The thrill thrives!!!

screenshotThere are moments that serve as powerful reminders of why I am so enthralled by the beauty of wine. When the mundane and pedestrian of daily life – no complaint here, just an observation of the very nature of what we essentially term as “everyday” – one needs these reminders to keep the thrill alive. One such moment came last month in the heart of the American rust belt. An unlikely place for sure. Proving the popularity of wine has spread truly far and wide.

Let me digress a moment from the subject of this piece and dwell on the popularity of wine. In a recent column, Eric Asimov shared the story of a Sandy ravaged restaurant in Brooklyn. This upscale watering hole reported bar sales of 90% liquor and 10% wine circa early eighties. Fast forward to today and the ratio is reversed to 90% wine and 10% liquor. I would attribute this dramatic turn in part to availability of good wines at affordable prices and the health benefits touted in recent times. A big part of it however, is good old “crowd mentality” – a theory that postulates that beyond a threshold of aesthetic beauty and intrinsic value, the hype surrounding a work of art (and I do consider wine an art form) gives it popularity far in excess of its core allure. It explains as much the mythical status of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as that of legendary vintage Bordeaux’s.

For sure the quality of average quaffing wines today is impressive. It is also true that the hype surrounding some is far in excess of their charm. It does not help that winemakers strive to create the same complexity and flavor profile that is perceived as “great”, leaving little room for distinctiveness and uniqueness of character in their creations.

2012_fume_blanc_btl_lgBack to the gem uncovered on the shores of Lake Erie – in Cleveland to be exact. A Dry Creek Vineyards Fume Blanc, Sonoma, 2012.

At a delightful Zack Bruell restaurant – Cowell & Hubbard – in the heart of historic Playhouse Square off Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Served at the exact right temperature – cool but not cold – one had to take only a whiff to appreciate the extraordinary nature of this creation. It proved emphatically – if proof was needed – that the majority of pleasure derived from wine is in its aroma. The citrusy tartness on the nose cut through complex fruit. A hint of smoke and a bitter finish took it over the edge from good to great. Almost afraid to ingest lest the taste not live up to the aroma – I took a tentative sip. Happily, it made the wine even greater. The minerality and herbal, grassy character was more pronounced on the palate than on the nose. This was a perfect pairing with my dinner. A great complement to the starter – sunchoke salad with hazelnuts and truffle oil – as well as the main course – Whitefish with Spinach and Quinoa.

Cheers to Robert Mondavi for introducing this style of Sauvignon Blanc to Napa. We are lucky to be enjoying the fruits of his labor. 3,000 miles from the Loire Valley .

The thrill is NOT gone baby… survives ……and thrives……..

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Beer or Wine? Hops or Grapes?

k9808650[1]It was not a question that I thought of as remotely legitimate. After all, is it even a contest? Think Earthly v/s Ethereal, Bourgeois v/s Hoi Polloi, Hot Dog v/s Charcuterie. Eclectic v/s Everyday.  If that sounds snobbish, so be it. But lipstick on a pig really does not work.

There are fundamental differences in the way each libation is made that impart very different characteristics to wine v/s beer. Take the substrate used in brewing for example – beer is fermentation of starches, wine is fruit sugars. Therein lie significant variations in chemistry that impart nuanced expressiveness and complexity to wine that is missing in beer. Can you imagine terroir reflecting in beer? That connectedness to the earth, the specificity of the grape environment as it carries all the way into the glass and, most of all, the story it tells in a single swirl and sniff – surely that is unique to wine?

As I read a piece in my favorite daily on the advent of the micro-brewery and even further – the nano-brewery, I decided to find out. After all, if the New York Times dedicated an entire column to the subject, I figured the craft beer movement was here to stay. And being an avowed fan of all things eclectic, it was time to take a closer look.

So it was that during a layover in Tampa, FL on a recent visit to the sunshine state, I chose to dine at Cigar City Brewing  – an airport extension of a local craft brewery. logoOne amongst numerous such establishments that now dot the country. The sampler I ordered was the perfect way to test my hypothesis – that beer and wine are incomparable. Nothing tells you more about a wine than a side-by-side tasting. The presence of a benchmark makes sensory judgment that much deeper and discriminating than doing it in isolation.

pint10 pint5 pint4 pint3pint6   Five taster size beers came out on a special tray. Following the traditional, see-swirl-sniff-sip regimen, I started making my notes. Colors were all hues of yellow and brown – from very pale to dark. Body ranged from light to heavy. The most impressive part, however, was the names. Unrestrained by rules of nomenclatures and appellations typical of their wine brethren, craft beer makers are extending their creativity to exotic names for their creations. So the Helles Lager had a sweet overtone, the Maduro Brown Ale was distressingly chocolaty, The Jai Alai Pale Ale was even sweeter than the Helles Lager with a hoppy bitterness to boot, The Florida Cracker White Ale was lively, bright, effervescent and lemony without being sour. The yellowish brown seasonal creation Minaret was pleasantly salty with a bitter aftertaste. My favorite by far was the Tony Jannus Pale Ale. Its deep yellow hue belied an herbal, almost floral flavor with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. A hint of tobacco lent an extra layer of pleasing complexity.

So what was the verdict? Call me biased, but the two really are in a class of their own. And  a brewmaster is no winemaker. Vive la vino !!!

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Solo Sojourn – 2010 Lindeman’s Bin 50 Shiraz

Dear readers, I am back. After a long hiatus – mostly involuntary – I’ve picked up the pen – or keyboard if you will – again. Now with even more energy, passion and verve for vino. So look out for awesome posts that you will want to read and re-read. Did I ever mention that modesty was one of my many strengths?

Allow me take you back a few moons – maybe even a decade. It seems like a lifetime in wine- years, with the astounding and unforeseen but welcome change the wine world has seen during this time. As you browsed the wine aisles in stores back then – gleaming bottles with labels ranging from quirky, colorful and striking to understated, philosophical and classic – stood like a veritable guard of honor – primped and shiny for your inspection. Amongst this line-up of beauties you noticed a leaping marsupial – in all its golden glory and unrestrained energy. Does this bring the words Yellow Tail to mind immediately? Lindeman’s follows soon after. Then Penfolds and a few others.  The Australian wine revolution was spreading. Winemakers from down under were making good wine affordable and accessible to more people than ever before.

Yellow Tail Text Logopenfolds_logoLindemans Logo

Today, these very images and words seem to exude ordinariness. Strictly value but quite unremarkable. Acceptable, but not inspiring. Even aficionados with modest budgets would avoid going the Aussie bargain route if they can. The pace at which the Australian wine industry went from being trailblazers that made good wine accessible to a wider audience, to being the poor cousins of their more distinguished brethren is astonishing. Ever greater wines, from newer and traditional wine regions are now available at affordable prices.Bin50 Shiraz Label

So it was with some hesitation that I picked up the Lindeman’s label on a recent wine buying trip. A 2010 Bin 50 Shiraz. Some knowledge about the Bin series, tucked away in a remote corner of my wine memories, came forward & supported the choice. These are wines made from parcels of fruit sourced from all across south eastern Australia and blended to create a unique style. Distinct parcels of wine are stored in different areas of the cellar and given a unique Bin number – hence the name. This information, combined with exceedingly flattering tasting notes hanging on a card beside the bottle, prompted me to it pick. And I was not disappointed.

This is a delicious wine that lived up to my expectation and some. Great complexity and personality, yet versatile. As likely to complement subtle & mild foods as bold and hearty. Think pasta with a medley of wild mushrooms or a hearty Boeuf Bourguignon. About the only food to avoid with this wine is Asian. The clash of spice in the wine and food would be jarring. Here come my notes and rating.

2010 Lindemans   Bin 50 Shiraz $11.99
Color Ruby   red, clear, medium to heavy body , legs indicative of body style which is   lighter than classic Shiraz.
Nose Rich,   deep aroma. Fruit and spice. Strawberry, plum, clove. Richness alluding to   velvety, luxurious texture. Complex. Pleasant and heady.
Taste Peppery,   spicy, smooth, hint of salt, mellow tanginess. Very pleasing & lingering   aftertaste.
Remarks Versatile.   Will enhance enjoyment of most foods. Subtle and gently as well as bold &   earthy.
Rating 6
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Of poetry in prose…………….

Prose is prose and poetry is poetry, and never the twain shall meet. At least that was my Kiplingesque belief until I read Terry Theise’s “Reading between the Wines”. At the foundation of this profound philosophical treatise on a seemingly humble subject – fermented grape juice, aka wine – is deep thought and astute observation. Masterfully expressed with rhythm, grace & style, skillfully harnessing the power of language. Is that not the definition of poetry?

It truly is a piece of creative writing unlike any other. Not just in the world of wine writing. Indeed, in the world of English literature itself. Is this an exaggeration? Perhaps I am sophomorically besotted? Does this book really qualify as literature? One dictionary meaning of the word reads “Writings having excellence of form or expression, expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” By this definition, the book certainly qualifies as a literary piece.

A wine importer of some repute, Terry Thiese’s writing emanates from the championship of a few central ideas. That it is OK to see wine as a bringer of mystical experience.  To experience wine with your whole self – not just your mind or senses. To seek the authenticity that comes from rootedness in family, soil & culture. That there is such a thing as inherently good taste and to acknowledge this is not elitism.

He laments wine writers who feel it is their duty to demystify wine. Some even reassure you that there is nothing like “good wine” – that whatever you like is “good”. If you like Twinkies, says Terry, eat them. Have all the fun a Twinkie delivers. But don’t claim it is just as good as a home baked brownie made from natural fresh ingredients.

As I turned the first few pages, the author came across as a rebel for the sake of rebellion with gaping contradictions in the narrative. But a quarter of the way in, you come to see the contrariness in a new light. And take utter delight in the presentation of nuanced perceptions.

Take his turn of phrase on distinguishing “complexity” from “complicatedness.”  Quote “The latter is usually frustrating, the former is usually wonderful. You have to direct a beam of mind to pick your way through complicatedness. You’ve nailed the flavors, quantified and named every nuance, and decided precisely how much you like the wine on whatever scale they told you to use. But complexity asks the opposite. It is an immediate sense of something you can’t know. Something you won’t be able to isolate or explain. Complexity is quiet. Complicatedness is noisy”. End quote.

Pick up a copy and escape to a world of sensory spirituality……………..if only for a moment. Your life will be richer for it.

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Solo Sojourn – 2011 Vin Koru Pinot Gris, New Zealand.

First things first – Pinot Gris is exactly the same thing as Pinot Grigio. Just the French & Italian names for the same varietal. Not unlike Shiraz and Syrah – Australian and French for the same grape. The metamorphosis of nomenclatures as grapes migrate from their home terroir to new exotic locations is just one dimension of a fascinatingly nuanced and intricate subject. It is what makes wine so interesting for me. And frustrating for some who may see a hidden conspiracy to maintain the mystery and snobbery around wine. It is not hard to see why stalwarts of the wine world consistently say “the learning  and discovery does not end.”

Pinot Gris is not one of the big three whites i.e. Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Together these top three take the largest share of the market, and have been the focus of my own self structured study. As my wine education progresses, however, I find myself seeking the lesser known varietals. Aside from an interesting name & country of origin, this quest for the uncommon prompted me to pick up a bottle of Vin Koru Pinot Gris from New Zealand on a recent trip to TJ’s.

This is one occasion when I reversed the practice of researching and reading before tasting. I went straight to the tasting. It was interesting that my tasting notes seemed to pick up on the typical characteristics of Pinot Gris that research later revealed.

A little about the varietal. Pinot Gris finds its natural home in Alsace, France, but has been well adapted in Oregon, British Columbia & New Zealand. Despite a commonality in the grape substrate, Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio wines differ in style. The former tending to be more fruity & juicy and the latter crisp and sharp. On the body style spectrum, generally Pinot Gris lies somewhere between Riesling (light) and Sauvignon Blanc (Medium). The disclaimer being this also depends entirely on the vintner and wine style. It is a cool zone varietal with some of the best wines coming from Alsace. Its scent is similar to but richer than Riesling. Quince, marmalade and candied fruit are common scents. Compared to Riesling, it seems almost “plump” in the mouth. Fruit tastes echo those in the scent. The aftertaste lingers long.

My rating for this Pinot Gris is modest and not representative of what one might expect from this varietal in general. Look for reports on a few more of these in coming weeks.

2011  Vin   Koru Pinot Gris, New Zealand. $5.99
Color Clear, water like, very light bodied appearance.
Nose Fruity, juicy, touch of lime, some floral notes. Chardonnay like oakiness.
Taste Semi dry. Medium body belied the exceedingly light   appearance. Mild & soft with closed, blunt fruitiness. Rounded. Suppressed zest. Pleasantly bitter finish that lingers. Hint of mineral.
Remarks Closed & tentative. Unremarkable. Reasonable value for money.
Rating 4
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Shy Chardonnays & Sassy Rieslings

What is it about wine that invokes spontaneous poetry?

The most unlikely adjectives come effortlessly to mind. Unbidden, uninvited and of their own volition. Without the slightest hint of conscious effort. And long before the wine gets anywhere near the palate. All it takes is the slightest whiff of aromas as you gently tilt a glass, in hushed anticipation, and let your nose pick up the scents of the lazily drifting, barely visible spirals.  The words simply start to pour out.

Was this ruby red creation of my favorite vintner a little reticent? Perhaps an enigma – revealing just enough to create interest but maintaining a sense of mystery. This one is pure coquette. Teasing, playful and impish. And here is a smart one. Definitely cerebral. NewAge in a hippie sort of way.

You get the drift. Certainly, as we read these lines, we could be talking about a lot of things. But wine? Sounds like a self-indulgent pretentious exaggeration. Which I found out, purely from personal experience, it is not!!

The need and desire to describe, dissect and analyze to no apparent purpose may defeat logic. But it sure enhances the pleasure. Not unlike the multiplier effect of the pleasure we derive from artistic pursuits. Like painting & music. The visuals & sounds by themselves are pleasurable. But when you understand the structure of a Mozart concerto or the intricacy of a Raga, you enjoy it so much more.

So I continue to expand my vocabulary in search of adjectives & descriptors that are just right. I’ve experienced brilliant, persistent, paradoxical, contrary, graceful, agrarian, pure, ethereal, laconic, provocative, cheeky, combative, aloof, worldly & stuffy wine. I am certain there is more to come.

When I caught myself describing a Chardonnay as “Shy”, alluding to its soft & mysterious texture, and a sprightly dry Riesling as “Sassy”, I knew it was time to write about the verse in wine.

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Solo Sojourn – Chardonnay v/s Chardonnay

Call it the “ Battle of the Chardonnays.” Which, by definition, could not be solo. More like duo. Quite appropriate, I say, for a duel between wines. So here’s the story.

Every Friday afternoon at the offices of Wines & Vines magazine, staff would gather informally and open some interesting bottles of wine. On one such afternoon in the fall of 2002, a $ 67 Chardonnay from Sonoma (the name was never revealed) was pitted against a $ 1.99 upstart, Charles Shaw. The result is the stuff of legend. The staff chose the two buck chuck – & wrote about it in a column in the magazine. This was the first published reference of this now ubiquitous, then rebel, label. And the rest is history. I simply had to recreate this and do my own blind tasting of a pricier Chardonnay against the still humble Charles Shaw.

I chose a Rodney Strong Chardonnay ($ 11.99) as the challenger. To make it statistically tight, both wines were the same vintage (2010) and region (California. With the Rodney Strong from the Sonoma sub-region.) The playing field was level. The battle was fair. We were ready to taste.

I had to co-opt a reluctant spouse – a diehard red wine fan – into this experiment. His main task was to make it a truly blind tasting for me. A process made somewhat harder by my choice of wines – one bottle was significantly shorter (Burgundy style) than the other.  So just brown bagging the bottles would not do. They had to be hidden from sight and poured in secret. A task competently accomplished by said spouse. Thank you.

Is the curiosity getting to you now? I know you want me to get to the point quickly and not belabor the tasting report. So here is the verdict. The Rodney Strong was clearly the winner. Why? See my tasting report. As a benchmark on not-so-great wines, there are some that I would not drink (e.g the Quail Creek Sauvignon Blanc last reviewed). This Charles Shaw Chardonnay was not quite that category. But certainly not as drinkable as a Cab from the same label. Which is the choice for my next solo sojourn.

  2010 Rodney Strong   ChardonnaySonoma, CA      $ 11.99 2010 Charles Shaw ChardonnayCA.  $ 2.99
Color Pale Greenish Yellow Pale Greenish Yellow
Nose Aromatic. Strong Fruit & Oak. Hint of vanilla. Mild, barely detectable aromas. Candied rose petals.
Taste Bright & zesty. Short length.   Gently bitter finish. Soft, full body. Hint of sweetness. Mildly tart – adds   surprise in the otherwise predictable richness of Chardonnay. Undistinguishable, pedestrian.   Blasé. Fuller body. Dry with richer mouth feel. Longer length. The rose   aromas in the nose transfer to the taste.
Remarks Easy drinking. Simple, uncomplicated but very pleasing. Inoffensive. Inexpensive. Drinkable. Great to satisfy a mid-week wine   craving.
Rating 7 4
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