear the palate,” so to speak, by writing about a few of the wines I’ve had at home.
One of my habits while at home is to buy a few bottles with which to tide over my mom until my next visit. I had purchased a few bottles during Spring Break, and to my surprise (and pleasure) I found that one of the bottles had not yet been opened.
This bottle was the Candidus from Malm Cellars. Malm Cellars is a one-person show, helmed by Brendan Malm. He doesn’t have a winery or vineyard, but he sources fruit from select growers to make his wines. One such wine, his 2007 Sonoma County Pinot Noir, garnered a great review from the LA Times. The Candidus, which is made from a bunch of undisclosed white Rhône varietals (but also apparently includes Chardonnay concentrate according to Dave from Mission Wines), is about $16. It’s intensely aromatic–I’m thinking Viognier or Muscat (though I’m not sure if Muscat is a Rhône varietal)–with an assertive nose of quince and honey. It’s pear-colored and appears on the viscous side. Excellent: full of dried apricot and citrus, full bodied yet light, good acidity, very pleasant.
One of my favorite pastimes in DC is to discuss ways in which California is superior to every other state. This usually takes place in the company of fellow Californians, as people who aren’t from Cali simply can’t comprehend how their domiciles are inferior.
All kidding aside, California does have a lot going for it. This being a wine blog, I will restrict the discussion of California’s awesomeness to wine. Of course, there’s Napa. Sonoma. Paso Robles. There’s Cabernet. There’s Pinot. There’s Chardonnay. Etc., etc., etc.
But just as overexposure to sun can lead to premature wrinkles and skin cancer, and being in the shadow of Hollywood creates self-aggrandizers, posers, and shallow B-list types, so can the sun lead to huge, overly-ripe wines, and so can being in the shadow of Napa create wines that, in undergoing sugar Botox and oak augmentation, have become caricatures.
Thus, there are so many California Cabs that are as undrinkably oaky, and California Chards that leave nothing to the imagination. Hence my migration towards the refined, subtle graces of Burgundies.
Thank God for Zinfandels.