Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I have had my last Bressan wine

For a number of weeks I have been watching, with bemusement, the travails of the Italian Integration Minister, Congo-born Cecile Kyenge. In that timeframe she has been damned with faint praise by one Italian politician ("she seems like a great housekeeper"), called an orangutan by another, and had a banana thrown in her direction by an audience member at one of her speeches. This was all disturbing to me but, at the same time, it was far away so the impact was somewhat muted.

It came closer to home last week. According to Dobianchi.com, last week, Fulvio Bressan, one of the leading winemakers in the Collio and Isonzo DOCs of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine region, posted a tirade against the said Minister on his Facebook page. Dobianchi's post, including a translation of the original Bressan post from Italian, can be accessed here.

Why did this strike closer to home? Because of this picture. You see, I have met with,

spoken to, shared a meal, shared multiple bottles of wine, and written glowingly about Fulvio Bressan, his idiosyncrasies, and his wines. I interacted extensively with him over two days in 2011 oblivious to his mindset which equates people of color with simians (revisit the translated post). As I sit now staring at that picture, I feel conned, taken in by a carnival barker.

Why did it strike closer to home? Because it is busting up a construct. I enjoy being a consumer in the wine industry. I enjoy the fact that people are concerned about, and invested in, wines, and wineries, and winemakers. I enjoy the fact that wine is such a great bridge builder; if you bring an interest, everything else is irrelevant. I did a quick search on the internet to see if there had been a similar, recent non-wine-related wine industry scandal and could find none. The Drinks Business lists the top 10 wine scandals and they are all industry-related. Fulvio is attempting to kill the Tooth Fairy.

It boggles the mind that a winemaker -- who is dependent on distributors and retailers to get his wine to the public and on the public to procure same -- would use a social media platform - which is generally used by his peers to promote their wineries and products -- to viciously attack another human being. One wonders about the circles in which he moves and his overall mindset. To harbor those thoughts are damning in and of itself. But to post them in a public forum is the act of someone with the confidence that comes from repeated success or naiveté not befitting someone of his putative stature.

Fulvio you are your family's worst enemy. For eight generations your forbears have striven to make the name Bressan synonymous with great Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine. With one Facebook post you have undone all that work and made the name synonymous with racism and hatred. I do hope that you can truly find a way to rehabilitate yourself but, as a result of your actions, I have had my last Bressan wine.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Coravin wine access system has set my cellar free

The Coravin wine access system was first brought to my attention by Ron Siegel who had encountered the product while dining at 11MadisonPark simultaneous with the restaurant's beta-testing of the product. Ron was extremely impressed and spoke glowingly about the product on his return to Orlando. Based on his enthusiasm, I visited the Coravin website to learn more and, while there, signed up to be notified once they began selling product to members of the public. I had forgotten all about this until Ron recently emailed me his Coravin order confirmation along with a link to the store. The Wine Barn had also received similar notification and Andrew and I both purchased the product on that same day.

We all received our shipment on the same day and were like kids in a candy store. We were examining the product and texting back and forth with each new discovery or question. Andrew was the most adventurous -- or did not have a life -- as he had set up the tool and violated a bottle of wine within 30 minutes of opening the package. He is not one to savor the moment.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Montoya

The Coravin external packaging is slick and pleasing to the eye and this continues through to the interior. Extensive documentation on setup and usage of the product is included in the packaging. The parts of the system (needle and spout) that could potentially be damaged during transit -- or could injure the user if not approached with the appropriate care -- were covered with bright yellow plastic covers which the user was advised to discard prior to system use.

I examined the contents of the package but did nothing further that day. We had a wine tasting that night and Andrew brought his Coravin along to demonstrate its use. The two things that struck me about the product were (i) its ease of use and (ii) the relatively slow rate of flow of wine from the bottle. But this was not a  time for discourse on the topic. We had a tasting to do.

My initial interest in Coravin was driven by my lack of appreciation for the status quo. Outside of wine dinners/tastings, I like to drink a glass of wine or two; sometimes with dinner, sometimes without. In any case, I am forced to open a bottle of wine to meet this need. Because I know that I will not drink all of that wine at one sitting, I go for a low-cost option in order to minimize the cost of spoilage in the event that I do not get back to the bottle in a timely fashion. I do employ a spoilage retardation device (see below) but it has its shortcomings. In this case I am making drinking decisions, not on what I would like to drink, but on financial considerations. And once that bottle is open, the next time I am looking for something to drink, I will gravitate to that open bottle. Not necessarily because that is what I want to drink but because I want to finish it before vinegar kicks in. Coravin promised an end to that. It promised me the ability to tap into any bottle that I wanted to (no more Tuesday-night wine), whenever I wanted to, with retention of the integrity of the contents. I was hooked.

Pre-Coravin wine-access and integrity-retention devices

On Day 1 I hooked up the tool to a bottle of 2009 Fleurie (old habits are hard to break) and extracted my poison. The wine bottle is held at an angle to the glass and a tongue-like flap is pressed for a short period. This injects argon into the bottle and forces wine out through the needle and into the waiting glass. After the required amount of wine is extracted, the bottle is turned upright and the needle is pulled up and out of the cork. As I have noted earlier, the wine flow rate is relatively slow but (i) bearable for a single person or small group and (ii) is a small price to pay in order to reap the promised benefits.

I revisited the same bottle on the second and third days (I was not willing to begin puncturing corks left and right until I was assured that short-term spoilage due to oxygen intrusion was not going to be an issue.) and saw no apparent change in the wine over this period. After extracting each day's portion of wine, I returned the bottle to the cellar and laid it on its side in its designated bin. There was no leakage of wine as a result, proving Coravin's contention that the cork reseals itself after needle-withdrawal. I inserted the needle through the foil on each occasion and that material does retain evidence of needle intrusion but the hole is minute. After the third day I switched to a higher-value wine -- a 2001 Brunello di Montalcino -- and the results were similar.

Post-Coravin wine-access and integrity-retention devices
Because there is some turbulence when the argon is injected into the bottle, I wondered how sediments would be handled by the tool. Would they be fed into the glass? Would they gum up the works by blocking the needle? I directed this question to Greg Lambrecht, Coravin Founder, and he pointed me to a YouTube video on extracting wine from a heavily sedimented bottle. While clear in discussing the steps that one should take when confronted with this situation, the video does not address my question of turbulence and its effect on sediment residence and tool impacts. This is a test that I will probably have to conduct for myself.

All-in-all I am very happy with my Coravin in that it has delivered on its promise in the short term. I am now in control of my cellar. I can drink what I want to when I want to. Wines which I used to look at longingly are now just an insertion away. But remember, this is only one side of the coin. The product has demonstrated accessibility with no short-term issues. I will have to observe some test bottles over longer periods to determine whether the other aspect of the promise (long-term integrity) holds true.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, August 12, 2013

Harlan and Pingus shine at private Capital Grille tasting (Guest post by Ron Siegel)

We met Saturday night at the Capital Grille with our good friends the Edwards and Montoya's to drink some highly anticipated wines, some of which we had never shared together (Harlan and Pingus). It was a great night that lasted more than 6 hours to account for the wines opened, stories told, and sidebar activities (including Andrew demonstrating to us and the restaurant the new Coravin system that we had all just recently purchased).

We started with a white wine flight of  2002 Bouchard Corton Charlemagne  and 2007 Didier Dagueneau Silex. The Corton had lemony and crushed rock notes and the great acidity had it drinking more like a great Chablis than a Corton Charlie. This wine had a more elegant and austere style than the fatter and richer style that I have gotten from this producer in other vintages. This is still a baby and I will save my remaining bottles for consumption several years down the line. The Silex was a real beauty showing lemon, sea shell, grapefruit, and pear with a touch of flint. Really crisp with tart acidity. This wine is probably one of the best Sauvignon Blancs on the planet. 

Our next flight was devoted to Champagne. The NV Krug Grand Cuvée had a light yellow color with a nose of lemon, hazelnut, biscuit, and green apple. This was very refreshing and the bottle was drained rapidly. The 1990 Dom Perignon drank beautifully. I love older vintage Champagnes and this did not disappoint. Nice medium bronze color that almost looked like a rose in the dim light. Some apple, pear, honey and creme brûlée with some mocha and a kiss of burnt orange and pastry dough. Really great stuff!

We kicked off the reds with a pair of Bordeauxs. The 1990 Beausejour Duffau has always been a consistent RP100 wine. That night it showed a bouquet of blueberries, blackberries, licorice and exotic spices with graphite, forest floor, and mocha. On the palate full-bodied, rich with a balanced tannin structure that should allow this wine to drink beautifully over the the next 20 years. The second wine was the 1989 Cheval Blanc. This vintage was a lighter and a more feminine style of Cheval showing nice red berry fruit with floral notes of lavender, olive, green pepper, and soy. I love Cheval and this was a nice treat.

We followed this up with two red wines that were disappointments considering we had high hopes because of the vintage one the one hand and the producer on the other. The 1947 Volnay Lois Lavirotte & Fils exhibited ripe cherry and rhubarb -- a little too ripe, maybe even porty -- with damp earth, mushroom, iodine, and cinnamon. I drink a lot of older Burgundies and this one did not cut it. Very disappointing for a 1947. I have no idea what was going on with the 2000 Conterno Monfortino Barolo as we just had the ‘02 and ‘04 vintages of this wine and both were absolutely stunning and very aromatic. This bottle was completely shut down and not yielding much on the nose or palate. We should have decanted it from the beginning but unfortunately it was popped and poured. Not sure if it would have made a difference. A real shame as Monfortino is one of my favorite Barolo's.

The Rhone flight more than made up for the disappointment of the prior. We started with the 2007 Rayas CDP. What a vintage? Sheer power that will eventually turn more to elegance and finesse but you could tell that everything is there for it to become one of the top vintages of Rayas. Kirsch liqueur and raspberry jam came to mind along with garrigue, lavender, pepper, and Asian spice. I am glad I have a case of this put away while I enjoy the ‘95, ‘98, and ‘00 which are starting to hit their drinking windows. The 2000 Usseglio Deux Freres CdP  had black cherry and violets dominant on the nose. Burgundian in style with some Provençal herbs, earth, and pepper. Very elegant and suave in style. The 1998 Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage was the final wine in this flight.  This vintage had a somewhat slightly muted nose of red fruits, game bird, earth and leather with some meat, violet and iron. This was a lighter and less ripe vintage for La Chapelle as compared to their 1989 and 1990.

The Pingus flight was next in line. I had never tried the wine before, so when I found out that Keith just picked up the ‘07 I thought it would be a good time to open one of the ‘01's that I had in my cellar. The 2001 Pingus exhibited blue and black fruits, cassis, tobacco, chocolate, and pencil shavings on the nose. Classy and very Bordeaux-like, this wine could pass for a 1st growth. Andrew called it a very modern style in Ribera del Duero. I liked it's elegance and balance. The 2007 Pingus had some black and red fruits, spice and cola. It tasted more new world as it had riper and jammier fruit. Fatter and richer in style than the 2001 with a creamier finish. This will turn out to be an excellent vintage for Pingus, it just needs more time. While pricing has almost reached first growth levels the wine is extremely well made and it was a joy to taste these 2 vintages side by side. These were decanted 3 1/2 hours before serving.

Next up and our official last flight, Harlan. 1996 Harlan. Nose of blueberry and black currants with cedar, smoke, tobacco, and graphite. Nice length, and well balanced, just starting to reach it's drinking window I really love the elegant style of this vintage. 2003 Harlan. This again was a contrast in 2 styles where you had a more elegant style versus a riper and richer one. The ‘03 is off the charts with rich blackberry fruit. This is more full-bodied with  bigger and richer fruit than the 1996.  Showing sweet cassis and chocolate with smoke and graphite. I can see why Harlan is considered the First Growth of California, as they are extremely well made. Bill Harlan has one of the best vineyards sites in California and spares no cost in trying to make some of the best wines in the world. A real treat to taste these!

Andrew wasn't finished yet and continued to open more bottles, one being a 1998 Togni which I remembered enjoying but too tired to take notes and another being a really nice NV Champagne made in a Cuvée style.

This was another amazing night with good friends who all share the same passion, enjoying good wine and food and most all having a great time when doing it. This is what it is all about!!!!!

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Book Review: A Vineyard in Napa

In its April 30, 2000 issue, Wine Spectator crowned Araujo, Bryant Family, Colgin, Dalle Valle, Grace Family, Harlan, Marcassin, Screaming Eagle, and Hillside Select as cult wines, placing them squarely at the pinnacle of the US wine industry. Doug Shafer's (with Andy Demsky) A Vineyard in Napa traces the path of Shafer Vineyards from a gleam in his father's eye to that exalted position alongside the most heralded producers in the nation.

While Hillside Select is iconic, the winery and its principals have not received the credit, or achieved the rock-star status, that have accrued to individuals like Robert Mondavi and Paul Draper. The winery has achieved excellence in relative obscurity because its story has not been told. This book is an attempt to begin to address that issue.

At its heart, A Vineyard in Napa is a feel-good, coming-of-age story. It is the coming-of-age story of John Shafer, the patriarch of the family and a reluctant publishing industry executive in Chicago, who piled his family into a car and drove them from Chicago to Napa (the wife had the good sense to fly to San Francisco) and, in so doing, set the wheels in motion for the creation of one of America's greatest wines. We feel good about the way John confronts and overcomes adversity to attain both personal and business success.

John Shafer at 2013 Shafer Premiere Napa Valley event

It is the story of Doug, who left Chicago thinking that he would be spending his time in California on the beach only to find out that Napa was not exactly a beach destination. He initially wanted to teach after college but returned to Napa after overcoming the idealism which had set him on that path in the first place. It is about him coming of age first as a winemaker then as the helmsman of a leading winery with responsibility for charting the business course, navigating the booms and busts inherent in Napa Valley wine production, leading a team, and maintaining the firm's position with customers, vendors, distributors, the Napa Valley community, and relevant governmental organizations.

Doug Shafer keeping a customer happy at a wine dinner

It is the coming-of-age story of Elias Fernandez, the current winemaker. This son of farmworkers went to college and earned an Enology degree and worked tirelessly and selflessly alongside Doug as Assistant Winemaker before eventually being appointed Winemaker and being recognized as Winemaker of the Year by Wine & Spirits and as a leader in the Latino Community in a White House ceremony.

Elias Fernandez (center) at 2013 Shafer Premiere Napa Valley Event

It is a coming-of-age story for Napa which grows from a "backwater" to one of the best-known wine regions in the world; a region whose wines went from Rodney-Dangerfield status to the giant killers of the Judgment of Paris; and a region that has produced some of the legendary names in wine (Robert Mondavi, for example).

It is a coming-of-age story for the winery. Starting as a gleam in John's eye, its first manifestation was as a grape grower. The first wine produced was the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon (single vintage) followed by a purchased-fruit Chardonnay in 1980 and revisiting the Cabernet Sauvignon in 1982. It is a story of steady expansion of the range of offerings while maintaining production at levels which ensured that they were not overextending and adding beneficial technologies and practices (solar and sustainability, for example) in order to improve operational efficiency and effectiveness.

The narrator of the story is Doug Shafer who, having grown up with Napa, Stags Leap District, and the winery, is eminently qualified to tell the story. I have met and interacted with Doug on many occasions over the years -- Premiere Napa Valley events (barrel tasting and auction as well as events at the winery), at distributor tastings in Florida, and at a dinner held in his honor at my home -- and his unselfish, inclusive nature is reflected in the book. He distributes credit for the success of the winery where it belongs rather than using the book as a vehicle with which to hog the limelight. His humbleness and willingness to reach out and engage across the spectrum is one of his endearing (and enduring) characteristics.

Despite the book's liberal use of footnotes and citations, a comprehensive index, and publication by the University of California Press, this is no scholarly tome. Rather, it is a conversational, accessible romp through the growth and maturation of the family, the vineyard and the region. More Yahoo News than New York Times, it is characterized by short, punchy chapters and a very personal story telling style. This is a quick read. And you will feel better for having done so.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme