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Pork ribs, Napa’s eastern mountains and a top Syrah

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Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?

Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.

Which wine do you think paired best?

First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.

I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but  the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.

This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.

There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”

The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.


Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses

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Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”


Summertime, rosé wine and what to drink on vacay

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Rosé is one of those wines that writers love to say is experiencing a comeback, or being discovered, or something equally hyperbolic. The truth is, it’s a tiny little category compared to the Big Guys of red and white table wine. According to the French trade and marketing group, Vins de Provence, citing the Wine Market Council, “In 2010, retail category sales in the U.S. broke down as follows: 47% red wines, 40% white wines, and 13% blush (pink) wines.” That seems high to me: thirteen percent of the wines I review are not rosé. It’s more like 3 percent. But I suppose if you rely on Nielsen data, which is mostly supermarkets, you’ll get a more representative sample of what Americans actually drink.

In Europe, apparently, rosé is enjoying newfound popularity. Yahoo News reports that “While the consumption of still red and white wines has declined in Western Europe, rosé wine has experienced a three percent spike, mostly driven by young, female drinkers…”. That’s to be expected, I guess. Rosé is for women; beer is for guys.

In France, I would think most rosés are made from Rhône-style varieties, like Grenache and Syrah. We have a lot of those too in California, but people also make rosés from Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and even Cabernet Sauvignon. I must admit to not being a fan of California rosé. Most of it is too sweet for my tastes. My favorites lately have been a Kokomo 2011 Pauline’s Vineyard Grenache, from Dry Creek Valley, a Sanglier 2011 Rosé du Tusque blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan with a Sonoma County appellation, and a Muscardini 2011 Alice’s Vineyard Rosato di Sangiovese, from Sonoma Valley. I would not use this brief list to conclude, however, that the best rosés come from Sonoma County. But  I do believe they have to come from cool coastal areas, because otherwise they’d be too soft and heavy. Most California rosé seems like an afterthought: made with press juice, or otherwise from grapes not good enough to go into a good red wine.

I looked up the rosés my colleague Roger Voss recently tasted in France. He obviously gets to taste more and better ones than I do. He’s given some pretty high scores to a pair from Provence, both from Chateau d’Esclans, with the proprietary name Garrus. But then, that wine costs $90. Ninety bucks for a rosé? I looked up d’Esclans on the Google, where somebody called it “the greatest Rose in the world.” I don’t know anything about it, but if you’re reading this, mes d’Esclans amis, feel free to send me a bottle.

A good rosé should be dry, with just a hint of rose petals or strawberries. Since it’s a light-bodied wine, any trace of residual sugar immediately becomes transparent. It’s hard to describe in words why a dessert wine with high sugar can be a delight while a table wine with residual sugar can so often be cloyingly awkward. Maybe I’m just sensitive to sugar that’s unbalanced with all the other parts. This problem is magnified when the wine itself is thin in flavor, as so many rosés tend to be. The lowest score I’ve given a rosé in the last year was an 81. I wrote: “Overtly sweet and simple, with sugary flavors of raspberries, oranges and vanilla.” I won’t identify the brand, but you can probably find it on Wine Enthusiast’s database. The word “sugary” is as awful an adjective as I use for California wine. “Sugary” is bad. A table wine shouldn’t be sugary (unless it’s supposed to be, like a nice Kabinett). If a winemaker releases a sugary table wine, he’s doing so for one of two reasons, or maybe both: (a) he’s a bad winemaker who got a stuck fermentation or didn’t even know or care that the wine was too sweet, or (b) he knew all that, but is just pandering to the current taste for sweet wines.

We’re going into the dog days of summer now. People say rosés are the ideal beach, pool or picnic wine. I disagree, at least here in Cali. I’d prefer a dry white, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, with the kinds of foods you bring on summer excursions: sandwiches, fruit, fried chicken, cold cuts, salads, grain salads like cous cous or quinoa. Maybe I’d change my mind if I had a bottle of the d’Esclans.


Cellar conditions do matter with wine storage

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I think most of us have worried at one time or another whether our cellar conditions are ideal. I have. I store wines in several places, including a temperature-controlled unit in my house, and also in my cousin’s basement. She lives in San Mateo, near SFO, and her cellar, while it’s not temperature-controlled, rarely rises above the mid-60s, even during heat waves. So I thought it was a good place to store wine.

Apparently not. We opened a 2005 Rubicon last week, for the seder dinner, and my cousin immediately noticed that it was a little brown around the edges. I told her that wasn’t necessarily a bad sign in an older wine–but it did make me worry a bit, because the wine was only 6-1/12 years old. At the time I’d rated it, in January of 2009, I’d scored it at 96 points and given it a “Cellar Selection” designation, writing that it was “Nowhere near ready for at least four years, and that may be conservative.”

But last week, when I tasted the wine I was struck by the presence of dried fruit, a plumminess that emphasized a certain overripe character. That wine was very good, mind you; we all happily drank it with the leg of lamb. But I figured we’d better drink the remaining 11 bottles over the next 18 months.

It was a personal disappointment to discover that my prognostication from 2009 was so dissonant from the reality of 2012! So it was really fascinating when, during my visit to Francis Ford Coppola yesterday, for lunch they pulled out the 2005 Rubicon and served it with the cheese course. I had earlier told the winemaker, Phillippe Bascoules (whom Francis hired six months ago; his predecessor, Scott McLeod, actually made the’05), of my experience with the wine, which elicited a raised eyebrow from him. He’d had it recently and thought it fresh and clean.

As indeed it was. The bottle at lunch was the wine I’d tasted in 2009. It obviously was just at the beginning of a long journey through this world. The inevitable conclusion was that the bottle we’d had at the seder had been compromised.

Could it have been “an off bottle”? I suppose; I’ll know for sure as we open the other bottles. That catch-all phrase “off bottle” is often used to exonerate a wine that didn’t show well. I can understand certain obvious reasons for off bottles: maybe it got cooked in the back of a delivery truck during a heat wave. Maybe it’s corked. Then there are instances where a winemaker insists the bottle is off, but there’s no apparent reason, except for some random, Heisenbergian mutation. Dan Berger used to talk about “lightstruck” wines, that being a criticism. It was never clear to me what he meant, although common sense suggested that if a bottle of wine was in direct sunlight for a period of time, it would probably suffer. But my ‘05 Rubicon had never seen sunlight. I bought it directly from the distributor.

I remember way back when I was writing about collecting wines. I met one of America’s supreme collectors, a southern Californian with maybe 100,000 rare old bottles. He had a vacation condo in Hawaii. He told me he visited his island home and took out an old Bordeaux from his cellar there. There was something off; he could tell. Upon inquiry, he discovered that the condo’s electricity had been briefly interrupted, for just a couple of hours, but enough, he claimed, to derange his wines. At the time, I thought he must have a freakishly acute palate. But now, 20-plus years later, I can see that you can taste when a good wine is off, even if by just a tiny bit. Even the best bottle can’t withstand torture by uncontrolled temperature.

So I’m going to have to find an alternative to my cousin’s basement. I don’t know what it will be, but the process begins today.


Wine is good for you. Don’t heed the naysayers

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I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the never-ending debate about whether drinking a little wine is good or bad for you.

If the average American consumer is totally confused by now, I don’t blame her. Wine causes cancer. Wine prevents cancer. Wine lowers the risk of strokes. No, it doesn’t. Wine prevents heart attacks…or maybe it doesn’t.

My own opinion is that humankind has been drinking wine for thousands of years, and when a dietary and behavioral habit like that is so engrained, it must have positive value, from an evolutionary point of view. Species do not develop traits that tend to cause their demise. Quite the opposite. Evolution made food tasty to us so that we would eat and thrive. Evolution made sex delightful to us so that we would reproduce. (I’m not saying reproduction is the only reason to have sex, but you get the point.) And evolution made wine taste good because wine is good for us. End of story.

Yet there are always those neoprohibitionists who work overtime to get the rest of us to stop drinking wine. Case in point: a lady, Pat Ferguson. She wrote the other day “that the word is out (and I’ve been saying this for a long, long time) that wine ain’t so fine for your health after all…” and that “those who purported its benefits for so long were owners of vineyards.” !!!!

Easy target here. I’ve covered a lot of news over the years about scientific research on wine and health, and I can’t recall a single instance in which the studies were conducted by owners of vineyards. Or winemakers. Or cellar rats. So that’s a silly statement. More to the point is Ferguson’s citation of a study that (quoting Ferguson) points to moderate wine drinking “as causing an increase in breast cancer risk by as much as 15% in women.” The study was by a medical professor at Brigham Women’s Hospital, Wendy Chen.

You know that’s going to cause millions of women to worry about drinking. I did a little research into this study and found that it’s far less conclusive than Ferguson would have you believe. For one, even if it’s true, the study stressed that the slight risk of higher cancer “is more than offset” by the positive benefits to the heart, according to this article.

Furthermore, “the study authors said no evidence exists to show that giving up drinking will lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer.” Another article, in the Nov. 1 Washington Post, covered Chen’s study, but also reported a new study on resveratrol’s possible prevention of diabetes and obesity, which would “extend [people's] lives” and explain the French paradox whereby some people eat vast quantities of fats and cholesterol (paté, cheese, butter, eggs) and have low rates of heart attacks and strokes.

We live in an information-saturated society. Every day, scientists around the world are conducting studies at universities and research institutes, and if you pay attention to the news, you’re going to hear totally contradictory information about everything, sometimes in the same news span. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to studies such as Ferguson’s, wise consumers ought to take the wide view, taking into account everything they know about wine drinking (including–and maybe especially–its soothing psychological effects) and then coming to their own conclusions. Anyhow, Ferguson’s reporting itself seems to have a personal agenda. “Having been a wine consumer at one time in my life,” she explains, she now abstains, implying that the alcoholism her father suffered from is the reason why. I, personally find the advice of recovering addicts to be notoriously unreliable.


Is wine really as complicated as some people say it is?

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And if it is, whose fault is it–the critics?

I’ve heard it all my adult life: wine is too snooty, too complex for the average person to understand and feel comfortable with it, and the reason is because those of us who write about it prattle on and on, muddying the waters with ridiculous talk of swirling and sniffing, black currants and wet dogs, aftertastes and appellations–when all people really want is simply to drink and get a buzz.

I personally feel some sympathy with this argument, even though I’m a critic, because I’m a very uncritical critic, by which I mean I’m the least snobby wine person I know. Give me some plonk in a paper cup at your next party and I’ll be a happy camper, as long as there’s some decent food to be had. Still, I have to look in the mirror and wonder if I, in my own way, have contributed to the chaos. Some people have so accused me. Even so, I try to adhere to Thoreau’s advice continually in my wine writing: Simplify, simplify!

If wine is complicated, theories of wine and food pairing are even more so. My heart often goes out to the poor host or hostess who worries herself silly with fears of improper matching. How many have apologized to guests for not putting something better out, or more appropriate to the food? This is when the criticism of the critics grows fiercest. “Drink anything you want, with whatever you want!” they say, “and don’t let those damned critics tell you otherwise!” With this, too, I have some sympathy, and have said and written so.

There was a time, in my wine reviewing, when I might consider a certain wine and go to great lengths to dream up the perfect dish to go with it, the way a chef might. I would debate in my mind whether it be pork or lamb. Then, which spices? What sauce? And don’t forget the accompaniment. After all, I was being paid to give readers my expert advice, right?

But in recent years I’ve changed all that, according to the Simplify, simplify rule. Today I’ll go no further than to write of beef or chicken, burgers or salmon, and leave the fine tuning to the cooks. It’s the least I can do to demystify wine, and make amends for whatever role I’ve played in complicating it.

Now we have the folks at Wente, a fine winery in Livermore Valley whose Grey Riesling I used to practically live on, working with The Food Network “to take the pretense out of wines with food pairing suggestions that range from macaroni and cheese to potato chips and salami.”

I say, good for Wente! While I’m not big on mac and cheese (too filled with carbs and fat) or potato chips (junk food), I am a big salami fan (within reason), but, more to the point, I understand where Wente is coming from. “Let’s take real food that real people eat everyday,” they’re saying, in effect, “and give them real wines, at an affordable price ($13), to enjoy.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t make tuna ras el hanout, with Umbrian lentils, arthichokes and preserved lemons, at home. I might order it at Spruce, but on a typical night at home I’ll bake a piece of salmon, steam some zucchini and call it dinner. Maybe not even that fancy: I’ve been known to have whole wheat toast with peanut butter for a meal, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. What do I drink with that? Anything at all, and happily. Life’s too short to fuss over red or white, sweet or dry, sparkling of still, when all you’re hankering for is a simple joy.


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