Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gregory Viennois Rhone Wines in the US

In a recent post on Stephan Derenoncourt, I noted that, in his position as chief wine buyer for Montesquieu, he would provide that organization, and, as a result, its customers, with previously unattainable access to high-quality wines from around the world. What I did not mention directly was that he would also provide that same type of access to world-class winemaking talent, a shortcoming that I will address in this post.

Gregory Viennois is the Chief Oeneologist for M. Chapoutier, one of the leading Domaines in the world, and General and Technical Director and Winemaker for Ferraton Pere et Fils, a Chapoutier property.  In those roles, Viennois is responsible for overseeing the production of the high-quality wines that have been staples of these venerable houses for ages. Viennois, a former pupil of Derenoncourt, is also a fierce advocate of biodynamics and the importance of terroir.  The wines of M. Chapoutier and Ferraton "compete" in nine Rhone AOCs but, according to Gregory they are differentiated in that the Chapoutiers are massive wines while the Ferratons have more delicacy of texture and are earlier-drinking wines.

Gregory has been producing wines for Montesquieu under the Alexandre Rochette label since the 2005 vintage.

According to Montesquieu, Alexandre Rochette is "... a project dedicated to bringing its customers the finest terroir-driven, small-production Rhone wines in the world.  The wines offered to date include:

  • Chateauneuf du Pape -- 90-year-old vines; 95% Grenache, 3% Syrah, 2% Mourvedre
  • Cote Rotie -- 50-year-old vines; 100% Syrah; Cote Blonde
  • 2005, 2006 Hermitage Rouge -- 50-year-old vines; 100% Syrah; 100-case production; grapes from steep, rocky, granite-rich, biodynamically farmed plots
  • 2007 Hermitage Blanc -- 50-year-old vines; 100% Marsanne; 180-case production; grapes from steep, rocky, granite-rich, biodynamically farmed plots
  • 2005 Crozes Hermitage
  • 2006 St. Joseph Blanc -- 100% Marsanne
  • 2007 Coteaux de l"Ardeche Viognier -- 100% Viognier

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Wine Journey: 1990 Gruaud-Larose

The 1990 Gruaud-Larose was the most recent conquest in my quest to "run the table" on Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara's Wines of the Decade.

Chateau Gruaud-Larose, a Medoc second growth (1855 classification), can trace its roots back to its creation in 1725 by the knight Joseph Stanislas Gruaud.  The estate, initially called Forbedeau, passed to his only heir, Jean-Sebastian Larose, upon the founder's death.  The chateau was purchased by Bordeaux merchants Balguerie, Sargent and Co., whereupon the name Gruaud-Larose was assigned.  The estate was split between two families shortly after the sale with two Gruaud-Larose wines (Sarget and Bethman) being produced and sold as a result.  The original estate was reconstituted when Desire Cordier, an east France wine merchant, bought the Sarget estate in 1917 and the Bethman estate in 1935.

The current-day Gruaud-Larose occupies 150 hectares in the St. Julien appellation, positioned directly between fellow Medoc properties Branaire-Ducru and Lagrange.  Of the 150 hectares, 82 hectares are planted to vines which are, on average, 45 years old.  The distribution of varietals on the estate is 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.  The soil under the vineyard is deep Quaternary gravel.

The Gruaud-Larose winemaking process requires that fruit be hand-picked after which it is sorted and cold-soaked.  Fermentation takes place in temperature-controlled wooden and concrete vats with the juice pumped over the must twice per day.  Upon completion of fermentation, one-third of the vintage is subjected to malolactic fermentation in oak barrels.  The entire vintage is aged in up to 50% new oak for 18 months after which it is fined and filtered and then bottled as Gruaud-Larose (25,000 cases) or Sarget de Gruaud-Larose (16,000 cases).

The Wine Quest Premier Dining Experience, an event benefiting a local charity, was being held at the JW Marriott on Saturday evening, The event schedule called for a 7:00 pm champagne reception followed by dinner at 8:00.  In order to have an even fuller evening, four of us decided to take some wine and hang out in the hotel lobby from about 5:30 pm and to then join the Wine Dinner when it began. I took a bottle of the 1990 Gruaud-Larose and a 1990 d'Yquem (for use with our dessert course) and Adam took a 2004 Chaves Hermitage Blanc

We started with the Chaves which had a pale gold color and was thick and weighty in the glass.  This wine needed decanting.  It was powerful, unctuous, weighty on the palate and with a long finish.  It actually needs more time in bottle so that it can resolve its issues.

We next turned to the Gruaud-Larose.  We did not have a wine key so we asked our server to open the bottle for us.  We were engaged in conversation but she did appear to be taking a long time to begin pouring.  we understood why when she asked us if we could help with getting the cork out.  The cork may have had some issues but the server had succeeded in punching a hole deep into the cork and expelling most of the material on which the corkscrew would grab.  We took the bottle and attempted to penetrate at the interface between the cork and the glass but to no avail.  There was not enough material.  We dispatched her to get a decanter and a sieve in the event that we had to punch the cork down but I panicked when she returned with the decanter and a flavor-stripping coffee filter (I never use those for filtering wine after I had the experience of a 1991 Dominus being brought to its knees after being poured into a decanter through one of those filters.).  By this time the anticipation had waned and it was now a rescue operation.  I took the bottle to the bar and had one of the bartenders work on it for well nigh 20 minutes before he was able to successfully extract the cork with no residue migrating through to the wine.

We decanted the wine and then poured it into the glasses.  Garnet color with bricking at the edges.  Good viscosity.  Vegetality on the nose.  Good acidity. On the palate leather and a mintiness.  Did not have a full, round mouthfeel and the finish less-than-long.  I was disappointed in this wine but I will have to retaste it.  The cork might have been an indication of prior battery to the wine and the circumstances under which it was tasted were not exactly  memorable in a positive way.  The company was great though.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Spanish Wines and the Modernist versus Traditionalist Battles

In his book Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, Jonathon Nossiter lauds French (Anjou, Touraine, Chablis, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, Rhone, Provence, and Jura), Italian (Friuli, Sardignia, Umbria), and German wine regions for resisting the homogenization wave but is especially hard on the Spanish wine industry for its "abdication."  According to Nossiter, "a disaster has befallen the Spanish wine industry over the past 15 years."  With very few exceptions (Manzanilla Sherry and 20+-year-old Tondonia Rioja Blanco), the "whites are alcohol heavy, lacking any balancing acidity, cloyingly fruity, battered and botoxed by new oak" while the reds are "overconcentrated, overripe, saccharine, syrupy, and also artificially wrinkle-free."

Writing, longingly, in the Old World Old School blog, Joe Maneken hearkens back to a period 15 years in the past when Spanish winemakers picked their grapes before they became super-ripe and aged their wines for long periods in oak (mostly American) or concrete.  Some of the resulting wines were oaky, dried out, and lacking in vibrancy but many were "distinctive and delicious" at reasonable prices.  Writing in The World of Fine Wines, Mike Steinbereger, commenting on Spanish wines, indicated that "much of Spain is a black hole these days."

Why did Spain, with a wine tradition stretching as far back as its fellow Roman-era European cohorts, and with the largest area under vine of any country in the world, succumb where others did not.  Nossiter points to two potentially contributory factors.  First, Spain had experienced societal repression under Franco and, like the Pastor's children, once freedom was gained they became susceptible to "edgy fruit."  Second, one way for the nouveau riche to gain social acceptance is to own a vineyard and many of Spain's new vineyard owners, according to Nossiter, have made their fortunes outside of the winemaking industry and are driven by other than "traditional" values.  He illustrates the point by relating the story of Fernando Ramirez Ganuza, a real estate tycoon who bought land and established his brand in 1992  and by 1998 was receiving 95 and 96 points from Parker for his "jammy" Rioja wines.  When Nossiter met with him in Madrid in 2006, Ganuza told him that Rioja was a brand ( a marketing conception) rather than a terroir.

Steinberger, while being firmly rooted in the traditionalist camp, does see some benefits accruing to the wine industry as a result of the modernist movement.  For example, while their luster is fading, Super Tuscans gave "Tuscan winemaking a dynamism" that was sorely lacking and raised winemaking standards throughout the region.  French garage wines, while in retreat, have attracted great attention to the St. Emilion region and have shown that winemaking can be practiced outside the hallowed halls of the Bordeaux chateaux.  Steinberger sees the modernist movement in retreat (changing sensibilities; global economic crisis; a renewed passion for the authentic, the local, the natural; and the waning influence of previously influential wine critics) but posits that the modern versus traditional battle has redounded to the overall benefit of the wine industry.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Review: Liquid Memory

Jonathon Nossiter's Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, with its treatment of taste, power, and globalization, is a very good cultural anthropology treatise.  Those treatments, plus its treatment of "winespeak", selected wine regions, abdication of wine culture by a number of wine regions, and the psyche and philosophy of some of the leading Burgundian vignerons, makes this one of the best wine books I have ever read.

The author is a filmmaker, probably best known for his film Mondovino, a documentary on the impact of wine globalization.   He has studied Greek language, literature and history; worked as a sommelier; lived in Paris (where his father was stationed as an international correspondent); and is currently living in Brazil, where there is a body of socially conscious, some would say reactionary, literature and film.  All of these influences are reflected in this work.  The author describes the book as an "involuntary guidebook" and a "polemic against all those critics and arbiters who purport to speak with authority and are taking most of the fun and almost all of the culture out of wine these days."  Its purpose, stated in the Introduction, is to "attempt to transmit something of the sensual and intellectual delight that wine has brought me since childhood" and its audience is those who are "skeptical of jargon, defensive snobbery, or any one of power that obstructs the uncovering of one's own taste."

The book is organized along three broad themes.  In the early sections, the author is focused on defining and identifying taste.  For most of its second half, the author is focused on coming up with alternatives to the dreaded winespeak. In the last part of the book, it is Mondovino redux (somewhat) as the author decries the effects of globalization/homgenization on the world's wine regions and the contributions of Michel Rolland and Robert Parker to this "travesty."

In the introductory section of the book, the author engages in a thought-provoking discussion of wine as liquid memory (the title of the book) and as a medium for an evolving transmitter of terroir as it changes in the bottle (In the first chapter the author acknowledges that there are forces arrayed against the notion of terroir. Terroir, he says, is not "a reactionary, unquestioning clinging to tradition."  Instead, it is a "will to progress into the future with a firm rootedness in the past ... a way to counteract the relentless homogenization of certain global forces.").  From this base he continues on to a discussion of taste and power and how important it is for an individual to be the arbiter of his/her own taste. "The moment you abdicate responsibility for your own taste is the moment you voluntarily abdicate your own freedom."

The first two chapters appeared to be as much about film as it was about wine and I found this disconcerting.  The author was liberal in his use of analogies and these analogies were always drawn from the world of film and film making.  Two especially jarring practices were the gratuitous use of "flashback" and imbuing us with the pervasive sense that we were reading "the Making of Mondivino."  At one point the references to Mondovino were so thick and so fast that I wondered whether Mondivino should be a pre-requisite to the book. But he rights the ship and takes us on a journey to some of his favored (and not so favored) restaurants, wine bars, and wine shops in Paris and through gripping, in-depth interactions with Burgundian vignerons Jean-Marc Roulet, Christophe Roumier, and Dominique Lafon.

This is a well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book written with a filmmaker's eye for detail and clearly presents the author as a learned individual possessing excellent breadth as well as depth.  The author is not at all ambivalent about what he thinks is wrong with today's wine culture or who is responsible for the current state of affairs.  He is laudatory of Burgundy, Italy (with the exception of the Super Tuscans), Germany and Austria for not succumbing to the siren song of Parker-influenced, American-market-driven taste and excoriates Spain (especially), Argentina, and Chile for yielding their internal winemaking traditions (in the case of Spain going back centuries) to the Rolland/Parker vision of what taste is.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, this book is a must-read.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Secrets to Making Great Barbera

Last Sunday I attended the subject seminar which highlighted the philosophy underlying the Vietti Family Winery Barberas.  The seminar, a part of B-21s Annual Italian Grand Tasting and Sale, was led by Aldo Zaninotto of Vietti Family Winery.

According to Aldo, Piedmont is in the northwest corner of Italy and, being only 20 minutes travel from the Alps, the food and language of the region is heavily influenced by France.  In pointing out the heavy regionality of Italian wines, Aldo laughingly said that the country had only been united since 1871 and was "one country with 30 different states."

After Phylloxera had ravaged the Italian wine industry in the mid-1850s, the grape that was replanted was Barbera. This grape varietal was used to make an everyday drinking wine.  There are three Barbera zones: Alba, Asti, and Monferrato.  Alba has very complex soils, resulting from erosion of old mountains, and tends to produce powerful wines.  Asti wines tend to be more "feminine" and elegant.  Monferrato has soil that is comprised of clay, sand and rock and the wines are not as complex as the wines from Asti and Alba.

The Vietti family name goes back to the 600s but the family produced its first wine in 1876.  In 1890, the eldest son was given control of the estate and the youngest son came to America.  The oldest brother was killed in World War I and the younger brother was recalled to run the estate.  He was successful and re-invested by buying land in the region and, today, the company is a patchwork of sites totaling 87 hectares.

Unlike wineries who engage "fly-in" consultants, the Vietti's touch the wine.  The owner works in the vineyard and then goes to the cellar to make the wine.  The wine-making philosophy is to use the least amount of grapes possible to get the best quality wine.  This philosophy begins in the vineyard where high-density planting is employed. The Vietti's feel that the high density, plus no irrigation, forces competition for resources and causes the vines to penetrate deep into the subsoil.  As the vines go deeper, they tap into more complex minerals and this complexity is funneled up to the grapes.  They begin with 8 clusters per vine but green harvest in August to get rid of the three to four of the largest clusters.  The discarded clusters are left on the ground as fertilizer.  A second green harvest clips the elongated part of the cluster leaving only the "heart" of the cluster for harvesting.

We tasted four Vietta wines as a part of the seminar:  2007 Vietti Barbera d'Asti TreVigne ($15.99); 2007 Vietti Barbera d' Alba TreVigne ($19.99); 2007 Vietti Barbera d'Asti la Crema ($39.99); and 2006 Vietti Barbera d'Alba Scarrone ($39.99).  According to Aldo, the company puts a lot of effort into its entry-level wines because if the consumer likes these wines, they will try the higher-end wines (The winery also makes Barolos).  The TreVigne is made from grapes grown on three estate-owned vineyards.  In the case of the Asti, we get red cherries with good structure and mouthfeel.  The wine has been aged for 6 months in neutral oak and an additional 2 months in Barriques.  The Alba also shows red fruit but is more concentrated than the Asti.  Both of these wines should be drunk within 4 years.  The Scarrone and la Crema are single-vineyard offerings with greater ageability.   Scarrone is one of the oldest Barbera vineyards in that it dates back to 1918.  Both of these wines exhibit great complexity (soil characteristics) and concentration (vineyard practices, harvest time, skin contact).   I purchased both of the single-vineyard wines.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino

I recently went to a seminar at B21 where Vittorio Marianecci spoke about the wines of Casanova di Neri, a 39-year-old Brunello winery owned by Giacomo Neri and located south of the town of Montalcino.

According to Vittorio, Brunelo di Montalcino has grown rapidly from its roots as as a Biondi-Santi-family-introduced clone of Sangiovese Grosso.  Brunello became a DOC in 1966 and became the first red DOCG in 1980.  It has grown from 11 producers in 1968 to 300 producers today with over 2000 hectares currently under vine.  Legal requirements for Brunello include 5 years aging (6 years for Riserva) with a minimum of 2 years in wood and a minimum of 12.5% alcohol.  Stellar Brunello vintages include 1990, 1991, 1997, 1999, and 2000 and ,according to Vittorio, 2006 may well turn out to be the vintage of the century.

Casanova di Neri was founded by Giovanni Neri who bought the property in 1971.  The winery currently consists of 48 hectares divided among four vineyard sites: Fiesole, Pietradonice, Cerretalto, and Cetine.  The estate is site-driven, using these four sites in a cru-type construct to produce three distinctive Brunellos and one Cabernet Sauvignon.  The entry-level Brunello is the White Label, a 100% Sanigovese which is crafted from 35-year-old vines and aged in Slavonic oak for approximately 40 months.  The second wine is the Tenuto Nuova, a 100% Sangiovese made from 35-year-old vines sited in the Fiesole vineyard.  Maceration and fermentation for this wine takes 25 days after which the wine is aged for 29 months in French 500L tonneaus.  The quality of this wine is reflected in the fact that the 2001 vintage was designated as the 2006 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator.  Vittorio revealed that Giacomo was dissatisfied with the grapes for the 2005 Ceretalto and blended them all into the 2005 Tenuto Nuova; something to keep in mind when that vintage is released.

Cerretalto is a 100% Sangiovese drawn from a vineyard of the same name located at 750-900 feet elevation.  Maceration and fermentation takes 20 days and the wine is aged for 27 months in French barrique.  The fourth wine, the Rosso di Toscana, is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pietradonice Vineyard in Tuscany.  The wine is macerated and aged for 15-18 days and then aged in small French oak barrels.

As a part of the seminar, we tasted the '03 ($52.49) and '04 ($69.99) Tenuto Nuova and the '05 ($99.99) and "06 ($99.99) Pietradonice Sant Antimo.  The '03 Tenuto Nuova was bold, exhibiting the ripe fruit associated with a hot vintage.  It has relatively low acidity and is ready to drink at this time. Probably a 15 year life.  The '04 has more elegance and also more acid and will probably need 4 to 5 years before being ready to drink.  Probably 20-year aging potential.  Both of the Cabernets compare very favorably with international Cabernets but they are very robust wines at this time with the '06 requiring the most time of the two before being ready to drink.

Casanova di Neri is a producer of quality Brunello di Montalcino with entries at three market pricing points.  Both the Tenuto Nuova and Cerretalto are in my personal cellar.  Of the wines tasted, if you are looking for a Brunello to drink now, the '03 Tenuta Nuova should be your choice.  For cellaring, choose the '04.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Date With Happenstance

It’s that time of year to barbeque so let's break out those big wines. I’m calling for those red Zin’s, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah’s. These varietals are definitely on the short list.

 Do you love when a good plan comes together? A plan so calculated and well executed that magic happens? Well, magic happened when it came to pairing the perfect wine for an evening invite to a barbeque at a friend's house. Only, rather than a plan it was delivered by happenstance.

The evening's festivities consisted of two good friends, barbeque, sports on the 50-inch, and an '06 Ross Estate Old Vine Australian Grenache.  Who the heck pairs a Grenache with barbeque? I’m not quite sure. I just happened to make my pre-dinner purchase earlier that day so, I thought,  why not give it a go? I’ve had some experience with the Ross Estate Reserve Shiraz and I was very impressed by the quality for the price. This wine came in at $17. A modest price for a wine that spoke so boldly.

On the menu that night was nothing fancy. Ribs in the oven, eventually smothered in KC masterpiece barbeque sauce. I brought the jalapeno poppers wrapped in bacon, baked beans purchased from the new 4 Rivers smokehouse, and the wine.

A little background on the Ross Estate Grenache. The grapes for this wine come from the oldest vines on the Estate at 94 years of age. Shiraz from vines this old can command fairly high prices. Fortunately, Grenache does not assert the same hype as does Shiraz, and the price reflects this. These old vines are not irrigated in this stressful dry Barossa climate. No doubt stressed vines can equal great wine! This wine rests close to a year in French oak. Ninety-one points from the stingy-scoring wine critic Stephen Tanzer was a welcome sight!

The Ross Estate Grenache has a crisp bright red glow. The nose on the wine gives a glimpse of what’s in store. Wafts of spice, bright red fruit, and smoke lead into the palate. The acidity of this wine shows off it’s laser like precision, followed by pepper, wild berries, cranberry and a mineral component. The real magic happens when you incorporate the food.

The ribs and the baked beans both amplified the flavors of the wine (this goes to eleven!).  The wine took on an energy and explosiveness that left me slightly stunned.  I was not quite prepared for the experience and took a brief moment to ingrain it into my memory bank.  I looked at my friend and said I have to blog this. He looked at me like he always does…..a bit worried and frightened. Kidding aside, it’s these spontaneous, unannounced moments that reinforce my love for wine. Until next wine…..

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Wine Quest Premier Dining Experience: Not so Primo

The Wine Quest Premier Dining Experience, held at the JW Marriott on Saturday evening, was one of the most self-serving events that I have ever attended.  It left me speechless but once I regained the use of my senses, I walked out on the proceedings.

The event schedule called for a 7:00 pm champagne reception followed by dinner at 8:00.  A live auction was also included in the evenings events.  In order to have an even fuller evening, four of us decided to take some wine and hang out in the hotel lobby from about 5:30 pm and to then join the Wine Dinner when it began. I took a 1990 Gruaud Larose and Adam took a 2004 Chaves Hermitage Blanc so when we found out that Gloria Ferrer (a sparkling) was being served at the "Champagne" reception, we decided to remain in the lobby and finish our bottles.

At a few minutes to 8:00, we made our way to the event entrance, signed in, and began reviewing the auction items.  Shortly thereafter the call came for diners to take their seats.  As we entered the room I noticed that it was so large that the 250 people and their tables took up about half of the space  (It made it appear as though the event was undersubscribed; even though it was not.).  The room was arranged with a band of covered,  circular tables sandwiched between two rows of rectangular, stainless-steel, uncovered, cold, butcher-block-looking tables.  It was not clear how one was assigned to the tables with the table cloths.  We were not.  The rectangular tables were doubled up so, depending on where you sat, you might need a cell phone to communicate with your table mate.

The first three courses were uninspiring -- a Foie Gras, a beet lettuce, and a duck with undercooked rice -- paired with equally uninspiring wines that did no justice to the cost of entry.  The wines were so pedestrian that Adam went over to Primo and bought a bottle of wine and brought it back to our table.  Our pains were only just beginning though.  Rather than proceed to the main course, the dinner was suspended so that the live auction could begin.  Apparently, last year's auction was held after the dessert course and a lot of people left.  That was not going to happen to them again.  They were going to hold the entire dinner hostage and have their live auction.  Who cares if it is 9:15 pm and you are starving because the preceding courses were famine-sized.

After sitting through six lots, we got up and went to Luma for dinner.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Reflecting on the week's posts, and the events leading up to, and contributing to the success of our San Francisco/Napa trip, I remembered that this all started with Frank Husic's visit to the Wineontheway.com Board Meeting (http://mowse.blogspot.com/2010/04/husic-vineyards.html). The following video of Frank explaining the makeup of his Palm Terrace wine was recorded at that time.

While we were having lunch at Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa, Frank asked one of the servers whether Donna was in. Donna was Donna Scala, one of the owners of Don Giovanni. She came in towards the end of our lunch and sat down with us. Frank introduced us as being from Orlando and she lit up, explaining that she had recently opened a restaurant called La Luce at the Hilton at Bonnet Creek in Orlando. That was cool. After Frank left, she continued to hang with us and offered us a glass of her Sangiovese. Turns out that she has a 1-acre vineyard which had been planted to Sangiovese but is now planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. She gave us a bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon -- called Scala and pictured below -- as a gift. I have not had a chance to taste it as yet. Since returning to Orlando I have checked out the menu and wine list at La Luce and noted that they have a Scala Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon on offer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Husic Vineyards Napa Cabernet: A Vertical Lunch

I know. I know.  This is beginning to look and sound like Shark Week on Discovery Channel.  I did not intend for it to become Husic Week on the blog but so much happened in such a short time.  And it was so goood. 

Prior to our tour of the wine cellar (see previous post), Frank had opened two bottles of Husic Cabernet so that they could breathe before we went to lunch.  He now opened a third.  So we were going to be having '01, '02, and '03 Husic Cabernet Sauvignons for lunch; wines which are no longer available from the winery, except in magnums.  Frank replaced the corks lightly into the bottles, placed the bottles into a wine bag, and we were on our way to lunch.  We travelled in separate cars as Frank had to go back to San Francisco after lunch.  Parlo, being the only passenger, was entrusted with the wine bag and the job of ensuring no spillage as we wound our way down the hillside. 

Lunch was at Bistro Don Giovanni at 410 Howard Lane in Napa.  We pulled in (ample parking) and headed to the terrace as it was a day well suited to outside dining.  The restaurant, according to Frank, has some of the best Trattoria-style food in Napa.  The restaurant has traditional inside dining and eastern and northern terraces, each with its own character and characteristics, for outside dining.

Frank opted for the northern terrace which, in addition to a spectacular view of the surrounding hills, had a view of the fountain and characters in the picture above (I later found out that these were depictions of characters from "Commedia del Artre," a professional form of theatre that began in Italy in the mid-16th century.).

We began by ordering a Fritto Misto (Calamari, Rock Shrimp, Fennel, Onions, Green Beans, Spicy Aioli) and an Antipasti.  Frank wanted a white to accompany the starter so he ordered a bottle of Husic Chardonnay ("I don't eat where they don't serve my wines," he said).  The starters were exceptional and went very well with the wine.

While we were having our starters, Frank instructed our server to bring nine additional glasses to the table and to begin pouring from left to right, beginning with the '01 at the left.  The wines all had excellent color in the glasses and it was all I could do to restrain myself until the "appropriate" time.

For the main courses, Frank had Lamb Meatballs, I had a Risotto ai Funghi, and Parlo had a seared Filet of Salmon.  My meal was excellent and, if the sounds of contentment that I heard escaping from my tablemates were any indication, so was theirs.  We tasted the '01 first and I heard Frank say "This does not taste like a Napa Cab."  He was right.  This wine was all leather and graphite.  The fruit had receeded completely into the overall framework of the wine.  This was a left-bank Bordeaux in disguise.  Frank had the happy, contented look of a master magician who had "done it again."

We went to the '02 next and it had almost a split personality with all of the characteristics of the '01 very evident but wrapped in a more prominent display of fruit and evidence of acidity.  Good round mouthfeel.  The '03 was fruit-dominant and spicy, also with a great round mouthfeel.  Very approachable to the discerning drinker.

These wines are evolving rapidly in the bottle and if they are predictors of what the '05, '06, and '07 will be like in a few years, I am happy with the purchases I have made to date.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Frank Husic: Avid Wine Collector

Frank came up from San Francisco to have lunch with us on Friday.  Once he arrived on property he invited us down to the main house so that he could show us around.  Beautiful structure.  Tastefully decorated.  The things that stuck with me were the entrance, the basketball court at one end of the family room (set up to entertain the boys while the room is being re-designed), an extensive rose garden, and a jaw-dropping wine cellar.

The cellar was the last room that we explored.  Frank approached the door, opened it, and said "Let's go down here."  So we followed him down the stairs into a basement.  The basement was divided into a number of rooms and the one that we were in was stacked waist high with carton boxes and, as far as we could see from our position, so were the others.  Frank walked over to one of the boxes and pulled out a 1961 Lafitte.  The pile with which that carton (by now I had noticed that they were shipping cartons) was associated was all old Lafittes.  Then we went over to another pile and it was Screaming Eagles.  Then we went over to another pile and it was Harlan.  Then we went over to another pile and it was Araujo.  Then we went over to another pile and it was DRC.   And then we went over to another pile and it was d'Yquem.  And this went on and on. All the top wines in the world. 750s, 1.5Ls, 3L, 6Ls, 9Ls.  This was the most extensive private collection I had ever been proximate to.  I tried to be cool but my heart was thumping.  I needed air.  Luckily Frank started walking towards a tunnel (it seemed as large as one of the tunnels linking NYC and New Jersey) that was closed at the far end.  This tunnel, still under construction, ran under the house and came out from underground to connect with the wrap-around terrace on the outside of the house.  So you could be sitting on the terrace, decide you wanted some 1982 Lafitte, and just pop into the cellar and pick it up.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Room with a View

So the dinner is over and we are ready to make our way back to the hotel.  The Husics offer us a ride but I decline (My heels are fine).  Julie insists, however, because, she says, you cannot walk downhill in high heels. So we get into their SUV and are dropped off at the Marriott. Pleasant goodbyes.  When I wake up in the morning, I have an email with all the information needed to get to, and access, the guest house.  I am thinking, these people are scarily efficient.

So we rented a car and drove to Napa.  We were going to be having a late lunch in Yountville with some folks we met at dinner the night before but we want to find our digs during daylight hours so that we can stagger in effectively during the night-time hours.  After turning off Silverado Trail, and wending our way for 20 minutes along a winding country road and two security gates, we finally arrive at our destination.

And what a destination.  The residences (guest and main) sit at the midpoint of the 120-acre estate with the guest house having the higher elevation of the two.  The views are absolutely fantastic.  All of the pictures in this post were taken from the front of the guest house looking out over Stags Leap district.

The picture immediately above shows a partial view of the residence in the foreground.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Husic Vineyards Vintner's Dinner

The subject event was held in San Francisco on June 2nd at the Fleur de Lys restaurant and my wife and I attended.  The restaurant, recognized for the classic French cuisine of Chef Hubert Keller, is located on Sutter Street in the Tendernob district of San Francisco.

We were staying at the Marriott about three blocks down the street from the restaurant so we decided to walk.  Hills are tough on high heels (not mine). The Husic dinner was positioned at the back of the restaurant with guests seated at two parallel rectangular tables in a rear alcove and circular tables arrayed around the alcove opening.  Frank Husic sat at the head of one of the rectangular tables while his wife, Julie, sat at the head of the other.  Dinner was preceeded by a champagne meet-and-greet after which guests were invited to take their seats.

There was very little ceremony or preamble before waiter service was initiated.  We flowed effortlessly from magnificent course to even-more-magnificent course; as did the wine and conversation.  The special menu, prepared by Chef Hubert Keller, consisted of five food courses and five distinct Husic wines:
  • Course 1 -- Buternut Squash Puree, Caviar, Boudin of Guinea Hen & Golden Fried Panisse; paired with Husic Vineyards Chardonnay Napa Valley 2007
  • Course 2 -- Maryland Soft Shell Crab, Dungeness Crab Ceviche, Green Asparagus, Crab and Sea Urchin Emulsion, White Gazpacho & Bacon Brioche; paired with Husic Vineyards Chardonnay Napa Valley 2007
  • Course 3 -- Local California Swordfish, Salsify & Speck, Piquillo Basquaise & Pinot Noir Sauce; paired with Husic Vineyards Chardonnay Napa Valley 2008
  • Course 4 -- Duo of Roasted Lamb Loin and Braised Lamb Shank, Cream of Parsnip, Scallion Fondue, Coriander and Cumin flavored Red Wine Sauce finished with Mint Oil; paired with Husic Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2005 and Husic Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006
  • Course 5 -- Vanilla Flavored Cheese Cake, Lemon and Honey Cup Cake with Chocolate Cream, Champagne Rose Ice Cream & Champagne Gelee; paired with Husic Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007.

The food courses were excellent and were favorably enhanced by the wine pairings.  The 2007 Chardonnay is a wine that I have in my collection and it did not disappoint with its pairings.  The '05 and '06 Cabernets acquitted themselves well with the Lamb course but I have a definite bias for the '05.  I was unable to tell whether the '07 Cabernet overpowered the dessert course because I opted for the wine on its own.

All in all it was a wonderful evening and well worth the trip for us.  The Husics were gracious hosts, fellow guests were similarly pleased, the wait staff professional and service-ready, and Chef Keller came out and joined our party towards the end of the dinner.

After everyone else had left, the Husics, Chef Keller and his wife, and my wife and I, sat at one of the rectangular tables shooting the breeze and drinking wine (Husic wines, of course).  It was during this time that the Husics extended us an invitation to spend the following evening at the guest house on their property in Napa Valley. I accepted (quickly).

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Husic Vineyards News

Last week I attended the Husic Vineyards Vintner's Dinner in San Francisco and then visited with Frank Husic in Napa.  I will cover these events in subsequent posts but, first, some Husic Vineyards news.

Celia Masyczek, who had been the winemaker of record at Husic Vineyards, has been replaced as winemaker by Michael Hirby (pictured at left; http://husicvineyards.com/vineyards.htm).  Michael got his start in the wine business as sommelier at a restaurant named Primativo.  He left for a job at a winery in France but the job did not show up when he did.  He made his way back to the US and got a position as Assistant Winemaker at Behrens and Hitchcock (B&H) in 2000.   While at B&H he married the General Manager (Schatzi Throckmorton) and, soon thereafter, left to become the winemaker at Realm Cellars and, subsequently, to launch their joint label Relic.   In addition to his responsibilities at Relic and Husic Vineyards, Michael is also the winemaker at Winter Wines, Realm Cellars, and D.R. Stephens Estate and consulting winemaker at Sherwin Family Vineyards and St. Helena Road Winery.   No reasons were provided for the winemaker change and it is not clear how differences in style or philosophy will affect the final product.  Michael will be fully responsible for the 2010 vintage.

Beginning with the upcoming bottling, Husic Vineyards will be switching to a lighter bottle for its Napa Cabernets.  Husic has traditionally used the heavier style Bordeaux bottles (a la Shafer Hillside Select) but, according to Frank Husic, the additional weight associated with that bottle type translates into higher shipping costs, costs that he will now spare himself and his wine-club members.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The World Winery Tour

The subject event is being organized by Thw Wine Barn and will be held on Saturday, June 19th, from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando.  The organizers are promising over 300 wines from 150 participating wineries served from 50 tasting stations.  General admission will be $29 and VIP access $60.  For golf and soccer fans, there will be a FIFA tent and a golf tent so that you can watch the US Open and soccer's World Cup while downing (tasting) your favorite beverage.  Sounds like an event to me.

For more information call 407.704.8816.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Some Tidbits

I have been buying wines from Frank Melia of Golden Gate Wine Cellars for a number of years now so, being in San Francisco, I decided to drop in on him.  If you come into contact with Frank, whether in person or on the phone, please be sure that you have an extended period of time to invest.  Frank is rather engaging and  you have to bring things to  head by saying something like "Hey Frank, do you have anything you want to sell me?   Frank's philosophy in wine sales is what he calls a "palatable pricepoint" and a "justifiable pricepoint" and that leads him to selling wines priced between $35 and $60.  His focus is on wines from, primarily, Napa artisanal wineries.

Two interesting tidbits from our conversation yesterday.  He recently had a panel blind-taste six Napa Cabs/Cab-based blends to test price versus customer perception.  The wines tasted were Joseph Phelps Insignia, Caymus, Opus, Inherit the Sheep, Trespass Rendezvous, and Redmond.  The first three are higher- priced Cabernets while the latter three fall into Frank's justifiable-pricepoint range.  The panel rated the wines in the following order of preference: Trespass, Inherit the Shep, Redmond, Insignia, Caymus, and Opus.  This is another example of the maxim "high price does not necessarily equate to best quality."

In discussing Napa Valley's wine price downside stickiness (the subject of my May 31 post),  Frank pointed out that there were two types of winemakers in Napa Valley: those who owned their own grapes and those who bought.  Those who bought grapes in 2005 bought at higher prices and, therefore, had lower margins with which to play.  The recent price decreases by Joseph Phelps Insignia and Caymus reflected the fact that they own their vineyards and, as such, controlled their own destiny.  Frank expects prices to mitigate going forward as grape growers lower their prices in the face of overall lower demand.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Wine Den

The Wine Den, located in Downtown Mt. Dora, is one of the newest wine shop/wine bar combintions in the metro-Orlando area.  Featuring primarily domestic wines, but with a reasonable contribution of wines from the other major wine growing regions of the world, the owners, Christina and Eric Baker, have created a warm, welcoming environment for both the in-and-out shopper and the Saturday afternoon lounger.

The establishment, located at 109 East 4th Street, has been open for a little over 18 months.  Christina had worked as a CEO for a major homebuilding company for a number of years and left after becoming, in her words, "burnt out."  Eric has been working in the electronics industry for a number of years and has traveled extensively as part of his job requirements.  He developed a love and appreciation for, and expertise on, the contents of the vine through exposure on his travels and, when Christina came free from her duties, they decided to put their passion for wines into a business that would allow them to share that passion with others.  Hence The Wine Den.

It is classically outfitted with mahagony panelling backing vertically and horizontally arrayed wine racks.  The bulk of the retail space is in the "front room" which also has a bar that runs along 1/2 of its length towards the back and on the right side as you enter the enter.  A few small two-tops round out the furnisings in this room.  The back sectioon has two large, welcoming, chestnut-brown couches sitting on opposite sides of a large center table.  Additional racking and wines are also located in this area (the bubbles section is located back here).

The Wine Den, with its welcoming owners, varied wine selection, and stable of regular events ( First-Friday tastings, yappy hour, etc.), has attracted a group of loyal regulars who add to the allure of the place (Once they congregate in the front room on a Saturday afternoon it is tough to get to the racks to see what wines are carried but some good-natured ribbing will soon clear you a path to the racks.).

The next time you are in Mt. Dora, be sure to check out The Wine Den.