Calera had, reasonably quietly, been making one of the finest inexpensive Pinots in CA, until this vintage, when some Italian dude stamped it with 92 points and told one of the largest wine buying audiences in the world that Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast 2009 “may very well be the single finest value in American Pinot Noir.” And it’s definitely up there. I know Calera’s single vineyard Pinots are renowned wines of fine character and notable longevity (I am cellaring a number of them), but at $65+ for Jensen and Selleck Vineyard bottles, the opportunity cost is substantial. If you’re planning to drop $70 on a bottle of wine, the options for greatness are many, unless you only drink Burgundy, and then I kinda feel sorry for your limited options and your dainty palate (and your wallet). But Calera’s introductory level offering is unparalleled, at the $19.99/btl I recently paid at retail. And while I can’t speak to the longevity of the pretty glass ‘cork’, I can say that a 1997 vintage of the same wine (enclosed with traditional cork) showed beautifully not 2 years ago.
Searching the YouTube for a specific Jill Sobule show, I find a number of earnest young girls covering her delightfully crushing “Mexican Wrestler,” which warms my black little heart. But who the hell is Emma Roberts and why do these little chicks think she wrote Jill’s awesome song?! Apparently, that’s Nickelodeon’s fault. Roberts’ (or her producer’s) lyrical changes unforgivably replace fleeting subtleties with sophomoric hyperbole, for the intended target market. Though I get why it would lack rational continuity if a teenager reminisced fondly being 21. I hope Jill at least got a decent royalty check out of the deal. And no lyrical rearrangement could be as disappointing as finding out that Katy Perry’s single “I Kissed A Girl”, about which I had heard upon release, was not a cover of Jill’s 1995 hit single at all. After that and Perry’s “California Gurls” (no relation to the Beach Boys tune), it quickly became clear what borrowed name recognition and a little t&a could do for one’s profile. But in the end Katy Perry is just tabloid trash and Jill Sobule is a lifelong storyteller, high up in the storied pantheon of New York’s singer/songwriters (and higher up in my personal pantheon). True she’s done some time in LA, but Jill Sobule and New York belong to each other. By the way, this is the performance I had been looking for: La Java, Paris 3/16/2010. Enjoy.
But back to Calera Pinot Noir 2009, and it’s unusual glass cap: The seal is good, and the capsule tight enough and difficult enough to remove so as to appear structurally sound enough to age, under proper climate control. That being said, I have now had a number of bottles of this wonderfully under-priced pinot, and I have found greater bottle variation than I would expect. I haven’t come across any vinegar or identifiable oxidation, but some bottles have shown more predominant red fruit than others where an earthy wet funk (just shy of swampy) persists, so much so that I’m hesitant to give specific tasting notes on this one. This is all the more curious for the amount that I enjoyed each bottle, regardless of variations. It’s a good reminder though how much bottle variation does exist and that all tasting notes are just one persons opinion of one bottle’s opinion of any wine, in a given moment. The most common thread between each tasting of Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast 2009 is bright, but substantial and gripping, red cherry, which was immediately reminiscent of a recently tasted bottle of Laetitia Pinot Noir. No surprise, said vineyard was the source of over 30% of the fruit for this regional blend. So, I’ve drunk through the bottles that I’ve allowed myself (really not much beats this one at $20), but I did manage to squirrel some away. I’ll be checking back in on the progress of the wine and the medium-term stability of its all glass seal.
I often say: Nerds make all the good stuff. Which makes sense, because smart people tend to find and create interesting processes and products at a much greater rate than those less cerebrally gifted. Amongst winemakers, there are few nerds on the level of Sean Thackrey. He maintains, translates, and makes available his renowned collection of ancient texts on winemaking. He also gleans techniques from them with which to experiment on worthy grapes, here in the future. At their best, Thackrey’s results are world class, by any scale or measure. I don’t often defer directly to a media outlet (nor do I like to post links w/ ads), but I couldn’t possibly reTweet you a better instagram of the winemaker and the iceberg tip of his philosophy than did Chow.com in video form. Go watch it. Seriously. I’ll wait….
So, I don’t have new tasting notes on any specific Thackrey wine, but I did learn that the proprietor of Spuyten Duyvil, Fette Sau, and most recently St. Anselm, here in Brooklyn, is the second biggest Thackrey nerd in Brooklyn. A couple of conversations later, St. Anselm has the most extensive selection of Sean Thackrey wine of any restaurant on earth, including the non-vintage Pleiades, Andromeda Pinot Noir, Sirius Petite Sirah, and 6 vintages of his flagship California native field blend, Orion. St. Anselm already had one of the best small wine lists in Brooklyn, now one can find well aged bottled gems to accompany serious cuts of grilled meat. Apparently the (various) whole fish is excellent as well, but we all have our priorities. Mine is finding the perfect syrah to pair with lamb saddle and rib eye.
At St. Anselm last night, enjoying the delightfully accompanied meat monster on grilled bread they call a patty melt, the soundtrack added quite a bit to my burger and my day: Hendrix’ “Bold as Love” the semi-title cut off his masterpiece, Axis Bold as Love, the greatest record ever made. After my Jimi moment, I was reminded that Frank Zappa was not only an actual genius at writing and arranging music, but he could be laugh out loud funny in a Steven Wright deadpan on acid sort of way (Zappa hated drugs!): “Bobby Brown Goes Down” from Zappa’s 1979 Sheik Yerbouti. And if you want to throw some crap around about how silly the album title is, go take a quick peak at what else the record companies were pressing that vintage. I mean, whatever happened to Randy Vanwarmer?
Wait, what was the question?
I had only recently stumbled upon and found significant fascination in the Burgundy of Denis Mortet when I heard the news that he had taken his own life, early in 2006. It was his ’96-’98 Gevrey Chambertin Lavaux St. Jacques which first struck my palate’s interest. I had ordered but not yet received a parcel of his Gevrey Chambertin from the mid ‘90s and upon the news, I snapped up what else I could. To experience the wine of a deceased master is a glorious indulgence, finite and fleeting. It’s both a celebration of life and an acknowledgement of loss and of mortality, and I afford great respect to bottles from winemakers like Denis Mortet, David Lett (The Eyrie Vineyards), and Alois Kracher.
All that Nico, John Cale, Lou Reed, and Velvets en masse, that has been injected into my now through the grace of David Byrne Radio, got me seeking out other semi-related cool tracks. After pulling up Nico’s cover of “These Days,” which was so artfully appropriated by Wes Anderson for the soundtrack of The Royal Tenenbaums, I found other thoughtful renditions of the same. While I knew that tune was originally by Jackson Browne, I didn’t know that he wrote it when he was 16, until he told me. Then YouTube informed me that Elliott Smith (2nd Tenenbaums soundtrack connection) also covered that track live, which thankfully some nerd posted, and I also came across a pretty and breathy version by St. Vincent. But as YouTube giveth, YouTube also taketh away. Apparently, the Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi, Nate Dogg, Alien Ant Farm, and Rascal Flatts have all recorded “songs” with the same title as (but otherwise unrelated to) the Jackson Browne classic, each one more soul crushingly worthless than the last.
The Denis Mortet Gevrey Chambertin en Motrot 1997 is bright, though softening, translucent ruby in the glass, and there’s just a touch of sedimentary cloud to the color, but no signs of oxidation. The first waft is of an earthy, flirting with swampy, funk, though the latter begins to wane with air. The palate is of dry raspberry, subtle tart cherry, leather and ancient cigar tobacco. This is a refined medium-bodied pinot and there is a greater overall presence and depth here than has been found in other recent lithe ’97 Burgundies. As the swamp dries up, damp fall leaves remain, and an encompassing, but not overwhelming dryness approaches the palate. And the last glass is raised to the memory and fruits of a tormented master.
I enjoy both Whitcraft as a winemaker and Stolpman Vineyards for their fine syrah. I am more familiar with Witcraft for their pinot noir and recently, a nearly decade old Whitcraft Pinot Noir sourced from Bien Nacido Vineyard showed quite favorably, at my table. So, when Whitcraft Syrah Stolpman Vineyard 2007 came up on the boutique flash discount site Lot18, at the lowest available price in the country, I grabbed enough to qualify for free shipping. Speaking of which, Whitcraft Pinot Noir Bien Nacido 2007 is up on Lot18.com right now, expires soon.
I’m listening to Rana’s “Carbombed Again” from their Here in the USA album. Members of Rana are involved in multiple other bands and projects now, though they do occasionally still play together here in the NYC. About a decade ago, they were actively writing effective songs, rocking hard every time out, and packing a small circuit of local clubs. During the stripped down rock resurgence of that time which birthed the White Stripes and the Strokes, Rana seemed poised to get as big as they desired/deserved. Their best stuff like “Carbombed” and “Backstage Pass” sounded undeniably anthemic in their moment(s) and, as of today’s listening, they stand the brutal test of time, like champions.
Having sampled an assortment of Stolpman syrah as expressed by the winemakers at Ojai, Arcadian, and at Stolpman Vineyards, I know that they grow world class grapes. This Whitcraft Syrah Stolpman 2007 is yet another worthy expression of said lovely fruit. It’s deep, dark, almost opaque red, heading toward black. Is Vamp still a color? The experience opens with a nose of smoked meat and morning fog. The palate is predominantly dry black raspberry and the mouthfeel is lush; it’s dense and brambly, but not biting. This is big, high alcohol (14.9%) syrah, that manages to stop short of brooding. It’s surprisingly integrated for a wine of it’s youth and build, but much of the palate is yet to evolve and it will most certainly benefit from another few years in the cellar, and will likely drink quite well for another decade.
It’s been hot lately, here in Brooklyn, and I’ve been drinking more white than usual; most recently a Sanford Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2007. Back when Sanford Chardonnay made a cameo appearance in Sideways, it was still owned by the fellow whose name is on the bottle (Richard Sanford). Now a Terlato Group property, they’re still producing bottles with nice wine under those old labels.
I’m listening to Megafaun’s Gather, Form & Fly, which opens with a gorgeous instrumental called “Bella Marie”. These guys are as comfortable with the acoustic weapons of Americana and thick harmonies as they are with coaxing a subtle background loop out of a laptop. The result is a record as deep of orchestration as in sheer range, and reassurance that nerds make all the cool stuff. “The Fade” is the closest I’ve heard to a CSN moment in any band that’s currently vital. “Worried Mind” is their campfire ballad that’s often performed without amplification. The album ends with “Tides” which is sleepy as a lullaby yet somehow urgent. If I were deliberately pairing these musical tangents, Gather, Form & Fly would have been perfect with that sweetly off-beat Dettori Bianco.
Now back to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress. Sanford Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2007 is pale gold in the glass with just the faintest tinge of green. The palate and nose are in relative harmony, wearing well Bartlett Pair and lemon zest. It finishes with a crisp acidity and is wholly food friendly. As the wine warms toward room temperature and breathes a little, the mouthfeel gets richer and leaves behind that tip of the tongue dryness, but mostly it’s just a pretty summer wine. Their single vineyard bottle sourced from La Rinconada is a more substantial offering, but at the next price point, and more importantly, a story for another time.
Tenute Dettori is best known for the unusual, rustic, and outstanding estate old vine cannonau (Grenache) they produce, most notably their oldest vine, flagship bottle that sells under Dettori Rosso. Unfortunately, their release prices have more than doubled in the last couple of vintages and I can no longer in good conscience recommend the Dettori as a $150 bottle, though it does compete favorably against other over-priced Italian reds. And had it not been one of my favorite wines in the world at around $55, I wouldn’t have taken the price increase(s) so personally. However, should you come across any remaining stock of ’01-’04 at a lower price, or should you see any overpriced ’05s showing up on close-out sales, grab what you can. That wine is serious, high alcohol, bold, brooding, bordering on monsterous stuff; and the 2001 is still aging nicely.
I’m listening to Dan Bern‘s Fifty Eggs album (1998), produced by DIY folk goddess, Ani DiFranco. Bern himself sees this album as a specific moment in time that, at last check, he still had mixed feeling about, but there are so many reasons to dig this record. From a songwriting perspective, Bern was at the height of his aggressive surrealism, which is most apparent on “One Thing Real” and “No Missing Link“, the former of which finds Bern chewing over existence and song craft with Van Gogh and Jesus Christ. The latter poses an alternately profane theory of evolution. While the comedy and philosophy are thick beneath Bern’s Dylanesque vocal tone, it’s “Oh Sister” (Not to be confused with Dylan‘s 1976 “Oh, Sister” which Andrew Bird covers on Soldier On) and “Rolling Away” which humanize the deliberately reality-challeneged storyteller. Back in LA, Dan Bern has recently been contributing songs to films such as Walk Hard and Get Him to the Greek, work for which he was genetically engineered, but he still puts on a wholly entertaining show, when he feels like touring.
Back to Dettori Bianco 2006, which is obviously neither clarified nor filtered. As pictured, in the glass, the wine is a hazy, murky, deep orange gold; looking as if the wine were 10 years older and had been cellared in a hot attic. It’s high in acid, but not sharp with it, making this wine technically food friendly, though the floating orange/brown particles of dead yeast (also the name of my new punk band), which add to its foreboding appearance, might frighten away your meal. The nose wafts powerfully of apricot liqueur. The palate is sweetly funky, undeniably weird and pops with apricot, but there’s a lingering mid-palate note of an earthy cheese that’s most of the way toward blue. This wine is a walking contradiction from first glance, smell, and taste, but its an enjoyable experience. The acid grows over time and with some more air, the wine becomes softly briny, like miso soup, with notes of caramel and yeast, crossing the sweet with savory, making Dettori Bianco its own experience. This is also the sort of wine that can vary greatly bottle to bottle, making it necessary to taste 2 or 3 of them to really get an idea of the full quality and range it possesses.
The wine I was most excited to open with that glorious cheese selection from Bedford Cheese Shop was a Rutherford Hill Vintage Port 1986. I’m a big fan of high quality US dessert wines and this is one of the most port-like “Ports” I’ve ever encountered. There are an enormous amount of fabulous stickies bottled not only up and down the west coast, but sweet white is one of the few things they’ve been getting right in parts of New York for a long time. Often batches of California dessert wine are pet projects of wineries known for other things and production is often so small that if you don’t specifically ask, you’d never know they existed. I often come across such small batch wines in collection and consignment offers, which was how I originally discovered the dessert wines of Williams Selyem and Shafer. Over the years Phelps has produced a number of beautiful stickies such that I can recommend you purchase and taste just about any one you can find.
Warren Zevon‘s posthumous Preludes: Rare and Unreleased shuffles up on the itunes and I remember how much one can miss a guy he never met. Preludes is made up of selections from the tapes that Zevon’s son, Jordan, found in an old suicase, shortly after Zevon’s death. Warren Zevon was one of the great American storytellers and these earliest recordings show just how good he already was early on in his career, though on the charmingly raw version of “Carmelita,” it’s clear that guitar was his (distant) second instrument, to the piano, at which he was masterful. The previously unreleased “Rosartita Beach Café” sounds like something he might have written after a minor bender with Hunter Thompson, but I’m fairly certain they hadn’t yet met and become friends. “Rosartita Beach Café” was torn from the same moment as “Desperados Under the Eaves,” the version of which resides on Preludes is crushing. For my music listening dollar, it doesn’t really get any better. And the next glass is raised to Warren Zevon.
After hours of breathing, there’s still a solid alcoholic bite to the Rutherford Hill Port 1986, but the palate is broader and brambly, unquestionably lush, and surprisingly grapey for it’s age. It’s a big wine and age hasn’t taken that away. It’s thick with chocolate and black pepper, wild herbs, wintergreen, and a hint of caramelized sugar. This is a wine that would have worked as well with a rich flourless chocolate cake as it does with the various cheeses. It would be a crime on one level, but this ’86 Rutherford Hill Port would make a stunning reduction for a world-class marbled cut of beef. And damned if sipping it doesn’t make me want one of my 10-12 annual cigars; Montecristo #5 please, if anybody’s running to the shop… in Havana, or Montreal, or Mexico City, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Moscow, or Zagreb…
Epilogue: Beautiful as it was that evening, thanks to my trusty vacu vin, the ’86 Rutherford Hill Port was drinking even better the next day and the rest of the week, once the alcohol integrated had properly integrated.
T-Vine Zinfandel Napa 1999 was the next in the ever darkening wine lineup. This one is fairly big and is ideally suited for the rich [Bedford] cheese [Shop] plate, also standing its ground against the accompanying cured and thinly sliced meats. First, a vintage note: 1999 is an underrated vintage for much of CA (as well as for Bordeaux). So many different varieties of wines originating from Santa Barbara to Bolinas are fairing far better than their ’98 and ’00 counterparts and represent a significant value over the much hyped (and excellent) ’97 and ‘01/’02 vintages flanking them. As for Bordeaux, 1999 represents the last solid vintage to still occasionally be available at a significant price break from every vintage that has come since (minus the much maligned 2002), and they are aging beautifully.
Up on the itunes, the shuffle finds our ears flooded with the twangy strings and lush harmonies of Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band) & Chris Castino‘s (The Big Wu) Songs From the Tin Shed (2004), from the pre-master recording. The music ranges from Sad Cowboy to Hillbilly, the tone from wistful to joyous, and includes a small handful of well placed covers amongst the majority original tunes by Austin and Castino. While Songs From the Tin Shed is far less known than the records (and live shows) of Yonder Mountain String Band or The Big Wu, the quality of its execution and heights of its sincerity will continue find its way to and delight ears- with a propensity toward twang- for generations.
Back to our regularly scheduled program:
T-Vine Napa Zinfandel 1999 is toward the shallow end of full bodied in color with a broad mouthfeel and long lingering acidity. There’s a piney sweetness and something ruggedly floral, like the unlikely offspring of a honeysuckle and some mutant wild thistle. This wine both grows in depth and softens in mouthfeel as another hour of air expands its horizons. T-Vine continues to quietly make very serious small batch wine in a number of varietals, both blends and single vineyards, including the recent addition of a Grenache from the incomparable Paras Vineyard. If you have not already, T-Vines is highly worth looking (and tasting!) into.
Sean Thackrey Pleiades Old Vines 1992 is an unusual wine, even by Sean Thackrey standards. Thackrey is a self-taught winemaker who borrows many of his techniques from the most ancient texts on the matter, of which he has the foremost collection, which Thackrey continues to slowly translate and post to his website. Pleiades is his lowest cost release and contains different percentages of different varietals every year, often from different vintages.
Beck’s never released demo, Don’t Get Bent Outta Shape (1992), comes over the itunes and harkens back to that glorious decade (’92-’02) before his records started to suck. A Sea Change indeed. Then on to One Foot in the Grave, Beck’s lowest-fi official release, recorded largely on a 4-track and a delightfully out of tune Silvertone guitar. This was also recorded in ’92, but was released in ’94 after Mellow Gold and its big single “Loser” brought Beck instantly to the mainstream.
I’m not saying one can’t *like* Beck’s new stuff (Guero and everything since). It’s certainly snappy and catchy and it’s easy to do the robot to, but he was a decade late on that whole video game sounds thing. The best of Beck’s new stuff sounds like tracks that might have remained on the cutting room floor during the Midnight Vultures sessions in lieu of the weightier cuts that made that album real. Conversely, what made Beck’s previous stuff so great was that it was deep and rich (lyrically and sonically), but had the pop sensibility to appeal to the radio and its spoon-fed surface listeners.
Sean Thackrey Pleiades ’92 is the only example I was able to locate of Thackrey blending this wine from numerous varietals of the same vintage. Pleiades is a wine that is not only different every vintage, but can vary greatly bottle to bottle, particularly with age as this is a wine meant to be consumed in its youth. This one displays a touch of oxidation, but is by no means turned. It’s denser, with a more syrah-like chewiness than other bottles from the same case. It’s softer, chocolatey, half way to a colheita three times its age. In the glass, the wine is red/brown, tapering to clear watery edge and of medium body (light by Thackrey standards). It shows fall earth, ash, red berries, dry cigar tobacco, and leather. The large perplexing nose is almost Burgundian, but denser, saltier, and with a touch of menthol. The palate is unearthly smoky, like a long lived Gigondas with a ghost of eucalyptus on the finish. Sean Thackrey Pleiades ’92 is full and broad of mouthfeel, but the fruit has receded almost entirely leaving pepper and cumin nearer the topnote than ever was intended. While these ’92s are in the twilight of their years, the non-vintage Pleiades XIV through XVIII are drinking beautifully right now. I’m not sure a more interesting wine exists, at the price point.
Over a selection of tasty cheeses, meats, olives, and accoutrement from the Bedford Cheese shop, including an irresistible bliss in the form of a triple crème called Pierre Robert (thanks Chef Jacqueline!), a series of well aged wines were tasted. During this luxurious palate exercise the mp3 library played of a many generations old imac that still lives, by some act of G(Steve Jobs)D, functioning solely as a jukebox of randomness and a DVD player. Notes on the wine and music consumed begin now:
Ken Wright Pinot Noir Carter Vineyard 1997 is deep, but softening garnet. Just as a touch of purple seems to appear in the center, the nose emerges and the olfactory overtakes the thinking mechanism. Is this a high pedigree Gevrey Chambertin? The most successful expressions of Oregon grapes, such as this one, taste like their own corner of that land in a way that the finest Frenchman with the finest palate for Burgundy will never understand.
And it never ceases to amaze me what one can acquire in a few Google searches and a few minutes of time, as the Beatles live at Budokan ‘66, rises from the speakers, pre-pubecent screams first. It’s unbelievable to be able to hear the greatest band of all time at such a formative formative stage, audio problems, vocal slips, and all. The shrieking really is intense though, almost deafening at times and indesciminant. My mom was a huge Beatles fan as a kid and saw the them a couple of times. She loved the music, but didn’t understand the screaming, and was disappointed at how little she could hear of the music over the spastic shrill din. Perhaps this is why I’ve always taken such joy when Mike Doughty or Jeff Tweedy berates an audience that pays the ticket price to aggressively not listen. There really should be a constitutional amendment banning the yelling of ‘Freebird’ in all music venues across this great land.
The ’97 Ken Wright pinot Noir Carter Vineyard continues to waft singular moments of the Pacific Northwest into the room. The nose is huge and the palate deep: wet earth, damp embers, and a little sea air, on a thick humid morning. In the glass, there’s smoke, soft earth, and tobacco. It’s subtly floral (violets?), fresh herbs, terragon, fennel fronds, and there’s something ¾ of the way down the road to eucalyptus. The wine has a very long finish, for an American Pinot Noir if its age, and the empty glass continues to echo that glorious nose. I have never met a Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed, and this one ranks high up in greater pantheon of American wine.