I’m insanely behind on my posting; more so than I’ve been since I began doing such things. But helping a guy open a restaurant will do that, and I’m quite proud of what we put together, in a very short period of time. While I still have piles of CA content to get to, here are some tasting notes that should have been posted quite some time ago…
[It was] another Monday night at the bar at Apiary and the place is buzzing; not bad for August [yeah, that’s how far behind on tasting notes I am!]. By request, I’ve brought nothing but whites: one long shot, a probable, and a couple of sure things. First, the long shot: Van Duzer Oregon Sparkling Wine Methode Champenoise 1991. I bought this wine for basically nothing at all, from an unverified source, assuming- like the seller- that this wine was likely well beyond its pleasurable drinking window. That being said, 1991 has proven to be one of the longest lived vintages ever for most OR wines that have been around that long, and Van Duzer bottles some high art, on their best days. * And I know I’ve said it 1,000 times before, but it bears repeating that Chef Scott Bryan of Apiary (formerly of Veritas) puts out- every night- some of the best, wine friendliest, food that has ever existed on this vile rock they call Manhattan.
The foil off, and the cork still has some pressure behind it, the CO2 persists, and the initial pour shows a respectable head for a 21 year old American bubbly. It’s pale gold, or brilliant straw, bubblier than expected, and it’s rather captivating immediately. The nose is deeply yeasty, but subtly, not pungent. The palate shows bright integrated Meyer lemon zest over a broadly bready body, with a slightly creamy texture in the mid-palate, and faint mingling notes of raw honey and honeysuckle…. Van Duzer Oregon Sparkling Wine Methode Champenoise 1991 is unquestionably one of the most pleasant palate surprises of the year, to date. At the price that was offered, I should have grabbed the 2 cases that were available…
While unanimously declared a tough act to follow, the hesitating beauty to my right, Roy (Apiary’s Wine Guru), and I moved on to the Vincent Girardin Chassagne Montrachet Le Cailleret 1999. I can’t overstate how universally fantastic and underrated world wine is from 1999. It’s a solid- if not classic- vintage in many major wine regions from the Rogue Valley to Ribera del Duero, and represents many of the last “bargains” from overpriced earth, like that of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
In the glass the the Girardin Chassagne Montrachet Le Cailleret ’99 is as much caramel as gold, though the pictured softness is condensation on the glass, not the telltale cloud of oxidation. The nose is ripe with a damp earthy funk over a building tide of increasingly prevalent salt air. The palate is soft and integrated, with a citrus spike, punctuated by a flutter of honeybell rind, dancing about a tight mineral core. I would love to blind taste this one on a roomful of Burgundy snobs who scoff at such negociant wines.
It would be dishonest of me to give full tasting notes on this Guigal St Joseph Lieu Dit 2007 as I can’t locate my notes on the matter. But I do have a small list of bullets from Roy: “apple, papaya, lychee, white river stones, limestone, calcium- medium long finish, med+ weight.” The wine was quite beautiful and deserves a more considered review, but the above list represents the only primary resource I have from that evening.
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?
Having been an admirer of the wine of St. Cosme (Gigondas Valbelle, in particular) for some time, I was surprised to find out that St. Cosme bottles an unreasonably inexpensive NV table wine of unusual character: St. Cosme Little James’ Basket Press NV. As always, any true student of the game is always learning. I have to thank Daniel Posner of Grapes The Wine Co. for alerting me to the existence of this cuvée, and even more so, for selling it to me at under $10 per bottle, a wholly reasonable fee for the entry level wine of truly great winemaker (Louis Barruol). But this St. Cosme Little James Basket Press is no average ten dollar non-vintage red table wine. It is made in a solera style, meaning that in each vintage new wine is added, such that any given bottling is made up of 50% the most recent vintage, and 50% a blend of all vintages that came before; this one began in 1999. While this 100% Grenache is made up of many vintages and is bottled as a non-vintage wine, the bottling year is listed on the label, and serves as the de facto vintage, without infringing upon the labeling rules of any appellation.
I’m listening to Dan Bern singing “The 5th Beatle” from his Live in Los Angeles album. It’s one of a handful of tunes on the record that Dan has been playing for years, but had never released in a legitimate recording. And while the Live in LA rendition isn’t the very finest I’ve heard, it’s an important moment that is not only lyrically amusing, but it sums up so much of what the best of Bern’s live shows can be. Dan once feared and loathed Los Angeles, as is apparent in “Wasteland” (also included on Live from LA) from his 1997 self-titled debut. He has since moved back to the City of Angels, having contributed key songs to films like Walk Hard and Get Him to The Greek, and he seems to see less darkness in it these days. “The 5th Beatle” is a sincerely rendered comedy impressions routine wrapped up in the guise of a talking blues tune, where Dan hypothesizes what might have happened had the Beatles stayed together, only to have other artists such as Hendrix, Cobain, and Springsteen join them, over the years they never had. And while the whole notion is clearly farcical, if you are unmoved by the fantasy of John Lennon surviving the 80s, then I’m not sure we have much else to talk about.
Two minutes after cracking the screw cap, this 2011 bottling of St. Cosme Little James’ Basket Press NV is already the most interesting red wine under $10 I’ve tasted in all searchable memory. It’s medium dark ruby in the glass and is dominated by lightly floral crunchy red fruit, beneath which stews stone fruit, coffee, and pine tar. Lesser notes of cassis, baking spices, and hints of cedar add to the unusual depth of this sweet and round, if not deep, Grenache. The intermingling multiple vintages beneath the current adds layers, thin but significant, to the structure, like that of a masterfully baked mille crepes. After an hour of breathing time, the wine shows remarkable integration, and is darn near seamless. St. Comse Little James’ Basket Press NV is so good, per dollar spent, and is imported in small enough quantity that I genuinely hesitated in writing about it. After plowing through a half case, I’ve had to remove the remaining six bottles from sight and am looking forward to seeing how they age over the next few years. Future notes will most decidedly appear here on WineGeist. Stay tuned.
After the unexpectedly weighty ’86 Beringer Cab Private Reserve, over world class steak, whose name shall not be spoken, the follow-up (or the closer, if you’re into baseball metaphors) was a Pax Syrah Griffin’s Lair 2002. As those familiar will know, wine is no longer bottled under the Pax label and the new wines from that former partnership now sell under the Donelan Family Wines label, while Pax Mahle, the winemaking partner, currently produces Wind Gap Wines as well as the remarkably concentrated and complex Agharta wines. All legal discord aside, all involved continue to produce and release compelling syrah-based wine. I have not tasted a wine in which Pax was involved that wasn’t a worthy experience and, full disclosure, I remain on the Agharta mailing list.
A quick glance at the few Twitter accounts that Mahle bothers to follow, seems to indicate that he’s down with the hippie music. And since I co-edited Relix Magazine’s tribute to Phish (with Jesse Jarnow), shortly after their disbanding, and penned its lead feature, on the Tom Marshall/Trey Anastasio songwriting team, let’s talk about them. This will likely get me banned from PhantasyTour (is that still a thing?), but it’s not okay to pretend that Phish is the band that they were prior to their post-hiatus disbanding. The millennium show was a profound, albeit drug addled, high water mark; it was the thing that all of those crescendos were building toward. The silence that followed was deafening.
The members of Phish are all unquestionably skilled musicians, but they once wielded the power of the sustained crescendo, unlike almost any other, creating a glorious cacophony affectionately known as Phish Noise, to the nerdiest* of the flock. The best of Phish’ current jams sound a lot more like rehearsed segues, or parts of recycled ones, than the maintained mathematical chaos that once ebbed and flowed between songs. And most of the songwriting since the re-banding is, lyrically and sonically, retread at best. To anyone who insists that Phish is as good today as they were up to the millennium, do a couple of shows dead sober, for a change, and tell me what you hear. The 3 most interesting projects, made by any members of Phish, since 2000’s Farmhouse and The Siket Disc: Mike Gordon & Leo Kottke’s Clone, Mike Gordon’s Inside In, and Joey Arkenstat’s awesome and absurd concept album Bane, “produced” by Mike Gordon.
The Pax Syrah Griffin’s Lair 2002 is deep, opaque purple in the glass, fading to concentrated ruby, at the very rim. There is significant sediment, adding to the depth of the color, and forcing me to curtail my swirling habit. There’s a massive attack of concentrated black and red fruit on the palate, but the lushness of the mouthfeel puts kid gloves on that aggression. After some breathing time, red currant becomes a dominant presence and there’s something just a touch green, hiding in the depths, under layers of smoke and wood, pine tar, and white pepper. The nose is largely of blackberry brandy and glycerine, though with further air, some of the fruit and complexities of the palate become apparent to the olfactory. After a long finish, there’s a slight aftertaste of dry roasted nuts. The Pax Syrah Griffin’s Lair 2002 is fresh(er than expected) and bold and ripe, but much to my surprise, it’s still showing hot enough to singe the hair, but not the flesh, leading me to believe that this wine has at least a handful of good years left in it. Perhaps its best is yet to come.
*Here in Brooklyn, the term ‘nerd’ is a complement. Nerds make all the good stuff.
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.
Jaffurs Syrah, particularly the biggest of the single vineyard releases, has been getting well deserved high ratings of late from some guy named Bob, but Craig Jaffurs has been making and bottling nice Rhone varietals since his first professional releases after the ’94 harvest. I came across a parcel of 6 bottles, not long ago, of Jaffurs Santa Barbara County Syrah 1997, believing there to be a chance that the wine inside had not successfully made it with us, here to the future. They came with good provenance and neck levels, but one never knows how a regional blend meant to be consumed in its youth will weather the years. Of the 6 bottles, all were drinkable, but at least two were outstanding and well worth the gamble.
While certainly past its prime, it’s not by much and the wine is aging gracefully, maintaining a wide flavor profile. It still has its red fruit sweetness, but is clearly into its decline, resulting in a wistful kind of harmony, not unlike a Jayhawks tune. That band has seen many incarnations, but it’s always been a vehicle (particularly since the ’97 departure or Mark Olson) for the songs of Gary Louris, the second greatest songwriter of all time, from Minnesota, next to one Robert Allen Zimmerman. I was just listening to “The Man Who Loved Life” off of the Jayhawks classic album Sound of Lies, also a 1997 vintage. The lyrical imagery is so thick that it’s several stories in one, all punctuated by a foreboding tone that ebbs and flows, and ends, in a cacophony of vocal harmonies and heavy piano chords. It’s as layered and as moving as a profoundly expressed syrah.
Speaking of which, back to Jaffurs Syrah Santa Barbara County 1997. It’s deep ruby, though lightening and growing more translucent. It has surprising weight on the palate for its age and amongst the red fruits, palate smacking tart cherry prevails. With a little more breathing time a portrait of the bottle as a young wine emerges: asphalt, savory herbs, white pepper, anise. What’s left of its tannin is powdery and soft and there’s a slight acidic bite at the beginning of its long finish, letting the palate know that it still has life, but its structure is just beginning to break down.
I have a lot of vices, but wine is my very favorite. I know we aren’t supposed to look at the fact that wine, for all of its other fine qualities, contains alcohol, which is poison, but it does. So, it’s a vice; a beautiful, enriching, encompassing, fulfilling vice. And when one drinks from an older bottle whose contents have made it successfully here to the future, I believe one gains from the wisdom of its years.
There’s a game I like to play with my favorite vice I call: Is This Bottle Still Good? As one might gather from the name, it simply involves opening bottles of wine that are old enough that the odds of true enjoyable drinkability is right around 50%. Usually at home, or occasionally at a BYO or no corkage fee situation, I’ll pull out a handful of such bottles and keep opening them until there is enough living wine to satiate the palates at hand. Last night was the most successful round in recent memory and while it hasn’t yet occurred that I’ve written a post here based on the performance of a single wine, that’s what’s happening right now. The remarkable wine in question was a Chapoutier Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernardine 1983 (not to be confused with Le Bernardin), but we’ll get to the tasting notes soon enough.
Older bottles that I have with which to play Is This Bottle Still Good? are generally ones that were inexpensive enough as to suggest that they are likely past their prime, if drinkable at all. This night’s game began with an old Burgundy that I had acquired for almost nothing which has since been sitting out on the kitchen counter awaiting it’s day. The 1985 Maniere-Noirot Nuits St Georges Les Damodes initially gave the impression that it had little left to offer and would disintegrate within minutes. While unquestionably light, it seemed to develop subtle secondary flavors and a pleasurable back-palate dryness lasting the duration of it’s consumption. Only the last sip that lingered in the glass a bit too long began to show decline. The experience was nice, not thrilling, but nice.
The second bottle, Dominique Laurent Nuits St Georges #1 1995, was the only true casualty of the evening. The neck level was lower than it should have been and the cork was soft. Upon pouring, the color looked good, but that telltale waft of powdered cork spoke the truth that the wine in this bottle was doomed the moment it was sealed. We left it out, as on occasion, the cork can blow off and leave a drinkable palate behind, but this one was adversely affected and there was no bringing it back. Corked.
And then there was the inspiration for this post. The bottle of ’83 Chapoutier Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernardine is beautiful on it’s own as a physical artifact. The label, though well intact, shows it’s age with slight yellowing, and this long since altered label design has a look that is much older than it is, though my 25 year old brother Alex pointed out that the wine was older than he is. The Bassin’s price tag, shows the $8.99 that was paid for this bottle in 1984 or ’85 (not by me) and has become one with the green glass more so even than the labels. While amused by this on many levels, I would be remiss in my duties as the most honest wine writer on the CyberWeb if I didn’t take a moment to discuss Bassin’s (aka MacArthur Beverages) which has been a major player in wine retail in DC since 1957, as the website proudly proclaims.
Bassin’s is the original home of the bait and switch. I have had so many problems with them over the years that a full list would require a separate post. But should you be enticed by their selection and prices, which are both significant, know that you may very well have to personally keep after them to not only complete your order, but to deliver exactly what you’ve paid for. The most egregious infraction came a few years back when two dear friends of mine were married and they had registered with Bassin’s. Rather than select from their registry list I scoured the web site, made my selections and ordered a mixed case of some of our favorite things. Many months later, when visiting that couple at their home in DC, they thanked me for the gift case and suggested we start the evening with one of the remaining bottles. To my horror, less than half of that case were wines that I had chosen and of the ones that were, most were the wrong vintage (but not more recent). There is a huge difference in Napa Cab between 2000 and 2001, the later being significantly better across the board, but the ’01 Miner Family Cab I had ordered showed up ’00. The same couple upon hearing this, said that they too had similar problems with Bassin’s in the past. I do occasionally still order from Bassin’s when they have the best price on the wine I am seeking (most recently some ’95 La Tour Haut Brion), but I always double check price and availability and follow-up. I suggest you do the same, if you must buy from them at all.
But back to Maison Chapoutier and their important work. It should be noted here that the current proprietor and winemaker Michel Chapoutier took over in 1990 and immediately began making some of the region’s finest wine, putting them high in the running for finest worldwide. Before that time, Chapoutier wines showed flashes of brilliance, but were more rustic and much less consistent vintage to vintage. The last time this Old Bottles game had been so successful was upon opening a pair of Chapoutier from ’79 (Hermitage La Sizerannae and Cote Rotie). Those wines were quite beautiful though at the time of consumption were wearing the weight and color of medium bodied Burgundies, ten years younger. This ’83 La Bernardine upon opening showed a dark red, nearly opaque, color that had no intention of relenting and a deep nose of bloody raw steak. From the first waft, it was 10 times the wine that was a still pretty, but lithe and fleeting ’83 Hermitage La Sizeranne from the same parcel, opened last week. The ’83 La Bernardine was simply huge for it’s age and showed significantly weightier than two recently opened vintages of the same wine from the 90s. As it continued to breath, more and more flavors and scents became apparent and at no point did the wine show any signs of drying out. As the slaughterhouse smells integrated, sweetness began to emerge in the form of vanilla and light red fruit, and eventually something floral that evolved too rapidly to pin down. Punctuated by fine spice, lead by white pepper, the subtleties could not even be weighed down by the massive evolving palate of tobacco, bramble, dry earth, and chocolate. Savoring as much as possible with a substance so brilliant, it was still gone before it met the back end of it’s plateau. And we were left to “drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” With apologies to Fitzgerald for brutally misappropriating his words, a wine so stunningly impactful leaves one in a literary melancholy that conjures such notions, this one anyway.
Having just finished one of the finest substances to pass my lips in recent memory and while waxing lyrical about the greatness of the clan Chapoutier, I noticed the last glass inhabiting a bottle of ’95 Chapoutier Banyuls, which had been opened and vacuum sealed weeks before, resting on the counter amongst the liquor. A small number of winemakers quietly produce tiny amounts of fortified sweet wine called Banyuls in four communes of the Cote Vermeille. What remained in said bottle was well worthy of palate consideration and seemed to be showing better than when it was first opened. The nose was all smoky bacon and leather and the chocolatey palate was held together by a deep soft caramel sweetness that was an unqualified delight to sip while reminiscing and somewhat lamenting the last of ’83 La Bernardine.