Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Best Food Blog? Sacramento Is The Source

Jonathan Gold is the only journalist in the country to ever win a Pulitizer Prize for restaurant criticism. But like a lot of restaurant critics, when he isn't out eating he's in the kitchen cooking. So when he listed his 10 favorite cookbooks in his blog for the LA Weekly a few weeks ago, I read it eagerly to see if our tastes might overlap. In several of his choices, they did. For inspiration and guidance, I also look to "The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham, "Authentic Mexican" by Rick and Deena Bayless, "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman and "Chez Panisse Cooking" by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters. But where he favors Paula Wolfert ("The Cooking of Southwest France") and Richard Olney ("Simple French Cooking") for the bright and uplifting dishes of Provence, I gravitate to Gerald Hirigoyen ("Bistro") and Georgeanne Brennan ("Potager").

For a fleeting moment, I wandered why Gold didn't include any food blogs in his roundup, then I remembered that his posting was headlined "Cooking with the Critic, or The Top 10 Most Battered Cookbooks in Jonathan Gold's Kitchen." I can only assume, and hope, that in some future posting he will list the 10 food websites he consults most often. Then again, maybe he doesn't go online in search of recipes. Maybe he's strictly Old School, a cook who prefers the sensation of turning pages - and the memories to be stirred by those pages when they are stained by splatters of sauce that landed on the page as he was preparing dishes for a particularly memorable dinner party. I'm in that camp, too, but there are times, especially when on an extended stay in Mexico, when I've left all but the Bayless book at home, that I turn to the Internet for something to get me off the hook when I've just returned from the market with a hunk of pork tenderloin or a bag of beets for which I had no plan.

Elise Bauer, founder of Simply Recipes
In that case, my default setting on the Internet is Simply Recipes. I go there, punch the fresh ingredient into the search space, hit enter and wait a nano-second for half a dozen or so helpful recipes to pop up. Neither the search nor the resulting recipe ever has let me down. Lots of other people apparently have discovered Simply Recipes, including longtime food authority Colman Andrews, founding editor of Saveur magazine and now editorial director of The Daily Meal, itself a food website. To stir up some media attention, The Daily Meal just released a list of what it considers the top 25 food blogs. Right there at the top of the list, in the coveted No. 1 spot, is Simply Recipes. What makes this recognition all the sweeter is that Simply Recipes is a Sacramento-based food blog. Elise Bauer started Simply Recipes about seven years ago, with an enthusiastic assist from her parents, in whose Carmichael kitchen many of the recipes posted on the site first were developed, tested and perfected. Since then, she's added several equally eager contributors to her recipe retinue, including such high-profile and prolific Sacramento food bloggers as Garrett McCord and Hank Shaw. At any rate, Simply Recipes is a timely, lively and attractive recipe site, packed with recipes sure to rescue the home cook who couldn't pass up those attractive bunches of mustard greens at the farmers market. I suspect Jonathan Gold would agree, and won't be surprised to find Simply Recipes among his top 10 food blogs should he post such a list.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Bridge Too Far...And Wide, Long And Tall

Computer simulation of rising span, courtesy DDP/V-Kon
A slow news week compounded by a holiday can do strange things to even the more energetic and astute of wine critics. Just look at the Thanksgiving Day edition of Dan Berger's newsletter Vintage Experiences. In his lead commentary, Dan morphs from wine critic to highway engineer as he rails against a bridge rising over Germany's Mosel River. The span - two miles long, 525 feet tall, four lanes wide, supported by 10 reinforced-concrete columns, and costing some $400 million - is about a third complete following a seven-year court battle and three decades of planning. Yet, opposition to the construction is on the rise, fueled in part by such esteemed British wine commentators as Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. The span is "a scar across the river," says Dan Berger.

As seen here by a computer simulation of the finished bridge, it is an ugly monument, mocking the traditions, serenity and charm of one of the world's older and more cherished wine regions. What's happened to the sensitive, lyrical and precise design for which German engineering long has been celebrated? The bridge's bulk and lack of harmony, however, is the worst that can be said of it. In groping for other arguments to halt construction, critics are sounding silly. They suggest, for one, that the shadow to be cast by the completed span will adversely affect the development of grapes on the steep shale slopes about the structure. No word yet on their position regarding passing clouds. They also are alarmed that diesel fumes from vehicular traffic on the span could affect negatively the quality and nature of wine crushed from neighboring grapes. That complaint ignores flip speculation that exhaust actually may enhance the region's principal grape, riesling, often recognized for its petrol aromatics.

Proponents of the bridge say it will help accelerate the flow of traffic between the Mosel and Belgium and Holland, key markets for the region's products, including wine. Winemakers themselves are divided, with some agreeing that the span is an aesthetic eyesore, others seeing it as a vital economic conduit.

The project isn't likely to be abandoned. In his commentary, Dan Berger seems to suggest as much. But beyond the Mosel project, his overarching view is worth keeping in mind: Agricultural enclaves need to be continually vigilent against the intrusion of urbanization if they are to remain the source of grapes, wines and other farm goods. Critics of the Mosel bridge have been late to join the debate, hurting their effectiveness. To avoid a similar mistake elsewhere, residents and advocates of such choice California wine regions as Alexander Valley, Shenandoah Valley and Napa Valley need to keep up to speed on how their public officials envision their future.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What's The Message? Buy Now?

In the cold streets outside the auction room, hundreds follow bidding
Internet connection problems in Burgundy on Sunday kept me from posting timely information on that day's Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction, which at 150 years is the world's oldest, and arguably the most prominent.

The lapse, however, may help me put the sale into some kind of perspective. Wine geeks follow the auction closely as an indication of where prices of Burgundy wines are headed, up or down. If that's true, and I'm not convinced it is, prices for Burgundy reds from the 2010 vintage - the only vintage on the block - will climb 12.5 percent over the next year or two while the cost of Burgundy whites will jump nearly 16 percent. On average, that's how much more revenue Sunday's lots drew than a year ago.

A couple of extenuating circumstances complicate the forecast, however. For one, the day's top lot was the "President's Barrel," named in tribute to Nicolas Rolin, who as a Duke of Burgundy in 1443 built at his own expense a hospital for the poor in Beaune. Proceeds of the yearly auction, which began in 1859, continue to support the hospital. The "President's Barrel" this year sold for 400,000 euros, or $548,320. That's a record. And it alone accounted for nearly 10 percent of the day's total take of 4.5 million euros. The winning bid came from a local guy, Jacques Boisseaux, whose Beaune wine estates include Maison Patriarche Pere et Fils, Chateau de Meursault and Chateau de Marsannay. His generosity serves as a reminder that the auction is more a fund raiser for medical services and research than it is an economic barometer, with bidders motivated more by charitable impulses than aesthetic considerations.

Secondly, this year's small crop in Burgundy yielded just 643 barrels of wine compared with 799 last year. The reduced supply didn't generate much more demand, however, with total proceeds up just 11 percent.

The quiet drama playing out at this year's Hospices de Beaune was whether Asian bidders, particularly from China, would materialize to help raise Burgundy's profile to the high level of Bordeaux, with which the Chinese appear to have fallen madly in love. Christie's, the London auction house that conducted the Hospices de Beaune sale, eagerly courted the Chinese market over the past year with tastings and dinners in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. By the time the gavel sounded for the final time Sunday, however, no Chinese participant had duplicated the stir created by the Asian bidder who earlier this fall at a Hong Kong auction spent the equivalent of $230,000 for each of three bottles of 1869 vintage Chateau Lafite. In Beaune on Sunday, just one of the 10 most eagerly contested lots was bought by someone with an Asian tie. Undaunted, representatives of Christie's afterwards crowed that 12.5 percent of Sunday's successful bids came from Asians. Europeans accounted for nearly 86 percent of the sales. Americans look to have lost their enthusiasm for Burgundian wines, or at least have tempered their wine purchases in the wake of the nation's continuing recession. According to Christie's, just 1.6 percent of the auction's revenues came from Americans. If Sunday's auction indeed proves to be an accurate gauge of where prices for Burgundy wines are headed, that percentage just might not budge in the near future.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bidding Time In Beaune

Where I sit, it's getting close to midnight, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010. Where I sit is in a quiet and softly lit room of the Hostellerie Le Cedre at Beaune in the Burgundy region of France. Outside, revelers sing and dance on cobblestone streets, despite the chill and drizzle. Beaune is a city that likes to party, and the biggest party of the year is this weekend.

Le Cedre is a posh inn whose classy restaurant just served a seven-course dinner that included pigeon liver on toast, grilled scallops in a pumpkin puree, and a bowl of zabaglione so covered with thick slices of black truffle you could hardly see the zabaglione itself. Meals like that are going on all over Beaune, and at estates scattered across the countryside far outside the city's medieval walls.

I'm here at the invitation of Burgundy's wine producers, who at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday will kick off the 150th Hospices de Beaune, the world's most enduring wine auction. The sale will convene at the Hotel Dieu, which isn't a hotel at all, but a hospital founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin. He was the chancellor of the duchy of Burgundy, and felt that the region's rich and varied agricultural bounty should help underwrite the medical care of the impoverished. Ever since, the area's hospitals have been endowed with heirloom vineyards, wines from which have been auctioned on the third Sunday of November for a century and a half.

The wines are always from the most recent vintage, and they customarily generate astounding prices, which are then interpreted both as a reflection of the quality of the year's crop and an indication of the health of the global economy. In reality, the wines are so young and unfinished that any prediction of the long-range durability and esteem of the vintage is laughable. This afternoon, I tasted all 44 wines on which the individual lots are drawn, and found most of them so heavily oaked and stunted at this point in their evolution I wouldn't dare rely on them for an overall assessment of the entire Burgundian output. That said, I did find the whites more consistently impressive in their effusiveness, clarity and balance than the reds. Nevertheless, if I had a bidding paddle I would go for a few of the reds, just to see if their hints of muscularity and grace would actually build into something grand a decade or two from now.

As to what the results will say of the global economy, here's a clue: Where is much of the planet's disposable wealth concentrated these days? And what region is most smitten with French wine? Four letters: Asia. The Burgundians expect that; this year's auction catalog is printed in three languages: French, English and Chinese.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bacchus Says: Mardi Gras Approaches

I'm taking a break from wine for a few days while visiting New Orleans, but the wine culture continues to materialize in front of me. Yesterday, we rented bikes in the French Quarter and rode up Elysian Fields Avenue to the University of New Orleans. That wasn't our destination. We were headed to Lake Pontchartrain for no reason other than that I'd never had a close-up look. It took some effort to get there, apparently because construction crews continue to shore up the city's levees. The lake is on the north edge of the university, but roads here and there were closed, and three times security guards stopped us from taking this route or that in our efforts to reach the lake. Eventually, we got there, finding choppy waters on a windy but otherwise balmy day. Absolutely no one was on the lake. While riding through a park along the shoreline we stumbled across Mardi Gras Fountain, built and dedicated in 1962 to pay tribute to the dozens of carnival krewes largely responsible for the late-winter revelry. The fountain is surrounded by colorful free-standing ceramic plaques replicating the royal crest of each of the krewes. There are krewes named for the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Cleopatra, Aphrodite and Zeus, among others, but the one I lingered over longest was Bacchus. If nothing else, I guess this crest reminds us of the ancient and enduring role of wine in a wide range of societies, even one where Abita Amber Ale, Pimm's Cup and the Sazerac look to play a much more active role. Incidentally, the fountain is more pond than fountain, not at all spraying water as originally intended. The sponsoring Orleans Levee Board must still be jittery about seeing moving water.

We headed west along Robert E. Lee Boulevard, ambling through the stylish estates of Bucktown, then moseyed south on Marconi Drive, skirting City Park. From there we angled back to the French Quarter and kept going to the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood virtually wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood. Today, it's a vibrant construction zone, where traditional New Orleans architecture is being reinterpreted in a series of post-modern single-family energy-efficient homes striking in their bright colors, sharp angles - and tall foundations. The actor Brad Pitt has had a hand in this revival, and I saw someone who looks like him standing on a balcony of one residence nearing completion, but he wasn't wearing a tool belt so it must have been someone else.

For me, whose previous trips to New Orleans were pretty much limited to the French Quarter and nearby commercial zones, the ride through quiet, leafy and elegant neighborhoods was soothing and reassuring. I saw a lot of pride in the preservation and restoration of historic homes, the cleaning and manicuring of parks and waterways, and the opening of new businesses. Yes, many homes still stand vacant and scarred, but more have been patched up and again shelter families. Despite hurricane, flood and oil spill, New Orleans continues to bounce back, and may be more handsome, animated and self-assured than ever. The New Orleans Saints could have a lot to do with that - their fleur-de-lis emblem is everywhere, on flags waving over front porches, in window signs, and on t-shirts worn more by locals than tourists. You don't hear or see as much support of the city's NBA franchise, the New Orleans Hornets, but in passing through one neighborhood adjacent to City Park we did come across this bright vintage Cadillac. I can't recall seeing such brazen and mobile support for the Sacramento Kings, but now that I'm heading back to town I'll be more watchful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alexander Valley Vineyards Again Saddles Up

Judges at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo commercial wine competition sure do like California cabernet sauvignon. For the seventh time in the eight years that the competition has been run, either a cabernet sauvignon or a blend based on cabernet sauvignon from California has been declared the Grand Champion. This year it's the Alexander Valley Vineyards 2006 Alexander Valley Cyrus, a Bordeaux-inspired blend with 58 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot and lesser amounts of malbec and petit verdot. What's more, the Reserve Grand Champion - basically, the runnerup - is the Stanton Vineyards 2007 Napa Valley Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the sixth straight year that a California cabernet sauvignon has led the competition, which customarily attracts about 1,800 wines from around the world, as it did this year. And this wasn't even the first win at the judging for the Cyrus, the 1999 version of which won the very first Houston competition in the fall of 2003. For the record, the only non-cabernet-based wine to take top honors at Houston was the Hangtime Cellars 2003 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir for the 2005 roundup.

Indeed, another pinot noir, the Vision Cellars 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Gary's Vineyard Pinot Noir was voted the competition's top red wine, which put it in contention for Grand Champion. The top white wine was the Vasse Felix 2008 Margaret River Chardonnay from Australia. Top sparking wine was the Heidsieck & Co. Reims Monopole Blue Top Brut, while the best dessert wine was the Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars 2008 Finger Lakes Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling. The top value wine was the Fat Monk 2009 Central Coast Merlot, which customarily sells for $10. (Fat Monk is a brand of Villa San-Juliette Vineyard & Winery at Paso Robles.)

For Alexander Valley Vineyards, the second Grand Champion award means the winery has won a second custom hand-tooled saddle from the Houston judging, which suggests that the winery might want to consider renaming itself Alexander Valley Stables.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Houston, We Really Don't Have A Problem

Houston servers wear gloves to avoid distracting prints
Two of the three things I most dread when I'm invited to judge at a commercial wine competition:

1) That I'll be assigned to a panel whose first assignment is to judge sparkling wines.

2) That I'll be assigned to a panel asked to judge pinot grigio.

Bingo! The panel on which I am sitting at Rodeo Uncorked - otherwise known as the commercial wine competition at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo - drew sparkling wines as its first assignment, soon to be followed by pinot grigios.

Understand, I have nothing against sparkling wine or pinot grigio. I enjoy them both. As to sparkling wine, I just find it extremely difficult to judge, especially when the first flight arrives first thing in the morning, as it did at 9:25 a.m. today in Houston's hulking Reliant Center. It sounds like a dream assignment: Drink 30 Champagnes and other sorts of sparkling wines before lunch. Reality check: You don't drink at a commercial wine competition; you taste, which means taking a sip, swirling it about your mouth, and then spitting it into a cup, in the meantime jotting notes about its character, balance, length and the like. We were tasting blind, which means we won't know the identity of any of the wines until after the judging. In the meantime, what can I tell you about this group of sparkling wines? They were pretty doggone impressive. They were more diverse in expression than I expected going it. And they were more balanced than I would have guessed. As I tasted my way through the lineup I kept thinking that when shoppers go cruising for sparklers this holiday season they will have a darn strong category from which to pick a winner. We chose a rich and complicated entry for our champion, a voluminous yet intricate candidate for our reserve champion. I look forward to learning their producer and vintage.

As to the 18 pinot grigios, they also were surprisingly varied, upsetting my preconceived notion that the varietal offers little in the way of diversity. Nonetheless, I have to say that by today's experience I was positively impressed by their overall clarity, balance and range. If I'm invited back, I wouldn't mind again evaluating pinot grigios.

We also judged a large class of cabernet sauvignons, a surprisingly small class of barberas, and a class of carmeneres disappointing in their heavy-handed exploitation of oak at the expense of the varietal's elusive fruitiness.

The Houston competition has drawn nearly 1,800 wines from around the world this fall. California wines generally have shown well here, especially cabernet sauvignons. At tomorrow's final round we'll see if they can keep their standing.

The judging is all prelude to the main event, which is the livestock show and rodeo next spring. Together, the wine competition, livestock auction, rodeo, concerts and the like are meant to generate funds for college scholarships and research. Today, some 2,000 students attend Texas universities and colleges on $30 million in scholarships and research grants generated by the events, say coordinators.

The third thing I most dread at a wine competition? Chardonnay. And regardless of how enlightening today's classes of sparkling wine and pinot grigio were, I'm not quite ready to go there without a struggle.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Feds Take On Cherished Old Wine Terms

At the risk of inducing a headache, I've been reading a week-old edition of the Federal Register. Between pages 67666 and 67669, representatives of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB),   responsible for enforcing the nation's wine laws, invite wine-trade officials and consumers to comment on changes to wine-label nomenclature that federal agents are mulling.

Specifically, they are looking primarily at the term "estate bottled," which appears fairly often on labels and in promotional material. Currently, the TTB has several specific standards to qualify the use of "estate bottled." Any bottle of wine bearing that phrase also must bear the name of an American Viticultural Area, or appellation. The winery itself must be in that same appellation. All the processing of the grapes and the making of the wine must be done on that site. Over the years, TTB officials have come to regard the similar phrase "estate grown" as a synonym for "estate bottled."

Federal officials haven't offered any explanation about the need for this review, other than an oblique reference about some unnamed industry members who have asked to use "estate grown" on wine labels without meeting the standards for "estate bottled."

Seemingly as an afterthought, federal authorities figured that if they were going to reconsider definitions for "estate bottled" and "estate grown" they might as well toss onto the table for debate several other wine-label terms that have been either interpreted ambiguously or left undefined altogether. Thus, they also are inviting comments on the use of "estate" and "estates" generally, even in brand names, as well as "proprietor grown," "vintner grown," "single vineyard," "select harvest," "proprietor's blend" and "bottle aged."

Most consumers, of course, don't give a darn about such fanciful terms on wine labels. If they give them any thought at all, it's to dismiss them as winemaker hype, not at all as significant as the numbers on the price sticker, the name of the producer, the type or style of the wine, and maybe the place of origin.

Nevertheless, I do look forward to the debate sure to ensue about a few terms that TTB officials have opened for discussion other than "estate bottled," and those would be "reserve," "old clone" and most especially "old vine." "Old vine" is a label term used widely and enthusiastically in Northern California, in particular in the marketing of zinfandel, yet no standard exists to explain what it means. Is an "old vine" at least 50 years old or 75 or 100 or something else? I've had one winemaker tell me that the vines that yielded the grapes in his "old vine" zinfandel were only about 10 years old, and that "old vine" was a phrase meant to suggest the style of the wine - dark, rich, likely high in alcohol and tannin - and not the age of the vines. OK, so let the debate commence.

Industry members and consumers have only until Jan. 3 to comment. For more information about the issue, and for directions on submitting remarks, go to the Federal Register or the docket with the proposed rules.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vintners Hall Of Fame: The Newest Inductees

Vernon Singleton, flanked by plaques of two former colleagues
First, the local angle, the locale being the greater Sacramento area: Vernon L. Singleton, retired professor of wine chemistry in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, this afternoon was named one of five members of the class of 2011 to be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the St. Helena campus of the Culinary Institute of America.

Singleton, author or co-author of some 220 papers and four books, including the seminal "Wine: An Introduction," first published in 1965, is the fourth member of the faculty of UC Davis to be inducted into the five-year-old hall. He joins former colleagues Carole Meredith, Harold Olmo and Maynard Amerine, with whom he co-wrote "Wine: An Introduction."

During an introductory luncheon in the hall, a cavernous room in which bronze plaques hang on large oak wine casks to honor each of the 28 previously inducted members, four other persons instrumental in developing the California wine trade were announced as the newest inductees:

- Joel Peterson, who with no vines to his name and just $4,000 to invest founded Ravenswood Winery at Sonoma in 1976 to concentrate on vineyard-designated zinfandels. In 2001, he sold the prospering winery to Constellation Brands for $148 million, but stayed aboard as winemaker.

- Bob Trinchero, frequently credited for both helping discover Amador County as prime zinfandel territory in 1968 and even more for popularizing white zinfandel in the 1970s, both through wines of his family's Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley. Today, Trinchero Family Estates has 21 wine brands, which in addition to Sutter Home include Terra d'Oro, Newman's Own, Folie a Deux, Joel Gott, Bandit and Fre, the latter an alcohol-free wine.

- Richard Graff, who in 1965 purchased a vineyard at a former mistletoe ranch on Chalone Peak of the Gavilan Mountain Range in Monterey County and went on to establish Chalone Vineyard as one of California's early success stories with the fickle grape pinot noir. He died in 1998 when the private plane he was piloting crashed due to engine failure.

- August Sebastiani, who in 1952 purchased his father's eponymous winery in Sonoma and on the strength of consistent and affordable everyday varietal wines built it into the sixth largest producer in the country at the time of his death in 1980.

As W. Blake Gray, chairman of the hall's Nominating Committee, noted in remarks while introducing the new members, an unusual number of this year's inductees - Sebastiani, Peterson, Trinchero - built much of their success with the grape and the wine most closely identified with California, zinfandel.

The five will be inducted formally next Presidents' Day, Feb. 21, in a celebration that is to include a reception with wines and foods from the menus of state dinners at the White House over the years.

Persons chosen for the Vintners Hall of Fame are nominated by a panel of 13 wine and media representatives, then elected by some 70 past inductees and members of the wine media. Disclosure: I'm a member of both the Nominating Committee and the Electoral College.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Wine Labels, Napa Valley Sobers Up

I was eating Butterfingers left over from Halloween last night while watching the NBA's own butterfingers, the Sacramento Kings, lose to the Memphis Grizzlies. To better occupy my hands and to lift my spirits, I began to flip through a couple of holiday catalogs from Dean & Deluca, the posh deli and wine shop at St. Helena in Napa Valley. Not surprisingly, my eyes drifted most often to the wine selections. I hadn't consciously sensed it before, but in looking at wines specifically from Napa Valley, first in the catalogs, then at the Dean & Deluca website, I realized that we now have a third way to gauge just how dear a wine is going to be without glancing at the price sticker. In addition to the thickness of the glass and the depth of the punt - the heavier the bottle and the deeper the punt the more expensive the wine will be, you can be assured - the blandness of the label also will telegraph the message that this is one pricey release. When and why did the California wine label, especially on bottles of the noblest representatives of the state's wine culture, become so monochromatic, lifeless and dull? By and large, they look as if they came out of the same conservative studio, one that customarily prepares advertising material for mortuaries. Granted, designers and artists can't alone be faulted for labels so lacking in personality, adventure, history, romance, tension and drama. They take their cues from winery owners, who in reaching for stateliness too often end up with the underwhelmingly understated. Oh, there is an elegance to the designs, but it's so reserved and lacking in color and rhythm that vintners seem to have forgotten the first responsibility of the wine label: Sell the wine to browsing customers who for the most part are impulsive buyers. The label is to grab their attention and convey a sense of the confidence, tradition and aspiration that went into the wine in the bottle. Many of the labels are confident, all right, but hardly bold. Maybe in that price niche - $100 or more - they don't have to abide by the old standards. But they are of such similarity that they suggest a pack mentality that stems more from conformity and perhaps even insecurity than the spirit of  independence typically associated with Napa Valley. These labels are guarded, safe, flat. On the table of a dinner party in a popular restaurant none of them is likely to turn heads and evoke knowing appreciation the way the labels of Silver Oak, Montelena, Mayacamas and Jordan have done for decades. OK, winery owners and their retained designers and artists don't have it easy. They know the California wine label has gone through various phases - vineyard scenes, imperial buildings, wildflowers, critters - and they want to avoid formula and cliche. But that alone doesn't explain how they ended up in such a still and shallow eddy of the creative river. And, to be sure, there are exceptions to today's guarded wine label. Grace Family, Jones Family and Diamond Creek, among others, are all high-end Napa Valley producers whose labels convey an almost intimate feeling of the region and the people behind the wines. Why is it important that Napa Valley producers show more individuality, lyricism and even wit in their wine labels? Well, it isn't a pressing issue, and if vintners feel their humdrum labels are doing what they want them to do, so be it. But winemakers elsewhere in the state take their cues from Napa Valley, and if they think that disciples of the Tame School of Wine Label Design actually have a wide following, they are apt to emulate their style, and that would make bins a lot less interesting.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Catching Up, A Little

Goodness, seven notebooks in two listing stacks are cluttering my desk, along with assorted sheets of tasting notes, restaurant menus, press releases and the like. To prepare for the weekend, I'd best try to catch up:

- The folks of Goelet Wine Estates, whose brands include Clos du Val in Napa Valley and Taltarni in Australia, are breaking my heart on one hand but giving me hope on the other. Another of the company's brands is Lally Gully, long the source of one of my favorite rieslings. The latest version, however, the Lalla Gully 2007 Tasmania Riesling, will be the last. The vineyard has been grafted to chardonnay. Why? Well, chardonnay is much more popular than riesling. I think the company's decision is premature. Riesling is growing in popularity, especially for the Lally Gully style, which is lean, dry and razory. It's the perfect shellfish riesling, with an alluring blend of petrol and peach rarely found in examples of the varietal made in California. I like its balance, austerity and essence of lime, and am sorry to see it go. Fellow travelers in the riesling aisle, however, still can grab a bottle of the 2007 at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, which has four remaining cases. The wine sells for a most attractive $13. Coincidentally, I pulled from the cellar not long ago an older wine from other Goelet property, the Clos du Val 2001 Napa Valley Stag's Leap District Reserve Cabernet Franc. "Tuck it away for a decade of two," advised the back label. I'm glad I had. For a single varietal with just a dash of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the wine was startling in its complexity - fruity, herbal, floral, with smells and flavors running to juniper, bay leaves, cherries, cedar and mint. The color was brilliant, the oak integrated seamlessly, the texture silken, the finish long. I immediately went to the Clos du Val website to see about the availability of more recent vintages. Nothing was to be found. Clos du Val releases a cabernet franc only in years when the fruit is exceptional and when the winery has more than it can use for blending, and for the most part that hasn't happened during the past decade. However, a vintage cabernet franc is expected to be released by Clos du Val sometime this fall or winter; watch for it, then "tuck it away."

- While I'm behind the curve on this whole smart-phone app thing, my former boss at The Sacramento Bee, Bob Ehlert, isn't. He and his wife Tana have spent much of their spare time for the past several months gathering content for Wine Tasting Tab, an app now available for the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Droid phones. Early reviews indicate the Wine Tasting Tab does exactly what it's meant to do, which is help wine enthusiasts plan and navigate their way through a wine region, stopping at this winery and that for a taste. It's packed with all sorts of helpful information, including tasting-room fees, days and hours, winery amenities, wine styles, contact information and the like for some 700 California wineries, most of them in the North State, such as the Sierra foothills, Sonoma County and Napa Valley. (By the end of the year, the Ehlerts expect to be up to 1,000 wineries.) With Wine Tasting Tab, including its GPS, tasters at the outset of a trek can plan their itinerary smartly, abiding by a pre-determined budget. The app costs $2.99 and is available through iTunes and AndroidZoom.

- Ordinarily, I don't get much excited by the autumnal release of Beaujolais Nouveau, the first Northern Hemisphere wine of the most recent vintage. They're pleasant and fun, enjoyable for a glass or two in a party setting, but that's about it. This year, however, I'm looking forward to their Nov. 18 release with more enthusiasm than usual, based largely on Kermit Lynch's early assessment of the vintage. In his November newsletter, Lynch, a longtime Berkely importer, notes: "Our producers are pleased to report that this year's Nouveau is a return to classic, bygone Beaujolais, thanks to conditions that used to be typical but have since become rare: a long, cool growing season followed by a late harvest. This, they say, is the Beaujolais Nouveau they grew up on, before bananas invaded the scene, before sugar and yeasts and pasteurization and concentration became the norm, back when Beaujolais Nouveau was sent to town on a horse-drawn carriage by the cask the day of its release." Sounds intriguing, and you don't have to go all the way to Berkeley to find out what Lynch is talking about. In Sacramento, his array of Beaujolais Nouveau will be found at 58 Degrees & Holding Co. and Taylors Market. If you're up in Truckee, The Pour House will be stocking the releases.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Where Were You When...?

OK, I'll play. When the San Francisco Giants finally won their first World Series last night, I was standing off to one side of the lobby in the Westin Verasa Hotel at Napa, awaiting the start of a winemaker dinner. Aside from the quick subtlety of the final strike, what I'll remember most of that moment was how eerily quiet the lobby and the adjoining bar became with each Brian Wilson pitch. For some reasion, the sound of the TV set was off, perhaps not to agitate the few obvious fans of the Texas Rangers among the onlookers. Muted as it was, however, the last out was welcomed with cheers and high fives. By then, our glasses were empty; toasts would come later.

As I joined others in the party to head for our table in the hotel's restaurant, La Toque, which a year ago relocated from its original intimate location in Rutherford up the Napa Valley, my thoughts turned to my late father, a Giants fan who weathered more June Swoons than any person should have had to endure. I'm sure I wasn't alone in that sentiment as other sons and daughters of old Giants fans no doubt reflected on the win that their parents and grandparents never got to experience. My father was such a Giants fan he packed with him on his route as a postal carrier a small transistor radio to listen to games. His annual yuletide poem often included a glancing line about another sorry Giants season. A second-generation San Franciscan, he took me, a third-generation San Franciscan, to the old Seals Stadium for a game during the first season after the Giants moved from New York, in 1958. I don't remember who they played that summer day, or which team won. But I won't forget the fortitude and optimism he showed after even especially tortuous losses, nor the joy that excited him with each Giants win.

Seasoned Australian winemaker Chris Hancock was the host of last night's dinner, held to introduce the latest wines from Robert Oatley Vineyards of Mudgee northwest of Sydney. While Australia's national pastimes run more to yacht races, swimming, cricket and rugby than baseball, Hancock recognized the drama and history of the occasion by ordering flutes of a French sparkling wine for a series of toasts. It was the Roederer Brut, a smokin' line drive of a Champagne whose  agility and authority complemented perfectly these similarly styled Giants.