Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Live Lovin': Sugar Minott, RIP

I'm going to try to get an obituary up here that pays proper homage to such a talented and amazing human being. Just in case it doesn't happen today, though, here is a quick clip of one of my all time favorite Sugar Minott tunes, released on Studio 1. Reggae music this good is what makes so many people embrace this culture and art form.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Tasting Group tastes Northern Rhones

I thought of another reason to join a tasting group: tasting wines you seldom drink. I rarely drink northern Rhone wines, whites in particular, and it so happens that the Northern Rhone was the theme of our tasting last night. You don't have to like all the major wine regions to know wine. In fact, you may only choose to drink Burgundy, for example. But to know wine, to really know wine, you better at least be familiar with the major regions and their reference points. Most serious wine drinkers, wine writers, wholesalers, and retailers, which is to say most people in the world of wine, do not know wine. Yeah, I said it. Most people who purport to know wine don't know wine. They are lazy, or they can afford to cater to their expensive, 1er and Grand Cru Burg palates without ever checking in on wines from elsewhere, or they just choose to dismiss entire swaths of fine wine producing regions. Though I may hate on regions or grape varieties, that dislike is justified by at least a requisite amount of recent experience. Participating in tasting groups have become a regular part of my wine consumption routine, and I believe that I am better off for it.

To express how I feel about the northern Rhone in a turn of phrase that I love, I ain't mad at ya', northern Rhone. Your reds can have a wonderful balance of bursting blue-red fruit, spice, and even acidity, especially if it's from Cornas or Hermitage. As for the whites, I cannot get into them quite as much, as I simply value acidity too much in my whites to show more than merely occasional respect for Roussane and Marsanne. Anyway, let's review the two flights from last night's PMW Tasting Group.


2008 Qupe Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley

I like Bob Lindquist's wines. Like this one, an 81% marsanne, 19% roussane blend which is 12.5% abv, they typically show some restraint, and are fun to drink. There was a very fresh and mineral quality to the nose, here, which combined with the texture and acid had me initially thinking Saar Riesling QBA. Not enough sweetness or acid, though. Plenty of sulphur, however, which is probably why I first thought German riesling. Confusing sulphur on the nose with minerality? Yep, guilty as charged. I knew that the sulphur content was high, but also seemed to catch a minerality to the aromas which had me thinking old world. This was my favorite wine of the flight, narrowly edging out the wine below.

2007 Dard & Ribot Crozes-Hermitage Blanc

What?! Somehow this was my number two wine. A wine which nearly everyone loves (it finished our group first) and cannot get enough of. Allow me to explain. As much as I enjoyed the wine, it needs to be decanted. There is some real funk on the nose, and a pungency on the palate which improves with air. Mainly roussane with some marsanne. No sulphur added. It tastes that way. I am not certain but I suspect that there is a bit (maybe a day or two) of extended skin contact with the juice. It also tastes that way. While I really enjoyed this wine, it did not taste as pure, pristine and focused as it did two years ago when I drank it at Le Verre Volé. It is evolving in a way I find to be interesting, if not as much to my liking as in its pre-evolved state.

2006 Pierre Gonon St Joseph Blanc "Les Oliviers"

Awful. To me, nearly undrinkable. Apparently this is from a south facing slope. In a warm vintage, with a high alcohol grape that tends towards blowsiness, on a south facing slope is not where you want to be. Some bitter honey and nutty notes dominated this wine. Maybe this is what Honeynut Cheerios would taste like if they were made with spelt, without any added sodium and a bare minimum of sugar or HFC added, and vodka replaced milk in the cereal bowl?

2008 August Clape St Peray

Meh. As non-descript and innocuous as the wine books say it is. Yes, often times the wine books are actually right.


2005 Pierre Gonon St Joseph

What a delicious bottle of syrah! As I thought, given the purity and approachable quality of the fruit, this indeed turned out to be a St Jo. Dark cherry, macerated plums, some of that black olive character on the nose. A hint of cardamom. Juicy and supple on the palate, this is wine to drink, not contemplate for hours on end. Tannins crept up a bit on the finish, if only for the relative lightness and lack of density on the mid palate. Delicious wine, and my second favorite of the flight.

2005 Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage

Whoa! This sucked. Highly offensive aromas of Baltimore Harbor, Potomac River, and 101 N on a day where you smell the Bay. The palate lacked any sort of elegance, acidity, or reason to want to drink this now. Others really liked the wine, noting the bay/fishiness or however you wanted to describe the aromatic profile, but also a hidden depth of flavor and complexity (most hidden to me). Some folks thought it was shut down and will be terrific in 5 years or more - I strongly disagree. Time will tell.

2005 Emmanuel Darnaud Crozes "Les Trois Chenes" Crozes-Hermitage

Given the theme and the fact that we had Dard & Ribot in the earlier flight, and the fact that this tasted so natural and delicious, I thought it was a Dard & Ribot Crozes Hermitage. There was the interplay of ripe fruit and savory mesquite like smokiness, as well as a texture that to me reminded me of their wines. No D&H, but rather this producer whose wines I have not yet tried but am now curious to learn more about. Apparently, he has vineyard land on the flats (like most growers in Crozes-Hermitage, instead of on the steeper, granite laced sites), and cultivates his vines well. The wines are fermented with native yeasts, and aged primarily in barriques (some new) as opposed to foudres. This is because Emmanuel has no help in the winery: barriques are more easily moved than larger foudres. The oakiness did not seem over the top to me. There was plenty of fruit and acidity to balance out the oak.

2005 Les Vins de Vienne "Les Palignons" Crozes-Hermitage

A "super group" of winemakers composed of Yves Cuilleron, Francois Villard and Pierre Gaillard. Slightly smoky ripe dark fruit aromas led to a chewy palate of cherry and some prune flavors. Ripe but not overly so, with some cardamom bite on the finish. More stylized in a deliberate and modern way, but not at all bad.

2001 Emmanuel Darnaud "Les Trois Chenes Crozes-Hermitage

This was a bonus bottle poured to see who could guess which older version of a wine in the flight this was. I guess incorrectly, thinking that it was a late 90's version of the Les Vins de Vienne. Anyway, the wine was holding up well, definitely in secondary flavor country though a fellow taster called it "primary" - so it often goes with comparative brown bag tastings. The acidity was still hanging in there, adding dimension to what seemed like a very coffee bean and dark chocolate tasting palate with some dark fruit in the background.

I should note that the current releases of these reds (07's, I believe) retail somewhere in the $25-30 range. Pretty good values, as someone mentioned when we had finished the flight. Northern Rhone the words of MTV news corresondent, music critic and author Kurt Loder, "Do try to catch it."

Monday, July 26, 2010

LIVE from SF: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Jonathan Richman

Catching a performer at their most creative, representative moment is a tricky business. There are many factors which can influence a performance, everything from a band's experience playing music together, the energy and visible appreciation of an audience, how an artist chooses to take care of himself (or not) while touring. Last week, at the venerable Bimbo's in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, Ariel Pink was in what I suspect to have been a very representative moment for his unique brand of experimental folk, pop and 70's influenced rock. Fresh off a major label contract with 4AD, and heaps of critical praise, one could sense that Ariel clearly thinks he's hot shit. At least that's how he acted, complaining throughout the set about not having a decent sound check, not having enough reverb, and whatever else he was babbling about. Between complaints, he snacked on a sandwich, guzzled some beer, and decided that he would knock the mic down, all of which made it a miserable show for the sound guy, the crowd and his backing band. A portion of the crowd was really into it, dancing to the admirable jams laid down by Ariel's Haunted Graffiti (his backing band), despite his best efforts to shout, scream, and distract from any sort of musicality or genuinely interesting musical expression going on around him.

Last Wednesday at the Swedish American Music Hall, I saw a whole other type of weird: cheerful, playful, offbeat and intelligent. A performance from someone who has been writing and performing music for over thirty years. Who else but Jonathan Richman can write catchy songs meandering from Vermeer ("so much perspective, you know, for the times"),to urban living ("my little two year old mind was thinking I love this place, the dirt, the greasy pizza smells...") to Keith Richards ("love those internal melodies and minor 6ths"). In his trademark partially sung, part conversational, spoken style, Jonathan confidently entertained a small-ish crowd (who in true SF fashion were mainly seated on the floor until he urged them to stand up and clap because, "you know, you'll feel better"). All Richman needs is his classical guitar, a mic, and drummer Tommy Larkins to put on a show. Between the engaging lyrics, which come out clear as a bell, proficient if not flashy or perfect guitar playing, and some killer dance moves, Jonathan Richman is someone you need to see next time he plays in your area.

In this battle of the weird, I'll take Jonathan over Ariel any day, even if it means sacrificing some cool points with the cool kids amongst my readership.

Friday, July 23, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 18: Salies-de-Béarne to Bordeaux

[This post appears simultaneously on David McDuff's excellent blog, as part of his guest blogger coverage of the 2010 Tour de France.]

Allow me to begin with two confessions.

First, I have not yet watched any portion of the 2010 Tour de France. I have been catching up on the various stage results, strong individual performances, strong proclivity towards acts of douchery (this is a real word, by the way -just like 'hateration' or 'dancery') by a certain Spanish cyclist. Anyway, I have yet to really get in to watching the Tour and 2010 does not appear to be the year to change that. Not sure if McDuff would have accepted this post had he known this, but I shall do my best to hang with the rest of the contributors and their wealth of cycling as well as geographic and vinous knowledge.

Second, up until a few nights ago I had never drunk an Irouleguy. Tasted, yes, but drunk, no. I admit that over the past several years, I have shown lots of love for wines from Euskadi South (Spanish Basque country) while not drinking nearly enough from Euskadi North (French Basque Country).

Stage 18 starts from Salies-de-Bearne, which lies about 61 kilometers east of Bayonne, the closest city proximate to the Irouleguy AOC. Granted its status as an AOC in 1970, Irouleguy is the westernmost AOC region in France, literally a stone's throw from the Spanish border. In fact, San Sebastian, Spain is much closer to Irouleguy than it is to this stage's destination city, Bordeaux. Vines are planted along the slopes of the Pyrénées mountains surrounding the town of St. Jean Pied de Port and eight other villages that make up the region of Irouléguy. Vineyards are south facing on hillsides with fairly steep slopes, and therefore they are often terraced. Tannat is the star grape, and it is typically blended with cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. If you are thinking that tannat reminds you of the word tannin, then you would be correct; the wines composed of tannat, specifically those from the Madiran AOC, can be noticeably firm and tannic. In fact, the technique of micro-oxygenation as a means of reducing the perception of tannin in red wine was originally developed here.

Earlier this week I opened two bottles of Irouleguy rouge, which presented significant enough stylistic differences to make them good studies over the course of a few days. days. Two Irouleguy from two different vintages, imported by two excellent locally based importers (Charles Neal and Kermit Lynch, respectively), primarily drunk over the course of two nights.

About the closest to regionally typical food I had to accompany these wines was an eggplant heavy variation on a pisto, with healthy amounts of flat leaf parsley and garlic, as well as a smattering of arugula and pimenton, to brighten and embolden the dish. I also whipped up some kale sauteed with garlic, garbanzos and bacon (sort of a riff on a Cal Pep dish which I quickly discovered and whipped up thanks to the internets). For night two, I roasted chicken. There was also petit basque cheese on the second night.

Let's start with the 2006 Domaine Ilarria Irouleguy. Proprietor Peiro Espil owns 6 hectares, primarily of tannat but with some cabernet franc and a bit of cabernet sauvignon. The vineyards are farmed organically and are certified by Ecocert. This wine is truly a delight to drink: red fruited, a bit savory in a spicy (think paprika) and subtly green vegetal kind of way. There is wonderful minerality and a freshness that make it terrific with food; even on the second day this wine was showing terrifically. Honest, traditional Bordeaux comes to mind if you're looking for something familiar as a frame of reference. Just a bit lighter and more mineral. Somewhere between humble, traditional, well made Bordeaux and a good Chinon is stylistically where this wine lies.

The 2005 Domaine Extegaraya Cuvee Lehengoa is clearly a bigger wine. Composed of 80% tannat and 20% cab, from 150 year old vines, this is richer and black fruited on the nose. The wine also has a wonderful lavender like florality to its aromas and building inner mouth fragrance. Initially it struck me as the more impressive and serious of the two Irouleguy. It also revealed itself to be more extracted and woody; wood tannins might be a bit much for some drinkers who prefer less of an overt oak influence. That having been said, while I did not empty this bottle as quickly as the Ilarria (always a surefire way to determine preference), this wine still went very well with food, even the difficult to pair tomatoey pisto.

Back to cycling and TDF. Stage 18 is a flat one - 198 km of flatness. A good thing after all the climbing which the riders have had to endure over the past several stages, particulary up the grueling Col du Tourmalet. It looks like Alberto Contador, aka "la bolsa de ducha," all but has the tour wrapped up. However, this is an important stage as it relates to team standings, so we'll see what happens.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Here's to much more tasting, drinking and debate

[This is my contribution to 32 Days of Natural Wine. Please feel free to comment here or, even better on the saignee edition of this post]

One night last week I was drinking a glass of wine . At Terroir. Terroir Natural Wine Merchant in San Francisco. Terroir the muse, Terroir the young upstart professor, Terroir the hipster who just knows about all the cool shit before you do. Yes, I love Terroir and respect what they do immensely, if you couldn’t already tell. Anyway, back to that glass of wine. It was a 2006 Julien Courtois Originel, a blend of menu pineau and romorantin from Touraine. Oxidative, fleshy, but still with a degree of fruity freshness that made it an appealing enough drink to pour by the glass. It was a much cleaner, less flawed wine than the 2004 version of the same wine that Terroir poured by the glass a year and a half or so ago. Perhaps, though, they had just poured it to hear my thoughts on it.

A lot has happened in that year and a half. I am somewhat more familiar with many wines that many would identify as “natural.” I have gained a greater appreciation for natural wines that are well made: the precision and cut of a Tournelles savagnin, the generosity and intensity of an Occhipinti SP68, the texture and purity of a Foillard Morgon. In well made natural wines from distinctive terroirs, there are textures that are more lively, acidity that leaps, and flavors that reward the taster with experiences that are unique and singular in the wine world. However, it is important to remember the much larger world of wine that exists independently of natural wines. This is the world of wine most commonly experienced by the masses, and it is the world in which most of us begin our discovery of wine.

To give you a better sense of my background, here is a quick history of my wine consumption, or perhaps education, no…formation. That’s the word, formation. Most evenings my parents enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine with dinner . At my mom’s insistence, I enjoyed a tall glass of skim milk. Sounds terrific, huh? Anyway, I was and forever will be a dutiful son and mama’s boy. I drank the watery, vaguely milky milk, but eventually, I tasted the parents’ wine. It was typically a chardonnay or cabernet from California and they tasted fine. During good times, the real estate boom years, there might have been some bottles of Chalone purchased and some fancier Napa cab labels such as Robert Mondavi Oakville cab. When I was 9 years old, I remember particularly enjoying a 1986 Chalone Pinot Blanc. Then the real estate bust happened and magnums of Concha y Toro made appearances at the table. I was not a fan. I suspect that my parents weren’t into those wines either. Other sacrificies were made, both large and small (admittedly it was a fairly charmed existence beforehand). We moved to a smaller home, and I chose to forego continuing my private school education to enroll in public school. It was as much an economically driven decision as it was one for my happiness: I needed a break from blue blooded wasps, lacrosse, and manufactured prep school diversity. I longed for more hang time with my childhood Jewish friends. It was comfortable.
But I digress. Let’s flash forward to 2003. That’s when I started working with wine, paying closer attention to it, and mixing up cases to learn flavor profiles of different varietals and regions. I started to pick up on a few things. For example, Macon Villages was from Burgundy, composed of chardonnay grapes, tasted sort of like granny smith apples and was minerally. Bobby Kacher imported lots of Rhone and southern French wines, and people in the trade (granted, in his home base of Washington, DC, but respected professionals nonetheless) said that they were good values. I agreed.

Eventually I landed a job at a medium sized distributor with a real book of products that people could actually sell through. I sold from a diverse portfolio, including wines that people considered “must have” brands as well as some genuinely cool stuff that I enjoyed drinking. Part of the job requirement was studying intermediate level WSET material. I started learning a lot of factoid such as one stating that the best gamay was typically grown in granite soils located in Beaujolais, just north of the Northern Rhone and south of Burgundy.

My first wine trip was to Bordeaux in the spring of 2006 to taste the 2005 vintage out of barrel. For anyone who has been on a wine trip to Bordeaux, you will understand it when I say that my first wine trip was not really a wine trip at all. There was minimal time in the vineyards, hardly any face time with people responsible for tending vines or even working in the cellar. Instead, there was much more time in crowded rooms at UGC (Bordeaux’s communally organized Union des Grand Crus) tastings. In other words, though I had some book knowledge and a bit of tasting experience, I was just a wholesale wine rep: I did not know shit (I say this with all due respect for the .01% of wine reps who actually know their shit). Looking back on it now, I sometimes wonder why more serious sommeliers and retail buyers ever bought much from me. I guess that I was likeable enough and did enough of the important stuff, namely showing up and knowing when to shut up and listen. A retailer at one of my accounts said that the best way to extensively taste and learn wine was to either become a critic or to work retail. The latter option was much more realistic, so that’s the path I took.

OK, now that you know my life story, let’s return to the subject of natural wine. Three years ago, I walked into a store called Chambers Street Wines in New York City. Blogging celebrity, Lyle Fass, suggested a rarity, a 2002 Houillon/Overnoy Poulsard (alternately, ploussard) from the noted ploussard terroir of Pupillin. It cost $25, and was one of the more delicious and memorable bottles of wine I had ever drunk. Delicate and slightly savory, though still energetic with terrific fruit and acidity, and a lightness of texture that betrayed its sense of importance and seriousness. In short, I had never tasted anything like it. I was not aware of natural wines at the time, but within short order I started reading up a bit more on the subject and drinking a lot more of these types of wines.

I became part of a geeky online community. In addition to the blogs written by print media’s leading lights such as Eric Asimov and Jon Bonné, I read other wine blogs. I learned to love Brooklynguy’s unique, humble, witty voice and excellent cooking tips. I loved Lyle’s unfiltered, occasionally wrathful, but honest, writings on wine and wine industry happenings (not to mention the hip-hop videos). I devoured David McDuff’s top notch producer profiles. And I made sure to set aside time for Cory Cartwright’s unbelievably well developed and earnest philosophical musings on natural wine.

In wine, as in life, people are possessive. They love to make and lay claim to new discoveries. And then share them with people who are not familiar with such things. People are as passionate and protective of their favorite wines as they are their children, their pets, their favorite albums (just try to tell me, for example, that Husker Du’s Zen Arcade is not one of the greatest rock records of the past 25 years). One person’s wine favorite may not only be disliked by someone else, but could be lambasted as being flawed and simply not drinkable.

Speaking of wine you enjoy volatile acidity? I don’t mind it in some cases. Chateau Musar, for example? No shortage of volatile acidity here, but I do really enjoy their reds.

How about cidery flavors from long skin macerations? I find Radikon’s ribolla to be delicious. Over-maceration is a flaw according to Jules Chauvet, but when employed with grapes grown in the right terroir, and overseen by an experienced winemaker, it produces intriguing and tasty wines.

And how about the ‘S’ word? Sulphur. Do you enjoy that sort of nutty quality that minimally or unsulphured wines frequently show on the finish? This is an attribute that, when it begins to dominate, I can do without. I think it is a little bit too indicative of a winemaking choice, and that it distracts from a wine’s actual qualities given its grape variety (-ies) and terroir.

Overly oaked wines? I am sensitive to elevage in a portion of new French oak barriques. In most cases, I believe that this is a pursuit best left to the Burgundians, and few others. Even then, it is often too much for me. Long aging in older barrels though? Bring on the 1970’s Riojas. Love ‘em.

We all have a different tolerance of flaws – real, perceived, and those which lie somewhere in between. Perhaps my tolerance for flaws is a bit higher than that of many others.

Regardless of personal taste, there is always more to learn, more to taste, another producer to visit, a well written text to consult, and maybe even a winemaking project to initiate. In the pursuit of understanding wine, show a little bit of humility, but have enough confidence and guts to challenge prevailing perceptions. This is why the natural wine loving community is so dynamic and well informed; it is a passionate and opinionated, but humble and knowledge sharing lot. There are plenty of people to consult and learn from. Given an appropriate amount of tasting and research, you can feel free to draw your own conclusions about natural wines. However, expect to be challenged and be prepared to defend your positions.
Here’s to much more tasting, drinking and debate on the subject.

Monday, July 12, 2010

This Bastille Day, Support The French Revolution!

Everyone has a crazy friend. Not mentally unbalanced, just someone who is perhaps a little bit louder than most, someone who finds themselves in crazy situations and relishes recounting those stories. Someone who takes risks, who packs a whole lot into their day. Their intense personality may occasionally offend those with more mild manners and easily agitated sensibilities. Undoubtedly, however, I have concluded that we are all better off for having crazy friends.

Matt Stewart is my crazy friend. Amongst other ridiculous activities, we have joined a large group in Sevilla attempting to break the Guinness record for largest group breakfast (close, by the way, but no cigar) and dressed up in 18th century colonial garb during San Francisco's popular marathon and drunken walk, Bay to Breakers, to promote his debut novel, The French Revolution. I would not do this for just anyone. Anyway, I'm going to employ my occasional plug privileges to promote both Matt's novel, as well as his launch party this Wednesday at 8pm at Elixir. Though this is Matt's night, Old World Old School will be contributing as well by raffling off a few bottles of French wine. It may not be Volnay, but it sure as hell won't be industrial plonk, either.

Matt writes fiction well, really well. I applaud anyone who has the focus and discipline to write a novel while working full-time, but Matt has written something original and developed a very clever way to get loads of press by debuting the novel on Twitter last summer. He then continued to pursue a publisher, which he now has in Soft Skull Press. Recently the Chronicle reviewed The French Revolution favorably. I'm a third of the way through and am enjoying it. Matt's long, florid, sentences capture San Francisco perfectly, and his third person narrative shows more than a bit of Matt's own character and unique perspective.

Below are the details for this Wednesday night. Viva la revolution!

The French Revolution Book Launch Party at Elixir
Wednesday July 14th at 8pm
16th & Guerrero

Saturday, July 3, 2010

MJ, one year after

Last year around this time, many people (ok, myself included) were reeling from this huge loss. Coincidentally, I was in LA around this time last year, and I am heading down there again, as soon as I finish posting this video of one of my favorite MJ jams, "Shake your body down to the ground." Enjoy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Poulsard, Trousseau and the power of experience

Last night I went to San Francisco's preeminent wine bar, Terroir. I ordered a bottle of 2006 Jacques Puffeney Poulsard 'M' to share with my girlfriend. Surprisingly, it was not good. Not flawed, just aromatically flat, texturally dull, and frankly, disappointing. It improved and brightened up a bit once poured in a carafe and left alone for 45 minutes or so, but I couldn't help but feel a bit flustered by these two facts: that I didn't like a bottle of wine from Jura master Jacques Puffeney, and that a bottle of poulsard from the Jura exported to the US could be so heavy and dull.

Tonight, I just opened a bottle of 2007 Jacques Puffeney Trousseau. It is much, much better. Aromatically a bit funky and animale to be sure, as is the grape's natural tendency, but delicate, expressive, floral and nervy as well. I look forward to drinking the bottle.

To be honest I'm not sure how to conclude here, or if there is any lesson to be learned. That 2007 is a more classic vintage in the Jura? Yes, perhaps. That even your favorite wines will occasionally disappoint? Yeah, that will happen. Let's take a moment to remember that wines require some patience and if you have not had a particular wine at least 6 or more times, then perhaps you don't know it as well as you think you do. Or if you have never visited a region, maybe you aren't really in a position to judge its producers' viticultural and winemaking practices. And if you have never cultivated a vine, let alone any fruits or vegetables, are you really in a position to opine about viticulture?

I myself have not heeded these advisories, and am sure to occasionally not do so in the future. Nonetheless, I would like to attempt to make a more conscious effort towards keeping all of this in mind. And further, I will attempt to learn more from primary sources in the wine world. Not to dismiss the secondary ones (especially, better written blogs) but there is no substitute for acquiring knowledge first-hand, or at the very least through a respected farmer, winemaker or vigneron with experience.