Sunday, August 3, 2014

Auction Time!

1999 J. F. Mugnier Musigny, Lot 23 at Bonhams Fine & Rare Wines auction

On the heels of my first Masters of Wine tasting, I've started a new adventure in the industry and within one week found myself tasked with making a shortlist of Burgundy selections for the company to bid on at the Bonhams Fine & Rare Wines auction in San Francisco last week. With lots such as four bottles of 1998 Domaine Leroy Musigny listed for the reserve price $10,000 - $15,000, it was an interesting first auction foray for me.

Okay, 'interesting' doesn't quite describe how I felt about my first wine auction. 'Painstakingly controlled exuberance' is closer to the truth. Perhaps soon enough I'll be completely blasé about auctions, since they are technically business transactions. But to me, that is only part of the story.

There is something ineffable and special about an individual bottle of wine, especially something like a Magnum of 1982 Lafite Rothschild. There is the history and heritage of the producer and the wine, and there's the story of the bottle itself: whose hands it had passed through, how it got here, and where it will go next. This isn't necessarily sentimental, either; it's simply fascinating to me. It is a journey; it is life. I imagine I will always feel this way about it.

I attended the pre-auction tasting although not surprisingly, none of the wines on my shortlist were available to taste. There were quite a few individual buyers there "looking for a bargain" and at an average of several hundred dollars a bottle, I guess I live in a different world since that is a tidy sum of money from my perspective! I tasted every wine there, from France to California, as part of my learning experience. Perhaps because of my assiduous note-taking, people began to follow me about, asking for my opinion on this or that wine.

My favorites at the tasting were poles apart: 1982 Henri Boillot Meursault (the most creamy, luxurious liquid caramel popcorn you'll ever have) and a 2004 Pax Syrah Lauterbach Hill Russian River Valley (totally non-typical for a Syrah, but it was one of the most balanced wines in the tasting lineup; like a cool climate California Cabernet Sauvignon).

Our bids went in on my birthday, my Burgundy selections alongside a number of cult Napa wines. Two days later the results were in and I couldn't help but leap from my chair and whoop when I saw that we had won the lot for the 1999 J.F. Mugnier Le Musigny (among lots for the 2009 Richebourg and 2005 Grands-Échézeaux ... hooray!). I don't know why, but for some reason I had really hoped to procure that one. I do have people in mind for whom the wine will be greatly enjoyed (or resold), but I feel a bit of pride in ownership myself ... just a little!

Holding a bottle of the 1999 Musigny after the lots were delivered!

I know that this really isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and that bigger auctions with even more highly touted wines will be around the corner. That said, every experience in life is to be had one at a time, to be enjoyed and to be learned from as much as possible. So while I feel somewhat silly to be jumping up and down about the Burgundian booty from my first auction, I am all right with my first flush of excitement.

After all, life is like wine: Each bottle is ultimately a mystery; you never know what exactly it will be like upon opening, and you never know how it will evolve. And for some, you have to make that decision of when to hold on for longer or when to bite the bullet and crack it open. Most of all, that $9 wine from Spain you bought at Trader Joe's could absolutely blow the label off a $11,000 1982 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée Conti for you. You never know, and that's the beauty of it. So I will continue to embrace the experience of new adventures, however trite or silly they might seem.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cabbed Out!

My Cabernet-splashed tasting notes of over 50 wines

I was about to walk into my first Masters of Wine tasting event in San Francisco recently, and I was a little nervous. As far as I could gather from the event information, it was neither a regular tasting open to the public nor strictly a trade event (relationship-building/transactional), so I had no idea what to expect. Upon entering I saw tables lining the perimeter of a surprisingly small room, two bottles per wine lined in two rows to make ~20 bottles at each table for efficient pouring and tasting. I soon realized why a large venue wasn't needed: No representatives from wineries were present.

People drifted about, swirling, nosing their glasses, audibly sucking, and spitting into bright red plastic cups. Some of these (predominantly male) attendees wore special name tags that identified them as a Master of Wine (MW): one of the chosen few, those who've passed arguably the world's most rigorous academic wine exam to be anointed with this highest of honors. (The other famous exam is for the Master Sommelier, which focuses on the service industry and is equally harrowing in its own way.)

I am currently a working towards earning the Diploma, which is a two-year program akin to a Masters degree; it is a major stepping stone towards attempting the Master of Wine (the Ph.D equivalent, so to speak). As such, I was part of the name tag-less masses. I felt slightly intimidated wandering about all these MWs, as if I was an imposter pretending I knew what I was doing. The room was quiet, save for the sucking noises and furious scratching of notes in the pamphlet of wines we'd each received upon entering.

Oh gosh, I thought with a sinking feeling; it's going to be a stuffy, pretentious event: Just taste as many wines as you can and try to learn something! It didn't help that it's entirely awkward to attempt holding a wine glass, a giant plastic cup, and a pamphlet and pen while going about one's business. My booklet is a veritable Jackson Pollock in monochrome, liberally splashed with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Happily, this first annual Masters of Wine American Cabernet Sauvignon tasting event was a positive experience for me because:

1) I really need to learn more about Cabernet Sauvignon wines in my own backyard, as my foray into wine started with France. While there were a few wines at the event from other states (even Colorado!) the vast majority were from California. It was a great learning opportunity.

2) I got to experience a Masters of Wine tasting event. It was no-nonsense, with a focus on getting to know the selected wines of a fairly wide range of producers at one time. I do enjoy chatting with winery reps, but this event was a nice change of pace that allowed me to focus on tasting.

3) The MWs I met were friendly and engaging. It was also gratifying to share and to compare tasting notes with them. If an MW also thought that the 2012 Cain Five had a mid-palate of Corn Nuts ("Ranch-flavored" I'd written in my pamphlet; not a good flavor for a Cab) then maybe I'm not, well, nuts! Sorry, I couldn't resist.    

What was somewhat of a disappointment was the lineup of wines; for a venerable institution like the Masters of Wine, I'd honestly expected a greater spread of more exclusive California producers. Given that this was their first annual American Cab tasting, though, hopefully in the coming years the offerings will expand.

My standouts for most balanced and delicious:
  • Stag's Leap, 2010 CASK 23, Napa Valley, Stag's Leap District: This was my favorite, and I have a secret: I swallowed this one! All elements (alcohol, tannin, acid, body, flavors) were integrated and in proportion. Burnt cedar and brioche on the nose with an undertone of black fruit was mirrored on the palate but intensified: The pleasant smokiness enveloped a clear core of blackberries and figs, imparting delicate flavors with a lovely, plush mouthfeel. It was wonderfully smooth on the finish, much like the gradual and measured decrescendo of a beautiful melody fading into memory. Ah, what a blissful moment.  
  • Louis M. Martini, 2011 Napa Valley: Well proportioned with a robust but smooth finish, with bright but not overwhelming bramble and dark cherry compote flavors throughout.
  • Robert Foley, 2010 Napa Valley: Very perky with exuberant fruit tempered by a slate-like mineral quality and typical California Cab eucalyptus flavor. I tasted this towards the end of the evening, and was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it was despite my fatigue.

My standouts for biggest "What the heck?":
  • Cain Five, 2009 Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District: Ranch-flavored Corn Nuts, oily, really harshly tannic. What happened?
  • Ramey, 2007 Pedregal Vineyards, Napa Valley, Oakville: "Sku~nky!" Maybe just that batch was afflicted by stinky hydrogen sulfide? Ramey is usually very well made. Too bad!
  • Pine Ridge, 2012 Napa Valley: Banana flavors in a Cab? No thanks! Upon nosing and tasting I blurted incredulously, "Isoamyl acetate?!" (This is a chemical compound responsible for banana and pear drop flavors.) Two gentlemen across the table laughed and one quipped sardonically, "God, this is such a Masters of Wine event ... isoamyl acetate!" Okay, I fully admit to loving my academic studies.

Alas, after tasting 50+ wines I began to experience real palate fatigue. I seriously thought I wasn't going to be able to even smell another glass of Cabernet Sauvignon after this event, much less taste one. I was thoroughly cabbed out!

And to my horror, my teeth looked positively rotten from heavy staining by the end of the evening. This is fine when amongst fellow winos - pardon, wine enthusiasts - like me, but outside this context? Frightening! The ten minutes after leaving the event saw me in a bathroom, furiously swishing water and attempting to scrub my teeth clean to little effect. I finally decided I would simply try not to show my teeth for the remainder of the evening, which was hopeless as I like to smile and to laugh.  

Happily (or sadly, depending on your perspective), I apparently love wine so much that I was fully recovered the following day. To my relief, my teeth were also back to a normal appearance. I looked forward to tasting plush red wine again (albeit in a much more moderate fashion) and I could smile with impunity. Life was good!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Aromatic White in a Red Body

It’s not every day that you stumble upon a characterful white grape variety not well known outside its provenance of the Rhône Valley in France, right in your own backyard. And yet, the little boutique winery Coterie Cellars, right here in Willow Glen, produces a single varietal wine from Roussanne.

About Roussanne
Roussanne is named after the French word “roux” for “russet” in a delightful way to commemorate the grape’s golden red skins at harvest. This French transplant found some footing in the US in the 1980s with the Rhone Rangers’ efforts to create critically acclaimed wines using Roussanne in California, only to discover years later that the grape was actually Viognier (ouch). Since then, actual Roussanne clones have been verified by DNA testing and it is once again on its way. 

In the Rhône Valley Roussanne is traditionally a blending grape, adding rich honeyed flavors to crisp, acidic varieties such as Grenache Blanc in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the Northern Rhône, Roussanne is often blended with Marsanne to bring minerality, acidity, and richness to the wine. 

Roussanne is harder to find as a single varietal wine. It is known to be a difficult grape in the vineyard: it is susceptible to rot and powdery mildew, and ripening is often uneven within the same cluster. These characteristics contribute to fluctuating yields that are challenging to predict. 

The silver lining? When a reputable winemaker produces a 100% Roussanne wine, you know it’s going to be the product of very concentrated labor and perhaps some favorable conditions in the vineyard.

Coterie Cellars - Roussanne Russian River Valley, Saralee’s Vineyard 2009
Coterie Cellar’s single varietal Roussanne from 2009 is what convinced me of this labor of love. This was the first time Coterie created a completely Roussanne wine, and one can see why: Its aromas and flavors are rich and complex. Saralee’s Vineyard sits in the middle of the Russian River Valley, where Coterie sorts the grapes manually at harvest, cluster by cluster, selecting only those that meet their expectations of ripeness. 

This wine is aromatic without being overtly fruity. With aromas of succulent honey, light caramel, and honeysuckle blossoms, this Roussanne gently awakens the senses. In the mouth there is once again a rich honey tinged with toasted wood livened by a dash of white pepper, anchored by black tea and grapefruit rind. 

With nicely integrated alcohol and surprising acidity, this wine is lively and bright, yet balanced with a satisfying richness. It has the pleasing perfume of an aromatic white, underpinned by a pleasant earthiness and fullness of body reminiscent of a red wine. 

If this Roussanne were a woman, she would be vivacious yet grounded, a girl who gets out into the sun. 

Try Coterie's 2009 Roussanne with gruyere cheese and the wine's honey, caramel, and light toast flavors will be delightfully heightened. Pair it with a rich fish such as swordfish encrusted in almonds or hazelnuts, with grilled or roasted vegetables, shellfish, or chicken stir fry. Or, enjoy it simply on its own. Its flavors speak for themselves.

Sadly, the Saralee’s Vineyard 2009 vintage is sold out, but there is always the 2010 vintage. It also wouldn’t hurt to say hello to Kyle Loudon, Coterie co-founder and winemaker. Who knows, he and his wife and business partner, Shala, might just have a few more bottles of the 2009 left for the gracious wine enthusiast.