Sunday, December 21, 2008

'93 Dom. Tempier (Bandol)

"It's actually illegal to talk about Bandol without mentioning Domaine Tempier"
-Gary V., WLTV

Family owned since 1834, Tempier has always produced good wine, winning gold medals as early as 1885. However it was Lucien Peyraud who, from 1943 to 1980, established Tempier as a leader in Bandol. The influential importer Kermit Lynch championed these wines, and now they are increasingly well-known amongst wine lovers as serious, complex, Mourvedre-dominated bottlings.

I was fortunate enough to drink this wine at a friend's dinner, paired superbly with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and roasted brussel sprouts.

1993 Domaine Tempier Bandol

Light-to-medium red in the glass, with significant sediment, this wine had a somewhat tired nose that nevertheless offered up hints of leather, milk chocolate, meat, earth, and slight brettanomyces presence. After an hour or so in the decanter a whiff of dried currant emerged, but there was also some green stemminess, fertilizer, and subtle oxidative presence. In the mouth it was mellow, flavorful, and satiny. Medium body, excellent acidity integrated with savoriness, very soft, barely perceptible tannins. It was neither rustic nor noble, neither humble nor elegant. I found it both interesting and delicious. I won't score it due to the clear oxidative presence, but I enjoyed this wine very much.

... Read more.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Domaine La Barroche

Winemakers are thoughtful people. Dealing with fickle weather patterns, temperamental fermentation, and the vagaries of bottle aging seems to preclude the damning judgments, prejudices, and generalizations that pervade the rest of the wine world. I was reminded of this by the stark contrast between two recent tastings .

The first was led by a Rutgers professor, also a certified wine judge. Alarm bells went off as he pronounced "I have a 3000-bottle cellar. I never drink Burgundy before 8 years, Bordeaux before 10." He singled me out a couple times for the glass I brought - a stemless Riedel - saying it was "the most ridiculous thing ever made - if I could, I'd break every glass in existence... Not one self-respecting wine professional would ever go near that glass." When asked about Parker's influence, he gave a ludicrous caricature of a man who "prefers the fruit bomb to the balanced wine, 100% of the time." "Believe me," he said, "I've tasted with the man - I know." It was possibly the most pedantic and condescending speech I'd heard since I was in diapers... but enough about that.

The bitter taste left in my mouth by said "professor" was washed neatly away the very next day at a tasting of Domaine La Barroche. Occupying a hilltop spot in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, bordering parcels owned by Chateau Rayas, Domaine La Barroche produces some of the most exquisite, complex, and powerful wines in the Southern Rhone Valley.

I found the winemaker to be a terrific combination of humility and ambition. His respect for tradition is matched by a burning desire to make better and better wines. And yet when he succeeds, he gives most of the credit to terroir. When only 23, Julien Barrot took over Domaine La Barroche, including vineyards which had been farmed by his family in unbroken succession over three centuries. Now 28, he remembers vividly pruning the vines as a child - reluctantly at first, then with growing interest.

The wines that inspire him, apart from the other great Chateauneuf-du-Pape's, are Northern Rhones and the great Burgundies. With his high pyrazine* sensitivity, he often finds Bordeaux wines too green for his taste. In just five or so vintages, he has already produced wines that rival the nearby Chateau Rayas. Truly a rising star of Chateauneuf-du-Pape!


Dom. La Barroche Chateauneuf-du-Pape Reserve 2005

Medium ruby in the glass, the Reserve has a beautiful nose of cherry liqueur with a hint of earth and spice. In the mouth it is lusciously medium bodied, with med+ alcohol, medium acid, hints of spice, pepper, wood, and satiny tannins. Finishes with lingering grace. 88-90 points. $45.

Dom. La Barroche Signature 2006

Medium red in the glass, the Signature has a light but breath-stoppingly gorgeous nose of red cherries, faint liquorice, blackberry, and tobacco. Unfortunately I think this bottle was a tiny bit oxidized. In the mouth it was very light, med- body, med+ alcohol, med- acid, reminiscent of an '04 Rayas Pignan I had at Clo. Silky tannins led to a long finish with faint pepper and roasted papad, again similar to the Rayas Pignan, but with more fruit. This wasn't a favorite of my companions, but I liked it. I won't rate it due to the slight oxidation. $59

Dom. La Barroche Fiancée 2006

Dark purple in the glass, the Fiancée initially had an amazing nose of cured meats and dark berries, that eventually seemed over-the hill. Not oxidized, just like it had been left out overnight but hadn't started to turn to acetaldehyde yet. In the mouth it was full-bodied and fleshy with beautiful fruit, medium acid and medium tannins. Something really smelled off about the nose, though, so I won't rate it. $70

*IBMP (2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine) is a compound associated with green grass/bell pepper aromas in sauvignon blanc and Bordeaux varietals. Some tasters' thresholds are on the order of 15 parts per trillion.

... Read more.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I am a strange, strange human being

It's been a year and 3 months since I started my wine journey, and sometimes I feel like I haven't gone anywhere. In fact I haven't gone anywhere - I'm still at school, living in a dorm room down the hall from where I lived last year. But whenever I meet someone new and taste wine, or talk about wine, I am reminded that I'm actually a subtly different species. How have I changed?

1. I smell everything. I can be distracted by familiar scents as easily as if a friend called my name. I have identified the principle ingredients in an Odwalla shake by smell alone. There are at least 2 classmates of mine who I can smell as soon as they enter a room.

2. I drink whites at room temperature. People always question this, and I try not to preach that everyone should, but after I tried it once I was hooked. Hey, I had a middle school teacher who microwaved his coke. Now that was weird.

3. I spit out of habit. If you get between me and the spit bucket, I will shamelessly lean in front of you and let loose. If there's a decently shaped bucket, or even better, a garbage can available, I will spit from a comfortable distance of 3-4 feet. Don't give me that look. My aim is perfect.

4. I'm noisy when I drink liquids. Water, milk, coffee, tea, juice - I'll swirl, sniff, slurp, swish, and aerate all of them. So sue me. I like to actually taste what I'm drinking.

5. I'm shy when it comes to talking about wine with new people. Until I establish that someone is open-minded about wine, I keep the conversation superficial. I learned this the hard way when I found myself on the receiving end of a cartoonish anti-Parker tirade.

6. I have a low acetaldehyde threshold, which means I'm every wine bar and tasting room's nightmare. At first I told people, but then they stopped believing me, or rather, my nose. Now I just keep it to myself and don't rate the wine.

7. Anytime I hear the words "Yellow Tail" I involuntarily go through a rapid cycle of emotions. First disdain. Then guilt at feeling disdain. Then appreciation of the sugar-acid balance they've achieve. Then annoyance that American's are such suckers for high sugar and high acidity (Coke anyone?). Then disinterest at the industrial nature of the wine. Then guilt...

8. I have a corkscrew with me at all times. Wing-style corkscrews give me indigestion on sight.

9. I bring my own glasses. Go ahead, look at me funny. I can smell my wine and you can't. When people ask me whether the shape of the glass matters, I fight the urge to look at them incredulously. Even two identical glasses will smell different, depending on who's holding them and a hundred other variables.

10. I don't take notes on everything I taste anymore. Something changed in my gut when I broke 365 CellarTracker notes in under a year. I no longer had the patience to try to learn from wines that didn't excite me. When the best wine I'd ever tasted was a $19 McLaren Vale Shiraz, I payed attention to everything, even wines I didn't like at all. Now when I taste a generic wine that isn't delicious or at least interesting, I forget about it immediately. A wise man once said: Life is too short to drink bad wine.

... Read more.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

CLO Wine Bar, NYC

In the Time Warner center, between Per Se and Masa, a simple white table stands, surrounded by a chic enclosure of Enomatic wine dispensers. The tabletop is alive with an interactive projected display that allows you to browse a hundred or so wine-by-the-glass selections, including region/appellation info and tasting notes. After choosing a selection, you take your glass to the appropriate Enomatic station, insert the tab card provided by a friendly server, and voilà! You are the proud new owner of exactly 4 ounces of slightly frothing, tasty beverage. There is also a small menu of cheeses, charcuterie, and other drinks.

At first Clo felt like some sort of bizzare wine-themed space ship out of a Douglas Adams book ("Share and enjoy!"), but the server and sommelier-on-hand were approachable, helpful, and friendly. The slightly clumsy interface had one unexpected consequence: complete strangers talked with each other about the tricky interface, and ultimately about wine.

There are few people more irrepressible than a wine lover who suddenly finds himself in the company of others sharing his strange obsession, and I quickly found myself deep in conversation with a chef from Napa, a group of tourists from Belgium, and a visual designer from NYC proper who graduated from my high school back in California. Such is the magic of Clo.

My one complaint is that they have discontinued the 2 oz taste program. I was looking forward to sampling several wines, but since they recently limited the serving size to 4 oz (customers complained 2oz looked skimpy in the glass), I contented myself with a fascinating, evolving '04 Rayas Pignan. The somm said that once Clo gets more traction, and a base of regular customers, they will try to add the tasting program in again.

Price: Like most wine bars this depends on the wine. Clo covers a broad spectrum, from several sub-$10 wines to a $100+ Leoville Las Cases (yes, $100 for 4 oz). Prices per glass were around 25% of retail price, far less than the industry standard. The food prices emphasized quality over quantity - small plates of cheeses and charcuterie in the $6-20 range.

... Read more.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Getting Dumb with TheDumbPhase

I never wanted this blog to become a catalog of wine-related exploits, partly because on a student's budget my "exploits" aren't all that extraordinary. However I was recently invited to a tasting of wines that were of such a high caliber that I was intellectually and olfactorily disoriented. From the point of view of a beginning taster, this tasting provided excellent examples of different styles, opening my palate to regions I was previously unfamiliar with.

Here are the wines (minus a couple Champagnes), and the approximate prices (from the Wine Advocate website):

03 Collazzi Rosso (Toscana) $35
05 Tasca D'Almerita Lamùri (Sicilia) 90pts (AG*) $20
01 R. Voerzio Barolo Cerequio 95pts (AG) $200
01 Gaja Sperss (Langhe) 93pts (AG) $220
1999 Allegrini Amarone (Valpolicella) 95pts (DT*) $80

1983 Château Cantemerle (Haut-Medoc) 91pts (RP*) $100
00 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie 'La Mouline' 91pts (RP) $300
03 Château Rieussec (Sauternes) 96pts (RP) $80

03 Colgin IX Estate (Napa) 95pts (RP) $325
05 Alban Vineyards Grenache (CA) 96pts (RP) $120
05 W. Hansel Pinot 'The North Slope' (91-93 RP) $50

03 Bodegas Pintia (Spain, Toro) 92pts (JM*) $50

03 Lost Highway Shiraz(McLaren Vale) 93pts (RP) $45

Stay tuned for tasting notes! All I will divulge now is that the Guigal La Mouline stole the show.

*All notes are from The Wine Advocate - AG: Antonio Galloni, DT: Daniel Thomases, RP: Robert Parker, JM: Jay Miller

... Read more.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An Engineer Tastes Wine

I'm not a wine critic or a winemaker. As a chemical engineering student, most of my time is spent in a materials science lab, where I work with surfactants and strange forms of silica. Even back when I did study yeast, I was more interested in genomic analysis than the bouquet of their by-products. In my spare moments, though, I can inevitably be found with my nose buried in a wine glass or a book about wine.

I first became interested in wine after sampling a few bottles with friends on my 21st birthday. I was, and still am intrigued by this ancient liquid's unpredictability. It's nearly impossible to know what aromas and flavors the next glass holds, no matter how much you have read about the producer, region, vintage, and cuvée. A bottle of wine can transform dramatically over years, and a glass of wine can change with equal guile over minutes. It's a scientist's nightmare, a substance that cannot be categorized or classified with any certainty, and yet there is information in each glass - wines can speak unerringly of terroir, vintage, and varietal. Scent, and its inseparable counterpart, taste, is the most primal and intuitive of senses, and the most strongly linked to memory. A single sip can transport you to a memorable dinner several years ago. Yet romantic and ephemeral as wine can be, it is ultimately a real substance, made up of identifiable molecular species. What can science tell us about tasting wine?

First, let's examine our sense of smell. The human nose is like a vast array of unique keyholes, and each scent molecule is a key. When the key matches with the keyhole (in reality a complex protein receptor), a nerve sends a signal to your brain that says "cloves" or "green pepper," identifying the scent. As the analogy implies, our sense of smell is incredibly accurate at the molecular level. A classic example is the pair of molecules S-carvone and R-carvone, which are perfect mirror images of each other, yet the first smells of caraway and the second of spearmint. There are exceptions - we can be fooled by similarly-shaped molecules, and we sometimes register several molecules in combination as a single scent - but for the most part, smell is highly specific.

In other words, when you smell apricot in the glass, it's probably because there is a substance in apricot that is also in the wine. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different substances that can be produced by our complex little fungiform friends known as wine yeasts, and scientists have not yet isolated and identified all of them, so the next time you smell something strange in a wine, like black pepper or capsicum, know that it's not just your imagination.

Conversely, don't turn your nose up at a fellow taster who seems to smell something that no one else does. We've all been at tastings where everyone likes a certain wine except one person, who claims it smells corked, or oxidized. That taster is probably right. Everyone has different thresholds for different scent molecules, and these can vary widely. Below this threshold you cannot detect the substance. In the key-and-lock analogy, some keyholes are rustier than others, preventing the keys from getting in easily, and your friend may have different set of rusty keyholes than you do. When only one person in a group perceives the wine as being corked, reason suggests the TCA level is just below everyone else's threshold. With practice, you will develop a good idea of how your thresholds for different substances compare to your friends'.

Threshold variation is largely genetic, and highly variable. Combine this with simple thermodynamics, and we can understand that swirling the wine and swishing it around in one's mouth during tasting change the flavor profile you perceive. Let's back up: When you swirl wine, you increase the population of aroma molecules in the air above the liquid surface. Some aromas you could not perceive before are now above your threshold. Other aromas that you detected before swirling have become more intense, or have become masked by secondary scents. Similarly, when you aerate the wine in your mouth, you warm it and form a temporary emulsion with air – again, increasing the gas-phase concentration of aroma molecules. You perceive a different "picture" of the wine than from the glass.

What does this science mean? First, wine is complicated. What you taste depends as much on yourself as on the wine. Second, if you do the simple swirl, sniff, and swallow that so many "wine educators" recommend (see the Wine Spectator's how-to videos), you only see one side of the wine. It's like looking at a sculpture from the front, without seeing its other sides. To see the full 360 degrees of the wine, you need to sniff softly, sniff deeply, sniff when the wine is still, sniff after swirling, aerate the wine in your mouth, swish it around, then make sure you exhale after spitting or swallowing to observe the retronasal finish. The dainty taster who delicately sniffs Lafite from four inches above the glass might as well peer at a Picasso through a pinhole.

Far from demystifying wine, science provides remarkable insight as to the depth and extent of wine's complexities. It reassures us that our often rhapsodic tasting notes have validity. It tells us to have confidence in what we smell, even if no one else smells it. It disabuses us of the notion that we must be delicate and proper when tasting wine. Thermodynamics can tell us why wine changes in the glass, if not precisely how. Gas chromatography can identify hundreds of aroma compounds that appear regularly in wine, but cannot match them precisely to the organoleptic phenomena of smell. Wine lovers can learn something from science, true, but perhaps scientists could also learn a thing or two from wine.

... Read more.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Scholium Project: 2007 'Naucratis' (Lost Slough Vineyard)

In the past few weeks, I've stumbled across wines from two wine makers whose approaches are so original, and deliberate, that they immediately captured my attention. As luck would have it, I found the last bottle of Sean Thackrey's Pleiades XV in the Corkscrew, and it now sits on my shelf, awaiting sufficient courage to open it. Even though it's the largest production of all the wines produced by that medieval tinkerer, it's not easy to find.

I was floored when I saw The Scholium Project '07 Naucratis at the new CoolVines store. Apart from Abe Schoener's extraordinary philosophy (which seems to make so much more sense than everyone elses), there were only 275 cases of this wine produced! At $5 below the winery's own price, this was a no-brainer.

Schoener is known for making unique wines from small vineyards. So what? Doesn't everyone these days? But there's something compelling about Schoener's eloquently-written credo. After reading it, one can't help but admire his aim: to display the excellence inherent in the vineyard, rather than use it as an ingredient. Of course the particular way in which he displays this excellence is quite original. Perhaps in aiming for flavor ripeness, not Brix, and long macerations he produces interesting wines, that communicate secondary flavors with clarity, but also sometimes result in huge, alcoholic beasts that many people can't stand.

I was sold at "small-production", "vineyard-driven", and "unique", but when I also greatly respect Schoener's unabashed extremeness. Wine isn't all balance, balance, balance as the dusty old British writers say. Rather, wine (as life) is a balance between balance and extremes. Read it over again, I'm fairly sure it makes sense. With that in mind, I was more than eager to try this wine, which did not disappoint:

The Scholium Project 2007 Naucratis, Lost Slough Vineyard (100% Verdelho).

Pale green straw in the glass, this wine has a beautifully expressive (if not high intensity) nose of honeysuckle, papaya, cool stones, and traces of grass, genmai, smoke, straw, and lime. In the mouth it offers up sweet, luscious, beautiful fruit with medium-to-full body and gorgeously soft texture. Undeniably delicious, with excellent acidity, the fruit lasts over 30 seconds on the finish. The flavors are well-integrated and harmonious, and it's so damn yummy I'm smacking my fist on the table repeatedly. The alcohol fumes burn my nasal membranes, and it's definitely hot in the mouth (14.9%), but you know what? I don't care.

Score: 88-92 points.

Availability: Only 275 cases were made. $22.50 at CoolVines.

Food pairing: I would like to drink this with a plain baguette and a hard, salty cheese, perhaps piave, or even some saltier bleu cheeses, like Roquefort.

Tasting conditions: I tasted at room temperature, as I taste all whites. Glasses: Riedel Bdx, Ravenscroft Impitoyable.

Conflict of interest: I think CoolVines is a cool new store. No I'm not being paid to advertise for them. I do think they have a great deal on this particular wine, though.

... Read more.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The new kid on the block!

It's definitely a happy day for wine lovers in the Princeton area. The wine store CoolVines just completed it's first week in it's new location, on Harrison and Nassau. Here's the rundown:

The location is a bit out-of-the-way for students. In particular, it is not within easy walking distance of the Palmer Square/Witherspoon St. area. On the other hand, it is within range of the Blue Point Grill, which is probably the best BYO within reach of student budgets.

The design of the store is elegant and innovative, if a little cramped. Wines are organized by color, body (light-med-full), and price (the cheapest wines are at the bottom, so bring kneepads!). The island at the center of the store functions both as a register and a tasting station, during in-store events.

Their selection needs a bit of work, as they themselves will admit. Currently it seems to be about 1/6th the size of the Corkscrew's. I'll be honest - I hadn't heard of a single wine on their shelves, but the first wine I purchased (a Chinon) was a solid selection. Perhaps their under-the-radar-wines approach is a good thing. They also have selections from New Zealand, Australia, South America, and South Africa - none of which are represented at the Corkscrew.

Their beer selection is already one of the most exciting shelves of alcohol in any store in town. I saw Dogfish Head, Stone, and a bunch of lambics that I will certainly be back for. In addition the spirits section is getting an overhaul, since Eric Mihan is on board. For those of you who didn't shop regularly at the Corkscrew, Eric is a spirits specialist, but also knows his stuff when it comes to wine. He's the go-to guy for cheese pairings, as he used to run Whole Foods' cheese counter.

The best thing about CoolVines is that they have seen what the Corkscrew has failed to acknowledge, and what California wineries have known all along: tastings, tastings, tastings! CoolVines offers free in-store tastings every Wednesday (5-8) and Saturday (2-5). The glasses are little sherry copitas that are oh-so-cute! In contrast, the Corkscrew hasn't had a tasting for months.

Furthermore, CoolVines offers a wide range of services that the Corkscrew doesn't, including wine service at BYO restaurants. While I doubt many students will be taking advantage of that, the wealthier members of the community will find it convenient.

To sum up: Check out CoolVines, but don't abandon the Corkscrew just yet. Mr. Chapuis is definitely the man for France (that is, anti-Parker France), and his French selection is an order-of-magnitude more extensive than CoolVines. For wine geeks who are used to browsing by region, the Corkscrew's layout is probably less of a headache than the CoolVines layout. However CoolVines is more friendly to those of us who haven't memorized thousands of obscure French AOC's, and want to pick up something that will go well with dinner the same night. Plus the people there are cool.

... Read more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's not all subjective!

Early on in my wine drinking career, I was convinced that the evaluation of wine could be completely objective. I brandished Robert Parker's 100-point system like a golden cross. My good friend Liz argued vehemently that the evaluation of wine is completely subjective, and can't be reduced to anything as mathematical and clinical as scores. As I learned more about wine I realized she was partly right - it is impossible to remove the subjective element from wine tasting. On the other hand, there is objectivity to be found, as shown by the following diagram:

So, Liz, I'm not insane after all... at least not completely!

... Read more.

Monday, August 11, 2008

What is a winemaker?

As the singular vintner-rebel Sean Thackrey is fond of pointing out, there is no word in the French language for "winemaker." The word used instead, vigneron, means "wine-grower", but it connotes vinification as well (Rosenthal, memoirs). Paul Draper, the wine-maker/philosopher in charge of Ridge, asserts that wine is "grown, not made." Who, then, is a wine-maker?

Perhaps, he (or she) is one who through a quixotic mixture of love and harsh upbringing, coaxes the subtleties of terroir out of his grapes. His duty during vinification is to quite simply get out of nature's way.

Perhaps he is one who imposes his own personality on the grapes, resulting in a duel, or a duet of vintner vs. nature. His wines always have a bit of himself in them.

Perhaps he is a skilled artisan, removing all flaws, then standing aside to let Nature take care of the rest. His wine is different from year to year, as nature is different from year to year.

Perhaps he is a slave to the vine, giving up long hours for the opportunity to drink some of his own wine with good friends.

Perhaps he is a visionary, seeking to change the world of vinification. He knows where winemaking comes from, and wants to take it to a new place.

The few winemakers I've met were humble and extremely friendly. They value the growing of good grapes above all, and love to share their great works with friends. I hope to meet many more over the course of my life, and perhaps I will come closer to an answer in the future. At present, I have none.

... Read more.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Working for Paul Romero: Part 2

On Saturday I worked at the newly-planted Sesson Vineyard (Santa Clara Valley AVA), with Paul's vineyard construction manager, Millie. An electrician by trade, Millie is as practical and tough as the irrigation lines she showed me how to string. As we were stringing the beginnings of a 5-wire trellis, and attaching black drip-lines to the lowest wire, she waxed eloquent about the clay soil, irrigation, killing gophers, and canopy management, occasionally pausing for a puff on a cigarrette.

A bit past noon, we ran out of plastic ties - time for a Home Depot run! We got into her boxy black jeep ("A bit rough, but it gets the job done - like me!") and I recieved an impromptu seminar on the art of growing good grapes.

Growing mediocre grapes is easy, but to grow grapes with any semblance of flavor concentration means severely slashing yields, taking only the primary fruit, reducing the tonnage per acre. It's not the most intuitive business model. "You gotta be crazy to grow good grapes" she said, "and if you grow bad grapes, people know - you taste the grapes and you just know. There's no hiding." How much do good grapes cost in Santa Clara? A couple grand per ton. In Napa/Sonoma? You can pay $5k and get crap.

On our way back from Home Depot, we stopped by Sycamore Creek so I could see what head-trained vines looked like. They instantly called to mind photographs I'd seen of Graves, in Bordeaux - lonely looking, beautifully gnarled trees, like bonsai in a desert. Clearly well-cared for, pristine.

We tasted through their releases and I noted that all the wines had great balance and acidity. The pinot was light, flavorful, and earthy. The other reds were quite dry, and not overly alcoholic. All across the board, each wine had several different flavors that it communicated with clarity. They were enjoyable and interesting to taste through, and I wish I'd had more time there to really write down complete impressions.

Afterwards we checked out Uvas Creek vineyards - the best grapes in town, according to Millie. Bill is a dirt farmer, so he keeps his rows clean and tilled. As a result he has to do more pruning work than most to keep the vigor down. The vertically trained vines were simply gorgeous - every leaf seemed in its proper place, and the view down each long, perfect row was stunning. Sensing my awe, Millie commented "Bill himself is in the vineyards every day - he checks every grape and removes the bad ones" - sure enough, we met him on our way out.

Bill Holt seemed to me the iconic image of a California farmer - Large-framed, a simple straw hat shading a sun-creased face, with a grizzled white beard, an easy smile, and a bone-crushing handshake. He wore an impeccable collared shirt, sleeves rolled, and at the same time had the vineyard's dark clay soil under his fingernails. He spoke slowly, wryly, his imagery incredibly old-fashioned ("that juice from the petite verdot was black as your hair!"). And at the same time he spoke of complex lab tests, chromatography results- modern ways of quantifying flavor ripeness that, he made clear, are only to be used in conjunction with tasting the berries. Millie amicably berated him for not having enough grapes to give to Paul this vintage.

If there's one thing I learned today, it is that Paul Draper is right - wine is grown, not made. The French term for winemaker is vigneron, which means literally "one who grows vines." Great wine is made in the field, one berry at a time, and then the vintner tries not to mess it up during vinification.

Here are my specific notes:


The idea of reducing vigor is fundamental to winemaking. For example, hillside vineyards are prized because they add stress to the grapes by retaining less water, decreasing the vigor. Pruning to decrease vigor is crucial. Dropping fruit is crucial to reduce production - usually you only want the primary fruit. As I understand it, vigor refers to vine growth/shooting laterals, and production refers to grape growth. Old vines produce small quantities of small berries - low vigor and low production which leads to high flavor concentration.


The vines at Sesson had been newly plante (grafted?) a few months ago. We strung a wire low across each row, and then fastened the irrigation pipe to the wire with plastic ties. Millie thinks the owners made a mistake with irrigation as all the 20-odd rows are fed by one line. They should have run a separate line for every three rows, from the main water source. From a fluid mechanics point of view, I think they will have severe trouble with pressure drop at the end of the field. Irrigation, however, is not in Paul's/Millie's job description.


Over-watering causes lots of fruit production, with big, watery grapes, and lots of vigor ("the grapes look woolly"). A telltale sign is an abnormally large distance (maybe a foot instead of 4 inches) between laterals. After the Sesson vines are mature and grape-producing, they'll rarely be watered at all - instead, their roots should go deep enough to access the water table. Since Sesson is on agri-designated land, they'll get lots of cheap water that they can then use to water their lawn/garden, since the vines eventually won't need it.


Sesson is too exposed for rabbits - the birds of prey will eat them. When the vines are bigger, the rabbits will have shelter from eagles/hawks, but by then the trunks will be so thick that the rabbits will only be able to eat the suckers - which actually saves work. Deer don't seem to be a problem in this particular area, but there are many ways of dealing with them - fences, strong-smelling wards, etc.


Gophers tunnel around and poke holes up for air. They eat roots, killing the vines. One way to combat them is to poke around with a re-bar until you find the tunnel (the bar sinks easily into the ground), dig up the tunnel system and put poison there, covering the hole with a brick. The gopher will try to re-dig the airhole, and in doing so will eat the poison. This is not a good idea if you have cats/dogs, as they could eat the poisoned gopher. Alternatively, you can trap it - but this is only possible if you are around the vineyard often, as you need to kill the gopher once trapped. The simplest method is to find a hole and flood it out, then hit it on the head with a shovel.

Canopy management:

In vertical training, the main stem splits into two laterals that go along the lowest trellis wire (above the irrigation wire). These produce the "primary fruit." At each junction on these laterals, 2 vines shoot upwards, bearing secondary fruit, which should be dropped. These secondary laterals are used just for photosynthesis and shade control. The region between the second and third wires above the ground is called the "fruit zone." For ease in tucking, the upper wires can be slackened until the vines grow well past the fruit zone, then tightened, saving time and effort in tucking stray shoots.

In head training, the main stem splits into several secondary stems, growing upwards like a small tree against a single vertical trellis. Until the main stem is sturdy enough to support the whole plant, a single vertical post is used as a trellis, and the secondary stems are tied to the top of the post. This is known as "basket training." Head training is more work than vertical training, and requires careful pruning. It is said to be good for Zinfandel, as it keeps the vigor/production down - the plant naturally scales back production to avoid collapsing from excess fruit. Head training is widely used in the Rhone valley.

We stopped by Sycamore Creek so I could see what head-trained vines looked like - they instantly reminded me of some photographs I'd seen of Graves - lonely looking, beautifully gnarled trees, like bonsai in a desert. Clearly well-cared for, pristine. The earth at Sycamore creek was light brown and dusty/crumbly. Not black and hard like the clay at sesson. Chaine d'Or seemed to have similar earth. The vineyard topography was flat.

In both types of training, a delicate balance must be found. Leaving too few leaves limits the nutrients to the grapes, and hence the flavor development suffers. Leaving too many leaves can make the bunches susceptible to mildew, as they don't get enough sun and air.


There are two schools of thought: Bill Holt, of the dirt farmer mentality, tills the ground in between the vines. He has to work extra hard to keep down the vigor. Millie and Paul believe in letting some weeds and some specially chosen ground cover aid in keeping the vigor low.

Grape pricing in different AVA's:

Santa Clara Valley AVA grapes go for a couple thousand dollars per ton. Santa Cruz would be a thousand more, perhaps $3500. Napa/Sonoma goes around $5000 at the low end, and they might not even be good, you have to taste them and find out how the vines were cared for.

Meeting Bill:

Bill Holt grows the best grapes in town, according to Millie. Paul made a very successful cabernet from Uvas Creek in '05, but didn't get any grapes this year. Bill tastes his grapes but also sends them to a lab to measure anthocyanins, tannins, and other species to quantify ripeness. He also grows Petit Verdot, which seems to be in high demand recently. He said the anthocyanins (which are factors in color, flavor, and mouthfeel) were so high that the petite verdot grapes were almost black during press.

One of the wines I tasted at Sycamore Creek was an '05 Cab made from Bill's Uvas Creek grapes - the same harvest that Paul at Stefania used for his well-recieved '05 Uvas Creek Cabernet, though Paul used 50:50 Clone 4 and Clone 337, and Sycamore Creek used 100% Clone 4. In the mouth the wine was light, yet intense in flavor, with a medium-soft tannic grip that was very smooth, even plush in texture. There was a little earth on the nose, with good fruit and hints of tobacco. The balance and acidity were excellent. I don't know how representative this winery is of the area, but I liked the wines a lot. They were not too fruit-forward, sweet, and oaky, which Millie says can be a problem in Napa wines. I can't wait to try Paul's wine from the same grapes!

... Read more.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mystery Wines!

Ex-sommelier, wine guru, and teacher extraordinaire Joe G recently led a series of blind-tasting challenges on the WLTV forums. Here are links to the Mystery Wine threads. Read his initial post and try to guess based on flavor descriptors what the wines are! Joe's advice: reasoning is more important than getting it right. Not all wines are typical of their region/varietal. Joe coached us through the wines, giving hints and analyzing our responses, eventually revealing the wine.

Mystery Wine 1

Mystery Wine 2

Mystery Wine 3

Mystery Wine 4

Mystery Wine 5

Mystery Wine 6

Mystery Wine 7

Mystery Wine 8

Mystery Wine 9

Mystery Wine 10

... Read more.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Working for Paul Romero: Part 1

Those of you on the WS and WLTV forums may have followed my recent search for a summer job (screenname "barrelmonkey"). As I learned, there is little work in small wineries for a chemical engineer. "For every hour of labwork" said vintner Paul Romero, "there are one hundred hours of spraying vines, pruning, hauling nets, and cleaning barrels." In the end, I took a research job here at Princeton on nano-structured silica templation.

As my schedule solidified, I realized I'd be home in Menlo Park, CA, for a month before returning to Princeton. I contacted Paul again, asking if I could work for him short-term. "How much can you lift? How's your Spanish? Are you good at cleaning things?" were his questions. We agreed that I would join Geraldo and Daniel with the vineyard work.

The First Day:

I drove up to Chaine d'Or vineyard, a hill-side plot near Fogarty in Woodside, and met Daniel and the foreman, Jerry (Geraldo). With some rusty Spanish I learned how to "tuck" the chardonnay and cabernet vines into the wire trellis, and remove "suckers" that shoot out from the trunk and rootstock. The sun was intense, enhancing the beautiful contrast between the vibrant green vines and the dusty brown soil.

Paul showed up later that day, and showed me around the cool, damp, barrel cave. I still distinctly remember the perfume of damp earth, cool stones, wine, and wood that hit me upon entering the cave. What a bouquet - I wanted to drink that cave!

While we topped off the barrels, I learned a lot of specifics from Paul regarding the vineyard and the winemaking process (see below for my complete notes). I met his wife and lable-namesake, Stefania, and was able to taste along with a few visitors as Paul gave a cellar tour. My palate wasn't really in gear, being somewhat full of dust and already saturated with the smell of wine in the cellar. However I was impressed by the balance of Paul's 14.9% pinot (he was right- I never would have guessed from tasting it that the pinot was his most alcoholic wine). The two cabernets showed great flavor concentration and soft tannins, with pleasant hints of methoxypyrazines on the nose. All of the wines had excellent acidity and full body. Not a bad way to end the day!

Here are my specific notes:

Vine care:

Sucker, or small shoots that portrude laterally from the lower trunk and rootstock, must be removed because they take away nutrients from the fruit zone. Also, one usually doesn't want fruit from the rootstock. Some of the cabernets had succumbed to a virulent disease a couple years ago, so they chopped the vine below the affected region and allowed it to shoot a lateral from the stump, which eventually became a full vine. Aside from suckering, however, it's not advisable to trim the vine at this stage (late flower, early fruit formation). Jerry, the owner of Chaine d'Or, noted that Daniel was trimming the apical meristem of some of the chards. The stem would then shoot short laterals, which would be difficult to tuck.

Vineyard Climate:

The climate at Chaine d'Or is uniquely suited to winemaking. Fog rolls in in the evening, causing the desired nighttime cooling of the grapes. Because of the slope, convection keeps the air moving, preventing frost buildup during the winter.

Ripening the grapes:

Besides sugar-ripeness (measured in degrees brix), the grapes go through stages of flavor ripeness. For example, cab sauv can take on extreme asparagus and bell pepper flavors when unripe. Olive/cedar/tobacco/earth follows, then some red fruit, then the black cassis tones. Overripe grapes can taste raisiny. Paul remarked:

I've tasted many wines from this area [Woodside hills, overlooking Stanford University] from vintners who don't know to taste the grapes, and so pick too early. You get scared because you just heard Napa's already picking, but here you need to hold off for flavor ripeness. Even if brix is right [23-25 degrees], the flavors may not be ripe yet. You have to taste the grapes.

Use of oak:

Barrel-aging is a partial-oxidation process that polymerizes the tannins into riper-tasting longer-chain tannins. The oak contributes its own long-chain tannins, as well as unique flavors - vanilla, cinnamon, pain grille, etc., depending on wood type and degree of toast. The '07 cab, for example, had unusually short-chain, unripe tannins, so Paul aged it in barrels longer to compensate.

"American Oak or French Oak?" I asked. "French," said Paul. "American oak is sluttier." He finds that American oak gives up its flavors to the wine more readily, contributing bold vanilla and cream, but less tannic structure. French oak gives more sophisticated flavors of cinnamon and subtle vanilla. The amount of flavor/tannins the barrel contributes also depends on the barrel age.

Paul uses French oak, sometimes a little Hungarian. I saw Nevers, but I'm not sure what other types he uses. On research, he commented:

There's been very little conclusive academic research on the effects of different varieties of oak (e.g. American vs French) largely because for a long time the prices were the same. Now that French oak is more expensive, there will probably be more research.

Topping off:

To correct the loss of the "Angels' share," or the wine that evaporates from the barrels, additional wine is added regularly. A beverage canister full of wine, pressurized and "mummified" with nitrogen is used to top off barrels. Topping-off wine may come from another vintage (hence the 5% other-vintage allowance in CA), but usually is used up in the same year.

If there's no N2 or topping off wine, a barrel that needs topping off can be preserved with argon, and then a barrel can be sacrificed to top up the others.

The canisters are washed with sulfur compounds (~30 ppm) to disinfect.


To remove sediment, several barrels are mixed in large steel tanks (also used for bottling to reduce bottle variation). The empty barrels are placed on a rack with rollers, washed thoroughly, and then refilled. This causes a little beneficial oxidation, and mixes all the barrels of wine. SO2 is added to the racking tank to disinfect the wine, particularly as a guard against brettanomyces.

... Read more.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"I don't spit."

Proclaimed proudly or with disdain, these words always puzzle me when uttered by an admitted wine geek. Sure, spitting is gross, and seems counter to our instincts. Many people feel that they can't taste wine properly without swallowing it - implying that their nose and palate are located somewhere south of the epiglottis. Some are content with scrutinizing microscopic sips of wine, sacrificing the experience of tasting to save their livers. Others accept the gradual loss of coherence as an unavoidable hazard of tasting.

Spit, folks. Spit. You'll find it's freeing in a way - you get to experience the flavors of many wines in full, taking in a well-sized mouthful to swish around, without the impending doom of intoxication. It is far better to spit a fine wine after enjoying its subtlety and complexity, than to swallow and be unable to distinguish it from Yellow Tail.

I won't go so far as Jancis Robinson's implication that those who don't spit are of inferior moral character,* but I will say that if you don't spit, you're extremely silly, and are shortchanging your wine experience.

A good spit should be accurate, clean, and economical. Ideally you would stand next to the spit bucket, but not need to stick your head in it. Don't dribble. Don't splash. If you can't produce a perfectly clean spit every time, use a cup as a personal spittoon. Spitting from 10 feet away is impressive, but totally unnecessary.

* "...then the taster demonstrates his devotion to duty rather than pleasure by spitting..." - Oxford Companion to Wine.

... Read more.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tasting Notes, Vinography Style

...the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. - Douglas Adams

...the wine was like satin, but with a print on it. - Jancis Robinson

While I dream of one day writing a tasting note as memorable, punchy, and utterly useless as the above examples, Alder Yarrow at provides constant inspiration with his consistently eloquent and detailed notes. Add his superbly wrought background profiles on producers and regions, which preface his concise tasting notes, and it's no wonder he has won a bouquet of accolades for his long-running blog.

As an exercise I have reworked two tasting notes in vinography fashion. These tastings stand out in my mind not for the quality of the liquid, but the clarity of the tasting experience. Having spent half an hour or more with each of these, it is difficult to distill my notes down to a paragraph, but here they are:

1996 Joel Taluau St.-Nicholas-de-Bourgueil, vieilles vignes

Decanted for 80 minutes. Medium purple in color, rimmed with brick red, this wine has a fascinatingly rich, complex, and symmetric nose of stewed bell peppers and candied jalapenos seamlessly balanced by expansive black raspberries and secondary aromas of dusty earth, barbecue sauce, sweet tobacco, pomegranate, plum, and sun-warmed stones. Did I mention the tertiary hints of roasting chicken skins, basil, and cloves? In the mouth the warm strawberry and black raspberry bouquet blooms endlessly, supported by woody flavors, rich bell pepper, and green tea. A crystalline acidity heralds a transition to a secondary flavor of focused cassis, and tertiary hints of spiced oranges. On the finish, cinnamon and matcha green tea overtones add sparkle to the fruit and smooth, rich tannins. Extraordinary. $35. 97 points.

N.V. Dogfish Head 120-Minute India Pale Ale

Brilliant gold in the glass, this IPA has a profoundly layered nose of caramel, wood, smoke, malt ovaltine, coffee, candied coconut, lanzones, dried oranges, and spiced cider. Even when chilled, the aromas in this beer achieve a volume and clarity I've never experienced in a wine. In the mouth it is explosively creamy, lusciously sweet, finely bubbled, dazzlingly pliant, and riotously flavored. Smoky caramel spicy orange (that's right, folks: this beer has superbly balanced acidity!), powerful hops on the finish intermingled with more fruit and caramel, lemon, figs, dates, and strong impressions of creme brulee. The entire finish, hops and fruity caramel included, lasts over 2 minutes. The d'Yquem of beers! Serve well chilled. 20% ABV, $10 per 12 oz bottle. 94 points.

... Read more.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Taster's Lament

I'm sitting at a table with four glasses in front of me: a Barolo, a monster Shiraz, a Bourgueil, and a Barbera. I glare at each of them in turn, then dig into my chocolate cake and cannoli with frustration. I hear that someone just popped a Turley Zinfandel downstairs, and there's a 94-point Rioja on the table. It's 80 minutes into the Wine Library event at Basilico's restaurant, and I can no longer taste wine.

To be fair, it's not that I went completely aguesic - it's just that every wine I smelled or tasted seemed oxidized. The "bruised apple" smell overpowered all aromas, even in wines I'd tasted earlier and knew to be perfectly fine. I tried washing my glasses. I tried changing glasses. I sniffed other people's glasses. I downed lots of bread and water in an effort to cleanse my palate. Nothing worked.

Ironically, I only learned to identify oxidized wines earlier that day. Joe G pointed out the flaw in the 1965 and 1969 Louis Martini Cabernets at the WLTV taping. (The '65, incidentally, was also my first "corked" wine, and the unpleasant taste lingered on my tongue for hours afterwards) At first I didn't find the oxidization unpleasant - just like bad apple cider with stewed figs, and a little bitterness. In fact, a lot of people in the room were drinking it, and I can understand why - there was still a little sugar and acidity, so the wine wasn't completely unpalatable, though it didn't remotely resemble wine.

It wasn't long until my next encounter - a 2003 Sandro Fay Sassella that Joe opened after the taping. The color seemed fine, but the nose was totally oxidized. At Basilico's, it happened again. We were offered a '93 Beaucastel Rousanne from a nearby table. The copper color was an immediate warning flag, and the nose confirmed total oxidation. At this point I shouldn't have tasted it, but I wanted to really memorize the flaw, so I did. About five wines later, I started tasting nothing but acetaldehyde, effectively ending my tasting for the night.

However, it was still a fantastic event overall. I got to taste some great wines before my palate went haywire, including a beautifully vibrant 1982 Ch. Calon-Segur, from double-magnum. I brought my own glass for the Calon, so I was luckier than some. The WLTV taping in the mezzanine was surreal, the excitement as palpable as the riot of wafting wine aromas. My unfortunate lesson in the dangers of drinking flawed wine only contributed to the memorability of this singular day. Thank you Gary and everyone who made this event possible!

... Read more.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fruit Bombs 101: How to Fake a Midpalate

, realize that for many drinkers, glycerine (glycerol) registers differently from residual pentoses and hexoses - it can be confused with fruit flavor, heightening the midpalate experience. Normally yeast produce glycerol in insignificant concentrations, but there are several known ways of inducing higher glycerol yields:

1. Increase the sugar. Yeast produce glycerol in response to hyper-osmotic environments, as a survival mechanism. However this is useless in winemaking, since the brix at harvest must be within a specific range.

2. Increase the pH to 7 or higher. However wine must be acidic (pH 3-4) to be palatable.

3. Increase the sugar and use special osmo-tolerant strains, that have an amplified glycerol response. Not feasible for the same reason as (1.). Also, using different strains of yeast alters the flavors of the wine.

4. Temporarily retard fermentation by fixing acetaldehyde with SO2. This causes a "jam" in the pathway, using Le Chatelier's principle to induce a glycerol "side-shunt" production pathway. The fermentation will resume naturally as the acetaldehyde is freed.

This last strategy struck me as especially innovative when applied to winemaking, and is used by at least one well-known vintner. To elaborate, I'm going to assume some knowledge of the glycolysis/fermentation pathway.

In the fourth stage of glycolysis, Fructose-1,6-bisphosphate is split into G3P and dihydroxyacetone-phosphate, the latter of which is normally isomerized enzymatically into a second G3P. The next stage (phosphorylation of G3P) yields 2NADH as a by-product. At the end of glycolysis, pyruvate is decarboxylated into acetaldehyde, then fermented, using up NADH which would (if aerobic) go towards oxidative phosphorylation. If acetaldehyde is blocked by SO2, there is a buildup of NADH, which "reaches back" (Le Chatelier's principle) and makes the phosphorylation of G3P unfavorable. As a result, more dihydroxyacetone-phosphate goes down the alternate glycerol-synthesis pathway (which uses up NADH, restoring balance). There may be another glycerol pathway, but I would hazard an educated guess that it's simply the G3P isomerization in reverse.

Since both alcohol and glycerol are produced from a fixed starting glucose concentration, by producing more glycerol, you sacrifice alcohol content - a major part of the wine's "body." However a higher glycerol concentration allows the yeast greater osmotic tolerance, so if you harvest really, really high brix grapes, the SO2 will cause more glycerol production, but alcohol production will still be high. In this way you get full-bodied, up to 16% wines that also have enough glycerol to fill the midpalate.

The wines I've had that used this method were very sweet, fruity, and alcoholic. I hate them, personally, but I think this is a very innovative biochemical strategy that will please many people's palates.

... Read more.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

'96 Taluau - St-Nicolas-de-Bourgeil, Vieilles Vignes

In honor of Gary Vaynerchuk's request for WBW 44, I chose a cab franc from a region I have not tried before, at a higher price point than I'm used to, and with more age on it than any wine I've had before.

1996 Jöel Taluau St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil AOC, Vieilles Vignes, 12.5%, $35 at the Princeton Corkscrew.

This is an extraordinary wine.

When the longish cork was halfway out, I caught a whiff of vinegar and panicked. Fortunately there was no such smell after the cork was out. An unmistakeable green pyrazine tone wafted from the neck of the bottle, giving me pause. The green bell-pepper tone was not something I enjoyed in the two Cab Francs I've had before, and I was hoping that this wine would be pyrazine-free.

Anyhow, I went ahead with double-decanting, observing a nice ring of fine sediment around the bottom of the bottle. Some hints of Salvadorean tamales and stewed bell peppers emerged. Even with the greenness, it smelled delicious. Like a delicate stew broth. I was torn: On one hand, I didn't like the green tones. On the other - my mouth was watering!

First Tasting, 40 minutes after decanting:

The color is a lovely peachy-orange-purple, which shows textbook signs of age at the rim and in the body. Very much what I'd expect from Michael Broadbent's color charts.

(Aside: N1-N4 refer to four different ways of smelling ("nosing") the wine. N1 is gentle, extended sniff of the still wine surface. N2 is a deep inhalation above the still surface. N3 is a gentle sniff after a swirl. N4 is a deep inhalation after a swirl. )

N1 evokes mint, cut wood, bell-peppers, and hints of tobacco, all with an undertone of ripe fruit. N2 suggests olives and wood, with some fruit. N3 mostly reveals pyrazine, with some menthol tones. Although there are earthy tones in the nose, there is no "barnyard" - this is a clean wine.

This wine completely captivated my palate. Dry and medium-bodied with beautiful, refreshing acidity and a gripping tannin structure that suggests several more years of life. The midpalate has spicy suggestions of sweet jalapeno candy, which transitions into a somewhat bitter finish, all the while framed with flutterings of unmistakeably ripe fruit. A 91-point wine.

As I tasted again, the nose revealed cinnamon and herbal tones, with woody strawberries and raspberries.

Second Tasting, 80 minutes after decanting:

The aromas have bloomed into a bouquet of finely stewed bell peppers/candied jalapenos seamlessly interwoven with black raspberries (N1). Some volatile acidity is present, with hints of BBQ-sauce sweetness, and slight carmelization (N2). Such RIPENESS! Yet with none of the raisiny characteristics that bother me about over-ripened wines. It is ripened to such perfection that the pyrazines don't bother me. N3: I’m salivating. Lusciously gentle yet crystal clear, focused fruit blooms voluminously on the midpalate. Unique yet... strangely comforting. Reminds me of the first time I played an ivory-keyed piano - it seemed warmer to the touch, immediately set my fingertips at ease. The feel was so beautiful, novel yet instantly comfortable, like this wine. There are also hints of dusty earth, but still with cleanness and clarity! Grass, pomegranates, warm hillsides drenched in sunlight, clear tones of black raspberry, plum, warm rocks in the sun. I don't want to stop smelling this. N4: A little earth, some charred/tobacco tones.

Palate: SO MUCH FRUIT! Charming cassis acidity, rich green, brown wood tones, hints of malt on the midpalate (but still totally dry). The acidity has many shades to it – it’s not so much a razor (as Gary has described crisp whites in the past), as a multifaceted gem rolling around on the tongue! In context of the wine's flavor structure, the acidity is the bridge between initially warmer fruit tones (strawberries, black raspberries) and a brief but crytal-clear cassis tone in the midpalate. Suggestions of orange and spice, a little bitterness on the finish, but I LOVE it! It’s like bitter cinnamon tea, or bitter green tea – a rich bitterness. Perfectly elegant tannins. True finesse. Hard not to swallow this - like imbibing a deep-blue petaled flower of exquisite beauty and aroma. Mild tertiary scents of roasting chicken skins, basil, cloves. On the latter part of the midpalate - a soft but distinct spiciness.

This wine is focused and intense. After opening up for a bit, it has completely won me over. Extraordinary. 97-RA. Pairing: I feel it would be a crime to pair anything with this wine except some clean water and neutral bread. The wine is a complete experience in itself.

(Note: Props to Laurent Chapuis of the Corkscrew for getting this straight from the Chateau!)

... Read more.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Wine is about Loss

I really have nothing to say today, except to thank Ms. Bowman for allowing me to link to her singular post:

You Can Never Drink It Again
... Read more.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Plethora of Pairings

Food and Wine pairing is a scam. Just ask Alder Yarrow over at Vinography. And yet I could not resist diving in for the first time. Over three nights, I tasted the same 5 cheeses with three different wines. Here are my findings.

The Cheeses:

1. Petite Basque
One of my favorite cheeses. A very nice, delicately perfumed aroma of wood and earth, with hints of apples. Medium-firm, with a sublimely smooth texture.
2. Pyrenees Brebis
Similar to Ossau-Iraty, a beautiful, delicate, elusive flavor. The texture on this cheese wasn't that great - a little grainy.
3. Pecorino Ginepro Stelvio
Dry without being sharp, lovely sheepsmilk aromas reminiscent of oil-aged manchego, but without the oily sharpness, and with greater clarity. An excellent cheese.
4. Gruyere, Cave Aged
Lovely deep flavors of nuts, creamy honey, and crushed rocks. Notable burnt/charred flavors. Creamy and quite hard, with small crystals similar to XO Beemster.
5. Blue Cheese soaked in Sauternes
Soft, smooth, rich, and impressively flavorful, with explosive fruit overtones. A riot of intense color in the mouth, with a beautiful lingering finish. The sauternes really smooths out and sweetens this cheese.

The Wines:

1) 2006 Bodegas Ostatu Rioja - (White Rioja) $14

NOSE: Hints of apple and raw pear, with tones of fresh bread.

PALATE: Slightly off-dry. Good acidity, not razor-sharp. Slight nuttiness on the midpalate, with hints of champagne. Bitter finish, but not too bad - slightly piney, like good hops. 84-RA.

2) 2005 III Somms Amitie - (Napa) $19.5

NOSE: Somewhat dusty, with hints of menthol and a clear note of stinkiness - Brett? Definitely a little old-world funk in there, but not really "barnyard." Some black raspberries, hints of cassis.

PALATE: Medium bodied with soft tannins on back end. A pretty wine. Good finish. Nice Bordeaux style on the midpalate. A little more black raspberries and cassis as the wine opens up. Good overall. Not as much fruit or tannins as I'd like, but the Brett is interesting. Pretty neat old-world wine from CA. A little hot on the alcohol (14.5%). 86-RA.

3) 2007 Corte Gardoni Bardolino Chiaretto - (Rose) $14

NOSE: A little apple, nice light strawberry notes. A little dry hay.

PALATE: Slightly off-dry. Good acidity, though not razor-sharp. Light-body. A little nuttiness on the midpalate. Faint suggestions of honey. Finish is a litte bitter, but the acidity takes over after a bit and cleans the palate. 79-RA.

Pairing Scale:

The scale ranges from -2 to +2, with -2 being an inedible pairing, and +2 being a sublime one. For excellent pairings I'm looking for new flavors to emerge, for existing flavors to intensify, and for the individual flavors of the wine and cheese to complement each other. Indifferent pairings are scored 0.

Summary of the Pairings:

Chris at the Corkscrew knows his stuff. He suggested the Ostatu to pair with the Blue Sauternes, and sure enough, they formed an outstanding pairing (+1). The cheese carried the wine and extended the finish on and on for perhaps 2 minutes. The wine didn't magnify the flavors, but clarified and extended them. His second suggestion, the III Somms, paired phenomenally with the Pecorino, as he had predicted (+1). It's hard to articulate all the nuances of what happened, but put simply, the earthiness of the wine greatly complemented and enhanced the earthiness of the cheese. The Ostatu also went beautifully with the Pecorino, enhancing the earthy sheepsmilk flavors, and evoking a completely new tone of blackcurrant! (+1). Chris's third suggestion was a Rose, which he thought would go nicely with all the cheeses. He was right - all the pairings were good, though none was stellar (+.5 all round).

The worst pairing was the Blue Sauternes with the III Somms (-1). Because of the low acidity, the sweetness of the cheese was enhanced by the wine, and both cheese and wine seemed to become cloying. The wine devolved to resemble a cheap, flabby cabernet. Other unfortunate pairings included Gruyere with III Somms (-.5, the charred aromas of the former were incongruous next to the earthiness of the latter), and the Petite Basque with the Ostatu (-.5, the wine enhanced the bitterness of the cheese).

Complete Pairing Notes:

'06 Bod. Ostatu White Rioja:

Petite Basque: -.5 increased bitterness
Pyrenees Brebis: 0 meh
Pecorino: +1 fleshes out the sheep aromas. Faint cassis emerges!
Gruyere: +.5 enhances smoked/charred flavor a bit more than the others
Blue Sauternes: +1 Excellent pairing. The cheese carries the wine and extends the finish on and on and on. Perhaps 2-3 minutes. Doesn't magnify the flavors, but slightly clarifies and extends the sweet finish.

'05 III Somms Amitie:

Petite Basque: +.5 Enhances flavors all round.
Pyrenees Brebis: +.5 Enhances sweet and salty flavors.
Pecorino: +1 Earthiness of the wine complements earthiness of the sheepsmilk flavors.
Gruyere: -.5 The sweet, creamy, bitter, burnt/charred flavors of the gruyere are incongruous with the wine's earthiness.
Blue Sauternes: -1 Not enough acidity. The wine ends up tasting flabby - like a cheap, over-sugared cabernet. Funny that the sweet, flavorful cheese enhances the sweetness of the wine.

'07 Corte Gardoni Bardolino Chiaretto Rose (tasted at cellar temperature):

Petite Basque: +.5 Enhances flavors all round.
Pyrenees Brebis: +.5 Enhances flavors all round.
Pecorino: +.5 Just a nice contrast: fruit+acid vs. earthy dryness.
Gruyere: +.5 Enhances smoky/charred flavors a little.
Blue Sauternes: +.5 Enhances fruit component of the cheese flavor.

... Read more.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Tragic Varietal

I was in love with the bouquet as soon as it touched my memory. Lychees, rose petals, saffron - some of my childhood memories of the flavors and scents of India. However when I first tasted the wine, I nearly cried. Cloying sweetness rode on top of an ugly bitterness that I could not stomach. I've tasted several Gewurztraminers since, including one from Canada, but always with similar misfortune. As it turns out, not everyone can taste the bitterness in Gewurz- the ability is most likely genetic. If you know of another wine that smells like India, please let me know.
... Read more.

Four Critics - One Wine

Here are reviews and scores by four respected critics on the same wine - 2003 Leoville-Poyferre.

Robert M. Parker, Jr. – 98 points
I have had this wine three times out of bottle, rating it 97 once and 98 twice. It is a colossal success and a potential legend in the making. Its saturated, dense inky/blue/purple color offers up notes of crushed rocks, acacia flowers, blueberries, black raspberries, and crème de cassis. A synthesis of power and elegance, this multi-layered wine has spectacular concentration, sweet but high tannin, and low acidity A stunning effort that showcases this legendary terroir, it is a brilliant, brilliant success. The quintessential Leoville Poyferré? Anticipated maturity: 2009-2030.

James Suckling – 95
Pure cassis on the nose. Impressive. Full-bodied, thick and powerful, with loads of fruit and big, velvety tannins. Goes on for minutes on the palate. Huge wine. Very, very impressive. This is one of the big surprises of the vintage. Best after 2012.

Stephen Tanzer – 92
Medium ruby-red. Extravagant aromas of currant, loam, leather and graphite; like the 1990 in its roasted character. Then sweet and dense but with surprising aromatic lift in the mouth, not to mention considerable power. Liqueur-like black fruit, licorice and mineral flavors really stain the palate. Cuvelier maintained that this vintage was not acidified. The cabernet acidity, he said, was healthy and the grape skins gave up their acidity slowly during the vinification. A very impressive showing, and built to last.

Gary Vaynerchuk – 97+
Dark color. Classic bell pepper on the nose. V8 juice, black cassis, black currant, musty (like an attic). On the palate, incredibly silky from the attack through the finish. This is a polished Old World wine with beautiful extracted New World fruit (2003 was a hot vintage), perfect balance & harmony, extremely good, black currant & cassis, red cherries, beautiful raspberries, secondary layers of smoked tobacco, really ripe candied flavors on the finish, smooth as a wine gets, this is Ultimate Bordeaux


Here are some groups of similar flavors:

  • crushed rocks (RP) mineral, graphite (ST) musty (GV)
  • crème de cassis (RP) pure cassis (JS) currant, liqueur-like black fruit (ST) cassis, black currant (GV)
  • roasted character (ST) smoked tobacco (GV)
All of the critics felt the wine was “big”:

dense (color), power, multi-layered (RP)
full-bodied, thick, powerful, huge wine (JS)
dense, considerable power, stains the palate (ST)

Three of the four critics noted the wine’s sweetness:

sweet (RP)
sweet and dense (ST)
ripe candied flavors (GV)

However when it comes to acidity and color, the critics don’t quite agree:

strong acidity (inferred from comment about cuvelier) (ST)
low acidity (RP)

saturated, dense, inky/blue/purple (RP)
medium ruby-red (ST)
dark color (GV) – the most recent review.

It is hard to draw any strong conclusions from the reviews about this wine – after all, it’s just one wine, and one that is incontrovertibly an excellent effort (contrast with the infamous Chateau Pavie!). However it is clear that while the critics largely agree, it is very difficult for any single critic to claim objective truth. For example, the Wine Spectator maintains that their numeric scores are extra-accurate because during each tasting they “calibrate” their palates with a previously-rated wine. Is this implied accuracy truly warranted? My gut feeling, from reading these reviews, is no. More on this soon.
... Read more.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Blind Tasting and Bayes' Theorem

Critics and wine gurus often recommend blind tasting as the best way to train one's palate. In addition, the major critics (Parker, Wine Spectator, Tanzer) taste blind to reassure us of their unwavering objectivity. However objectivity is not always the same as accuracy (for more on this, see an article by Eric Asimov), and it is not at all clear to me why blind tasting is a useful form of training. Here I will cast the act of blind tasting into a Bayesian decision model, and discuss possible implications.

First, I want to be clear on this point: I am not discussing the act of blind tasting with intent to subjectively evaluate. If your goal is to identify which wines give you most pleasure to drink, taste them as you drink them. If you drink them blind, taste them blind - otherwise, don't bother. Here I am concerned with the act of blind tasting to determine objective truths about the wine. I am taking the objectivity of tastes and tasting for granted. (For a discussion of this assumption, see Barry Smith's article in the book, Questions of Taste)

Given a set of objective statements A, and a set of observations B, we can consider the act of blind tasting as the informed decision whether to believe statements in A based on which observations in B we percieve. In sparser, mathematical terms, A and B are two disjunct sets of events. By Bayes' Theorem, the conditional probability of an event A (in the set A) given an observation B (in the set B), can be calculated by:

P(AB) = P(BA) * P(A) / P(B)

Where P(B) and P(A) are the a priori probabilities of A and B, and P(BA) is the conditional probability of B, given A. This equation articulates the truism that in order to assign a conditional probability of A based on information about B, you have to allow a non-zero probability for A in the first place. For example: to conclude that the wine has Shiraz characteristics, all the Shiraz smells in the world are insufficient if we do not first allow for the possibility that the wine contains Shiraz. The strength of our decision depends on the specificity and accuracy of our knowledge of each of the three terms on the right-hand side of the equation. Why then would would we choose to taste blind, and eliminate some of this information?

By tasting blind we aim to weaken our ability to determine P(A), and so we unconsciously "retreat" toward the default of least information: that all A's are equally possible. For example: not knowing the varietal, we would hopefully consider all varietals equally. In reality, we fail: naturally we expect Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling more that Duras, Gruner Veltliner, or Xarrello.

By reducing the distinguishing power of the set of P(A)'s, we tilt the equation to depend primarily on P(BA), which is directly derived from experience, and on P(B) - i.e. how unique our observation is. Naturally this reduces the strength of the decision, which is a mathematical reflection on our increased uncertainty when blind tasting. Unconsciously we try to compensate by seizing any scrap of information to make a particular P(A) stand out.

Mathematically, tasting blind reduces the precision of our decision-making (or to be slightly more correct, makes for a less favorable precision-recall curve). However it quite possibly increases our accuracy. If we wine tasters have a shared tendency to exaggerate unwarranted differences in P(A), blind tasting would improve our accuracy. As Emile Peynaud cautioned bluntly in his famous book, Le Gout de Vin (The Taste of Wine), "the wine taster is easily influenced."

However Bayes' equation makes the importance of P(BA) absolutely clear: tasting blind will only improve your ability to objectively analyze, if you possess accurate knowledge of the reverse probabilities. An example of this type of knowledge might be: "9 out of 10 Gewurztraminers have the taste of lychees." Note the distinction between this and P(AB): "9 out of 10 wines with the taste of lychees are made from Gewurztraminer." This type of knowledge only comes from experience. Tasting only a few Gewurztraminers is statistically insignificant, and thus for a wine novice, tasting blind is rather useless as a tool to improve accuracy. Instead, taste with prior knowledge of what the wine should taste like, and see how well your perceptions match up. As the esteemed Vayniac Joe G. wrote:

Once you can give an accurate tasting note of what a bottle should taste like from a region without tasting it, that is when blind tasting can be educational.
- WLTV forum discussion

It's like Jazz, folks. You gotta learn the notes before you improvise.

(Note: Thanks to all the Vayniacs who helped me crystallize my thoughts in the forum discussion of this topic.)
... Read more.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Chateau d'Yquem of beers?

First a brief profile of my palate when it comes to beer. I am a hop-head. Some of my favorite brews are Stone's Ruination, IPA, and Arrogant Bastard. I'm no fan of sweetness (in wine or beer), which is what keeps me from listing Dogfish Head's 90-minute IPA among my favorites, despite its beautiful aromatic complexity. I see beers as relaxing entertainment, with their clear-cut, bold, easy-to-identify aromas. When I'm looking for something serious, I go for the vino.

Last Saturday I popped a beer I'd been keeping for some time, the Dogfish Head 120-Minute IPA. I was expecting an extremely hoppy, bitter brew, with more malt than suits my preference (from experience with Dogfish Head). Instead, I discovered a viscous, intense, fiery liquid that cannot be said to remotely resemble beer.

AROMATICS: This is when I knew it was going to be good, or at least interesting. Layers of caramel, wood, smoke, malt ovaltine, coffee, and the interior of a Pan de Coco (a Filipino bread). Also some dried oranges and apple cider (dried oranges in apple cider? That's how we do it at home). You can dive into this nose, layer by layer, and never come out of the bright, intense kaleidoscope of flavors. Don't get me wrong - this is nothing like a good wine. It is not subtle. The non-fruit flavors are many orders of magnitude more pronounced. But there is fruit, and it is WILD. Hints of lanzones.

FLAVOR PROFILE: Sweeeeeeet. Unctuous. Jammy. Honeyed. Syrupy. Luscious. So sweet, it osmotically burns your mucus membranes. We're talking dessert wine levels. Smoky caramel, spicy orange (even some acidity, unusual for a beer). Fine bubbles. Powerful hops finish that isn't naked like Stone's Ruination, but intermingled with layers of fruit and caramel. Holy $#!T this is good! A little lemon on the finish, along with figs, dates, and the top of a nice creme brulee. Explosive and creamy on the midpalate. The hops bear a striking resemblence to the liquor bitterness in creme brulee! The finish lasts years. Ok I exaggerate. Months. The finish lasts forever. The hops stay, the caramel stays, the orange and spice stays. At least 2 minutes on the finish.

PILLOW: One of the things I like to do when tasting beer is emulsify with air, like I would wine, and observe the "pillow" that fluffs up in the mouth. I've had some good pillows - Arrogant Bastard stands out in particular. This left them all behind. I didn't feel like a big pillow appeared in my mouth - I felt like I physically landed in a HUGE pillow. You could jump off the Empire State Building and land safely in this pillow.

This is indulgence. This is someone giving you a massage all day long. This is off the charts. If I found a 400-year-old Sauternes made by a crazed vintner and hopped like mad - this is what I might expect.

I'm no fan of dessert wines, but this dessert beer won me over completely. It blew the 2001 Filhot (Sauternes) and the 2005 Tablas Creek Vin de Paille out of the water. I recommend having it by itself as dessert - shared with two other friends as it's too sweet to finish on your own. Serve it very chilled and the nose will still be explosive. Too warm and the alcohol tears through, ripping it apart.

Warning: At $10/12 oz, 20% ABV (no that's not a typo), and 120 IBU's (International Bitter Units) this is not for everyone. Dogfish Head makes this only very rarely. If you see it in a store, buy it. It will age for many years.

(Note: Tasted a second time on 3/16/08 with consistent, if less detailed, notes!)

... Read more.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Welcome to Questions of Taste!

This is my second endeavor in the wine-blogosphere. My first, Students of Wine, detailed my introduction to the wine world following my 21st birthday. It allowed me to clarify and crystallize my changing perspective on wine, to record my excitement at an epiphany, and often to vent my frustration at the complexity and imprecision of the wine world.

Now it's time for a new direction. I no longer feel the need to keep a detailed record of the minutiae of each tasting experience, though I do keep notes on the wines themselves in CellarTracker. In this blog, I will include notes for exceptional, or thought-provoking wines, but the main focus will be in-depth explorations of difficult questions about wine. I hope these questions spark fruitful discussion and debate among readers, but most of all, I want to share my love of wine, how it brings people together, how it leads to both intellectual and poetic discussions, how it has the potential to create an air of romance in this modern world.

Thank you for reading!

... Read more.