Sunday, July 28, 2013

An Unexpected Windfall

The first three were not fated ... but what would we get in the end?

Instant gratification can be overrated. This was proven to me at a dinner not long ago at the charming French restaurant Bon Vivant, tucked away on a side street in downtown Palo Alto. My good friend Daniel and I cocked our heads thoughtfully at the wine list. He has lived in Europe the past several years, and was keen on trying a local offering.

We decided on a 2011 Pinot Noir blend of Russian River Valley vineyards by Davis Bynum that he hadn’t tried before. (Incidentally, Bynum is the first house in Russian River to have produced a single vineyard Pinot Noir, in the 1970s.)

After some pleasant conversation - after all, we hadn’t seen each other in two years - our genial waiter reappeared with an apologetic smile. He was so sorry, he said, they no longer had the Bynum Pinot in stock. Would we like to try another wine?

A taste of the 2011 Lyric by Etude, please, we answered. I’d had this Santa Barbara Pinot Noir before and found it very drinkable. However, I grimaced a bit upon lowering my nose to the glass - the first thing that assailed me was a freshly painted wood varnish scent I instinctively dislike.

Good acidity can balance a wine and give it complexity, but too much leads to this sharp, unpleasant aroma. (It’s ethyl acetate, for chemistry buffs. I’m not a pro but am learning in my attempt to understand wine and flavoring.) I seem to be particularly sensitive to ethyl acetate; I’ve shared different wines on multiple occasions with companions who don’t detect the varnish scent when it all but whacks me in the face.

Thankfully, the wine filled my mouth with mellowness: ripe red fruit and a smooth, elegant finish. I believe a Pinot should always end each sip with finesse, like the end of a flowing musical phrase that leaves you wanting more.

While pleasant, the Etude just wasn’t hitting it for us. We shifted over to the next page in the menu: Cabernet Sauvignon. 2010 Stag’s Leap “Artemis” was a step up, not only in the richness of the wine but in price. But we figured if the Pinots weren’t doing it, we’d go for bigger stuff.

Our final decision on wine for dinner - or so we thought.

Now that this was taken care of, we began to peruse the dining menu. Just as we were debating whether we should have the scallops or the goat cheese mushroom tart as a starter, our waiter appeared with a bottle of wine. Ah, finally!

But the look on our waiter’s face was pinched. We are so very sorry, he began, but we don’t have the Artemis, either. Daniel and I flashed a “For real?!” glance at each other.

“However, we have the Stag’s Leap Cask 23,” the waiter continued, “If you accept this wine, we will give it to you for the price of the one you requested.” He looked at us expectantly, with a great deal of hope on his face. It was a “Please don’t kill me and write a terrible review about our restaurant!” look.

I looked incredulously at the bottle in his hands. Yes, Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon from 2009. It was at least $150 more expensive than the bottle we’d requested. Cask 23. A wine with legendary connotations.

Daniel and I looked at each other. “Well, you’ve made us an offer we can’t refuse. That’s very kind of you. We’ll have it.”

Stag's Leap Cask 23? No way! I mean, yes, absolutely!

Cask 23 did not disappoint. In fact, it enchanted. Plush and full-bodied, the dark crimson liquid filled my mouth with the subtle flavor of blackberries accented by bits of toasty bread. Was that a bit of vanilla, too? With a strong structure of balancing acidity, I was free to enjoy these flavors without any of them being overpowering.

Vanilla + toast + undertone of dark berries = Mmm …

A gentle warmth blossomed within me as the wine slid down my throat. I was delighted that such a rich wine possessed an equal amount of restraint. No buzzing sensation in the mouth or lips, just a hushed, elegant close. It felt almost reassuring, as if the wine was saying, “Yes, it’s alllll good,” on the way out.

Cask 23 isn’t bottled every year; it happens only when the winemaker deems the crop to be good enough. This is the flagship wine of Stag’s Leap and is named after the cask in which the wine is aged. In 1974, winemaker André Tchelistcheff noticed its superior contents compared with those of its neighboring casks and thus was born Cask 23.

The wine is a blend of two vineyards, Stag’s Leap Vineyard (S.L.V.) and FAY Vineyard. Grapes are harvested from the volcanic soils of the eastern slopes, as well as from the alluvial soils (meaning they’re loose and gravelly, shaped by water in eons past) of the middle and lower sections from both vineyards. The former gives the wine its full structure and acidity, the latter the lush but restrained fruit and aromatic qualities.

The vanilla and toastiness likely come from the 20 month aging in French oak barrels - the wine of grapes from each section of each vineyard is aged separately, and then combined into one large cask - Cask 23 - for the final aging.

1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon meets 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild
at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. 

Stag’s Leap is more than iconic: Its 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon bested French counterparts (including a Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 no less) in the pivotal Judgment of Paris, the 1976 competition that put California on the map as a serious winemaking region and forever changed the world of wine.

So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the quality of Cask 23. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what I should expect based on research. Why? Wine is to be enjoyed. I always desire to learn the history and provenance of a wine I find exceptional or intriguing. But while in the moment, I simply want to revel in the wine in my glass and lose myself in all its sensory pleasures.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bottling the Future at Champagne Philippe Gonet

Philippe Gonet sits pretty at the top of a hill in Le Mesnil sur Oger.

May 23rd found us excited to visit Champagne Philippe Gonet. This was our second time in Le Mesnil sur Oger, a Grand Cru village of the Côte des Blancs in the southerly reaches of Champagne. This means that the Chardonnay grapes here are truly outstanding (at least, according to a 1985 decree). Within the open courtyard beyond wrought iron gates I found Karine, the knowledgeable, down-to-earth manager of the house and receiver of visitors when Head of Sales Chantal Gonet (half of a sister-brother business duo) is away.

Gonet owns 19 hectares of land comprising 45 plots, making it a small but slightly larger grower-producer than Pierre Paillard in Bouzy with 11 hectares. Their vineyards are spread across the Champagne region, yielding wines from all three grapes grown: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Their rosé wines are made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Don't just take my word for it: Hear Chantal Gonet introduce the house's history and philosophy herself!

I soon discovered that Karine preferred to speak French, so I did my best. I was still unfamiliar with many French terms relating to wine so while I relished the opportunity to push the limits of my vocabulary, I inevitably fell on my face a few times. Hey, it’s all part of the learning process.

Karine gave us quite the comprehensive tour! The facilities were abuzz with workers, both permanent and seasonal; many of the latter come from Poland. This was the season for the mise en bouteille, the bottling of the wines from last year’s harvest. I was watching the future being bottled, right before my eyes!

In contrast to the sleek, industrial facilities at Champagne Thiénot, operations at Champagne Philippe Gonet were decidedly more old world. Workers in coveralls thronged at their respective stations, keeping a manually supervised bottling machine humming.

I learned that limited production special cuvées require this human oversight; larger machines bottle “standard” larger production cuvées. Each man’s movements were nimble and precise; there was no yelling above the din of rumbling machine and clinking bottles. Incidentally, I never once saw a woman doing this kind of work on the floor during my entire trip.

Low and High Tech as Befits the Wine

Philippe Gonet uses both old world and new world technology in the vinification (winemaking) process, each for specific purposes towards the creation of the house’s ideal Champagne.

I noticed in both Champagne and later in Burgundy that winemakers spare no expense in procuring the tools they know will help them produce wines they deem worthy. It’s never solely about cost control - it’s about what’s more efficient or cost-effective after having answered the crucial question of what methods and equipment will yield wines worthy of the house’s name.

Case in point: On a mezzanine level above the bottling floor - reached via a harrowing ascent up a steep, narrow steel step ladder - stood two wine presses. A traditional wooden "Coquard” basket press from 1970 (they really still make them!) lay like a split-open pumpkin. Pressed against the opposite wall was a pneumatic press that looked like a gigantic white sewing machine turned on its side.

Traditional Coquard basket press!

Both presses are used depending on what wine is desired. The pneumatic press is generally used for blanc de blancs, 100% Chardonnay wines. It offers a very even pressure to the whole grape clusters and yields a greater quantity (800 kiloliters). The traditional press is more gentle, but it’s obviously labor intensive, yields lower quantities (400 kiloliters), and takes a longer time (4 hours). But sometimes, you can’t rush goodness for those special cuvées and Pinot Noir grapes.

There is no hard and fast rule to what grapes gets crushed where, though - it depends on the myriad factors that make the winemaker’s expertise and instincts paramount to the success of a wine. Karine qualified 90% of her statements with, “... mais se dépende,” (“it depends”) accompanied by a cryptic smile.

Sharing space with the presses were two rows of small stainless steel tanks and clusters of stacked oak barrels. The former aged standard cuvées, and the latter cradled special cuvées for 3 years to infuse them with the unique flavors that only toasted wood offers.

I marveled at how the hoses I’d tripped over downstairs were pumping the wine from the stainless steel tanks: they criss-crossed the floor like green serpents, flowing and alive, before diving out of a tiny window to bring their precious liquid to the workers waiting downstairs to relieve them of their burden.

Cuvée "Le Mesnil" 2012 aging here!

Gonet’s cellars are a joining of old and new. The portion that bore a date of 1741 on the wall was decidedly crypt-like and literally crumbling in some places. There were fallen rocks and smashed bottles. I was honestly a bit scared! Karine wasn’t.

We passed by pupitres - sandwich boards with holes, each holding the neck of a Champagne bottle. Humans rotate the bottles a quarter twist regularly for 8 weeks to make sure the lees collect in the neck for expulsion. This process is called riddling.

(Lees = yeast cells that have died after gorging on sugars during fermentation. Om nom nom.)

Only special cuvées are hand-riddled; larger production wines are rotated much more quickly by gigantic Rubik’s cube-like machines.

Before entering the chalet-style tasting room bearing portraits of “Grandpère” Charles Gonet (his son Philippe eventually took over the house), I passed by a machine with spools of labels sprawled around it. I was tempted to steal some of the gorgeous stickers; they were so attractive.

Interestingly, labels are called etiquettes in French. An easy way to remember the French word is to think “polite labels.”

Finally, to the tasting! Karine asked me where my taste preferences lay so she could decide what Champagnes she’d offer us. It was truly a personalized, intimate visit.

Champagnes Tasted

Signature Brut Blanc de Blancs

Signature Brut Blanc de Blancs - This 100% Chardonnay is the specialty of the house: “La Cuvée signature de la Maison.” This Champagne is a blend of grapes from 30-40 year old vines in Le Mesnil sur Oger (40%) and Montgueux (60%), about 90km south near Troyes.

A very beautiful, drinkable Champagne this was, and with character in spades.
  • Nose: At first, a sharp, fresh wet slate scent … melting away into smoky citrus. Yes, really. 
  • Palate: Fresh and liltingly coy with a bit of orange here, a bit of lemon there, but reined in by a refreshing acidity. I was left with a slight smolder of smoke. 

The exuberant bubbles exploded their little tiny selves against the roof of my mouth, and I almost giggled with the tickling sensation.

EXTRA-BRUT 3210 Blanc de Blancs - When I told Karine that I’m not a big fan of sweet wines, she chose this. Introduced in 2009, this full Chardonnay a relative newcomer to the family.

I loved the way Karine described it: “sans maquillage” - a Champagne without cosmetics. This means there is no dosage in the winemaking process: no addition of sugars to the wine after the dead yeast cells are expelled after bottle aging (the process is called dégorgement, or disgorgement).

The vast majority of Champagnes undergo dosage, so the winemaker can control the amount of sweetness. When done well with good wines, this practice maximizes the natural flavors of the wine and makes for a fine Champagne.

However, when used for less scrupulous purposes dosage can be used to mask crappy wines, much like when a supermarket slathers BBQ sauce onto meat past its prime and puts it on sale (ugh).

A non-dosage Champagne is called Brut nature. It is said that you can really tell the true worth of a Champagne maker by an unadorned wine because you can taste its true essence. In outstanding houses, these can embody the most beautiful expression of Champagne.

The “3210” in the name is both descriptive and clever: 3 years aged, 2 terroirs (40% Montgueux and 60% Le Mesnil sur Oger), 1 grape varietal (Chardonnay), and 0 dosage.

This Champagne was bracing and fierce, yet soothing in its angular elegance. It didn’t have that strip-the-enamel-off-your-teeth acidity that an unsweetened Champagne might threaten.
  • Nose: Okay, I’m awake! Sharply burnt puff pastry gave way to a light perfume of yellow and white flowers. A bit of lime.
  • Palate: Very fresh: Tart puckering limes and pink grapefruit were balanced by apricot compote-like flavors. How did they make this Champagne taste like so much fruit, without it actually tasting sweet? Amazing! 
If a cold shower could be completely refreshing and pleasurable, this is it.
Extra-Brut 3210

I marveled at the unique character of each of the Champagnes I’d tasted. Gonet was the third grower-producer in Champagne I’d visited thus far. I was rapidly becoming spoiled by the beautifully nuanced wines yielded through the combination of laser-sharp focus on cultivating the taste of the land, and the non-scalable winemaking techniques these small houses could afford to employ. I wouldn’t begin to fully understand what this translated to in taste until I visited the “big houses” later in my trip.

I bade a grateful farewell to Karine and tripped outside into the rare ray of sunshine that had decided to grace us for all of 10 minutes during the unexpected cold snap. I was exhausted from exerting myself solely in French for one and a half hours straight, but I was grinning triumphantly: thanks to Chantal's and Karine's generosity, I'd had another successful visit with so much learned, so much experienced.

And those tiny bubbles were still effervescent inside me, making me impervious to the wintry chill as I danced my way down the winding hill to the car. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

All Pinot, All The Time: Pinot Days SF

What better way to start a lovely summer morning?

Last Sunday I attended my first large wine tasting event: Pinot Days SF at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was the 9th annual festival focusing on California houses producing wines from this finicky, thin-skinned grape. Thanks to Curt Polikoff, certified sommelier and all-around wine expert at Artisan Wine Depot, I was able to score early entrance with a sit-down tasting before the general public was allowed entry. Much appreciated, Curt!

Thanks to a heat wave in the Bay Area, even this waterfront location in San Francisco was sunny and pleasant. (Some of you no doubt know that, as Mark Twain said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.”) At 10:45am I enjoyed a sit-down tasting, hearing 6 winemakers introduce their houses, philosophies, and trying two flights of three wines each. 

For the first flight I listened dutifully and took notes, not tasting until the 3 winemakers had presented. Then I panicked, because we were then summarily instructed to dump or go bottoms-up for to make way for the pouring of the second flight! Needless to say, I smelled, tasted, and spat in quick succession (while scribbling furiously). 

An hour later, I headed straight to the back of the festival pavilion, starting with the end of the alphabet. There was no way I could visit all 150-odd exhibitors, so my strategy was to focus on those I’d heard of but whose wines I’d never tried, then to try the wineries in the booth next door to each. This made for a good mix of “heard of” and “hitherto unknown to Susan” wineries visited! 

What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to talk directly with the winemakers and owners (sometimes the same person). The other was the focus was on small grower-producers, although there were many producers without estates (meaning they have no vineyards of their own; they source grapes from various vineyards in California). 

After an hour of roaming, I ran into friend and sommelier Steven Washuta and the inimitable Greg Wayne, both outstanding folks at the wonderful new wine bar ENO SF in Union Square, San Francisco. I’d met Steven when he was keeping the bar chic at Savvy Cellar

Not only have I learned a great deal from Steven - he shares his impressive knowledge without any pretension - it suffices to say that he writes the most tongue-in-cheek, informative, and thoroughly entertaining prose I’ve ever read in the wine industry. It borders at times on insouciance, but he tells it like it is. Take, for example: “... Tastes like the color purple.” Amen. 

With Steven (R) and Greg (L) on the festival floor - note the red cups for spitting!

Wineries Visited
  • Siduri Wines - I tasted four wines from the 2011 harvest, mostly light and fruity with a pleasantly smooth finish. They were simple, easy to drink wines except the last one, Clos Pepe Single Vineyard from the Santa Rita Hills; I believe this one will actually open up given a few years. It was tight, cagey, and sharp, with much green fruit and tart apricot.
  • Schug Winery - The 2009 Carneros Heritage Reserve was my favorite in the lineup: It had that elusive, albeit faint, minerality from the start; it was round, generous, and smooth. I found it more complex than the others. Aged 16 months, 23% new oak. The 2010 Carneros Estate was fruitier on the nose but had a very fine finish - sharp but with finessed tannins, easy to drink. 
  • VML Wine - I remembered why I bought the 2011 Floodgate (Russian River Valley) as a gift for a friend this past January. It’s a light Pinot for me, but it is a wonderful balance of fragrance and finesse with an unmistakable but graceful metallic backbone. Like a dancer’s spine, strong and gracefully curved.
  • WALT Wines - Blue Jay is a blend of grapes from three Anderson Valley vineyards, so they decided on an unrelated bird theme for the name. I tasted a couple of wines, but I confess I don’t remember much about them! Strawberry is all I’ve got, really. 
  • Kanzler Vineyards - It’s a family affair - husband, wife, and son Alex, who is also the assistant winemaker at VML (how do you think I discovered Kanzler?). I preferred the 2010 Sonoma Coast (a little too much strawberry jam for me, but there was enough acidity and peppery tannins on the finish for balance) to the 2011 Sonoma Coast (a lighter, easy to drink wine with a sweet, strawberry finish but good structure). 
  • Kendrick Vineyards - This was the booth next to Kanzler - way too much fruit for me in the 2010; 2009 was much more restrained and moody, which I preferred. Vineyards: Northern Marin, near the Sonoma border. 
  • JCB - “by Jean-Charles Boisset” - the man behind the wine - was plastered across all marketing collateral. This was definitely a flashier production, and everything proclaimed in a pointedly raised voice (because such polite company would never scream): “In case you didn’t notice, we are French! From Burgundy!” 
    • The chic, gold on black branding was stunning; everything looked like it was designed to market a luxury perfume. In fact, each wine’s name was a number, printed just like Chanel No. 5. 
Why No. 3? They claim that 1 + 1 =  3.
I give them points for creativity (or wishful thinking).
    • I tasted No. 3, a very unusual blend of 60% grapes from Russian River Valley in California and 40% grapes from Cote de Nuits in Burgundy, France. When Steven quipped, “I’ve never heard of that before …” I surmised this was an unusual combination. 
    • No. 3 struck me as more marketing hype for “Old World meets New World” but it was one of the more complex wines I tasted at the event. Like many California Pinots, it was already very drinkable at a young age. But for $123 a bottle? I don’t know! 
  • Z’IVO - This was of the few Oregonian wineries at the event! Z’IVO was the opposite of JCB: dirt-beneath-the-fingernails personality. 
    • Both Willamette Valley wines I tried (2007 and 2009 vintages) smelled like dark mushrooms bathed in soft contact lens saline solution. Salty mushrooms in mossy forest floor. Very different from the California Pinots, for certain. 
    • The wines didn’t taste like forest floor or moss, though; 2009 was savory with massively mouth-drying tannins. 2007 was salty with (thank god) more supple tannins. I don’t remember much beyond that! 
  • La Fenêtre - A small boutique grower-producer with several single vineyard wines in Santa Maria, this winery offered some interesting flavors. (Ironically, Pinot Days marked the first time I’d heard “single vineyard” as a term; I’d learned the French term monocru first, in the Champagne region in France.)
    • My notes for 2010 Le Bon Climat Single Vineyard read, “Nose: Barnyard; Palate: Salty, musky, a little bit of Pommard?” Indeed, it was pretty heavy and spicy, reminiscent of the wines of Pommard in Burgundy, but the wine possessed nothing near the power characteristic of Pommard. Not that it’s supposed to be, of course! Having been to Burgundy recently, I just couldn’t help the comparison. 
    • 2010 Presqu’ile Single Vineyard smelled like brined asparagus; tasted like cranberries and a bit of black pepper.  
    • My scribblings for 2010 Bien Nacido Single Vineyard bore the cryptic note “Metal Jams” - looking back, it took me a second to remember that this wine smelled overwhelmingly of sweet, sticky strawberry jam, with metallic flavors on the edges. But somehow at the time, this brought to mind the Adult Swim Metallica cartoon “Metalocalypse."In the end, the wine was too unbalanced for me. A great deal of metal and rust overwhelmed my palate on the finish, resulting in fatigue not unlike hearing too many high-pitched screams of “Dethklock! Dethclock! Dethclock!” by head-banging heavy metal musicians. 

The Verdict
I found the California Pinots I tried to be generally very … strawberry. 

Sometimes the wines were on the weak side, and by this I mean that they tasted thin, a little watered down. They may be perfect for another palate, but for me these wines simply weren’t concentrated enough. I craved more body: I find I desire some voluptuousness in my reds, like a well-muscled yet lithe dancer with a strong, flexible spine. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a daintier, classical piece; other times I want edgy, muscular, contemporary ballet. (Those of you who know me understand that dance is part of my vocabulary.)

On the other end of spectrum, I was being clobbered over the head with wines featuring RIPE RED FRUIT! DID YOU GET THAT? <sip … spit> RED FRUIT! <dump rest of glass> Oy!

You get the idea. 

Dear California Pinot fans: Before you throw me into a stainless steel vat for maceration, I am not disparaging California Pinots! The concept of taste preference is very subjective, and I confess I don’t yet know enough about the terroir and vinification practices of California for Pinot Noir to be a good judge of relative quality. 

It’s important to distinguish between quality and personal taste. I believe both should be afforded equal status, but for different purposes. You have to be able to tell quality between related wines given certain parameters, but in the end, what’s the point in drinking what you don’t like?

For Me: Musky in California, Fine-Boned in Burgundy
I discovered that with the California Pinots I tried, I preferred what was described as the “musky, masculine” wines. But for red Burgundies, which are also made from Pinot Noir but in the soils and climates of the Burgundy region in France, I tend to be seduced by fine-boned wines with delicacy and finesse but which possess an unmistakable backbone. 

I must like the taste of vines struggling in lands with low water tables, roots thrusting deep into the clay and limestone to drink all the minerals and nutrients locked in the earth. Oh, the minerality! The terroir!

The big, “masculine” reds in Burgundy can sometimes be too much for me - truly full of black pepper, deep earth, and mouth-drying tannins. They can be amazingly fine wines, but their character is just not for me, at least for what I like right now. 

In contrast, their “masculine” counterparts in California offered - to the preference of this drinker - fruit as an undertone (as opposed to shiny overtones as they usually are) with ripples of leather, offering more complexity with a smooth or plush mouthfeel. And I do place a great deal of importance on the final sensation in the mouth, because hey, I want it to feel pleasant. 

With Schug winemaker Mike Cox 

An interesting cultural discovery was that it was considered gauche to spit directly into the plastic buckets available at every booth. In France, following the winemakers’ leads, I spit into buckets, between barrels into the gravel floor, anywhere, really. But here, I was expected to juggle a bright red, large plastic cup with my glass, notepad and pen. Not very convenient - I constantly feared I’d drop everything onto the person crowded next to me - but I certainly didn’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, so I gave in. 

In the end, I didn’t get close to tasting and talking to folks from even half the wineries at the event, but I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Quality over quantity was my goal, and I was more than satisfied. 

I was at first shocked, then admittedly thrilled, when I saw later that afternoon that my teeth were stained a lovely shade of purple. Pinot Purple.