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 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.
A few weeks back I was invited to a private tasting in Boston, held by a group of three friends (thanks Noah, Steve & Tad!) who take turns hosting themed wine nights for each other and their guests. The premise of the tasting I attended was Cultish Cabs and the line up looked like this:
Since it’s not the clearest picture on this blog, here’s what we tasted (left to right): Whispering Dove Cabernet Oakville 2002, Whispering Dove Cabernet Stag’s Leap 2003, Agharta Syrah (Pax Mahle) 2004, Lail J Daniel Cuvee 1999, Dunn Cabernet Napa 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 2003, Scarecrow 2006, Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. What follows is more of an experiential tale than a set of proper tasting notes as I spent more time enjoying than note taking while amongst these friends.
This particular evening, it was decided that there would be an initial blind tasting, for fun, and after all guests made there guesses, decanters were properly labeled, so everyone would have accurate palate reference. The ’06 Scarecrow and the ’94 Dunn were both the crowd favorites and were the two wines that nearly everyone guessed correctly during blind tasting. As far as I’m concerned, Dunn Cabernet is the classic long lived Napa Cab in the same way that Chateau Haut Brion is the classic Bordeaux. As of this year, Dunn’s ’86 and ’87 Napa Cabs are still drinking quite well, with little sign of their age. This particular ’94 Dunn Napa, while showing beautifully, still has a number of years to improve in bottle, and many left to live. The 2006 Scarecrow, being such a big wine from a recent good vintage (sandwiched in between 2 great vintages), was supple, round, and encompassing. After significant breathing time, it was damn near seamless. There was a waft on the nose and considerable weight on the finish that our host insisted tasted of “vanilla cake”. While I experienced no crumbs, the vanilla (rich rather than sweet) character was undeniable and quite stunning. And while I know the price of this wine is relatively high (bordering on absurd), it’s a truly beautiful product, inside and out.
When I was first invited to this tasting, our fearless host expressed his desire to locate a bottle of Screaming Eagle for around $1200, which is next to impossible, making the cost of said Scarecrow seem quite reasonable. To most mortals, Screaming Eagle isn’t a real wine, but a legendary endpoint of what the highest end of the market will bear (or would bear before the Chinese started paying $1500 a pop for Lafite too young to drink, and then started drinking it). For pennies on those dollars, I brought the two bottles of Whispering Dove which I snapped up with great curiosity back when they were released for around $30/btl.
While every wine opened on this particular evening was well worthy of it’s company, the ’02 Whispering Dove Oakville not only had the most mysterious pedigree of the bunch, but was also 3rd on just about everyone’s blind tasting preference list, and was, by one less experienced taster, mistaken for Scarecrow. To the best of my knowledge, this wine was only produced in 3 vintages from ’01 to ’03, and was very likely different grapes (and likely winemakers) in each release. Rumors that Whispering Dove was in fact declassified Screaming Eagle juice were quickly dispelled, but that didn’t change the marketing boost it got from the false notion. Nor does it change the fact that the 2002 Whispering Dove was most certainly vinified by someone who knew how to handle reserve quality Oakville fruit. And I will likely give my remaining stash another 3 or 4 years before tasting again.
And then there was the obviously out of place ’04 Agharta Syrah, which while cultish, contains no cabernet, and was not part of the blind tasting. Bolstering said cultishness, prior to it’s debut, it was given a 98 point rating by some guy named Bob and before that it was vinified, oaked, aged (58 months!), and bottled (unfined & unfiltered) by a winemaker named Pax. And while Pax himself has said that the just released ’05 is “twice the wine” as is this monsterous and complex ’04 Agharta, he’s almost out of running room on the 100 point scale. I’ve tasted it on 3 occasions and giving notes would require the transcription of a short novel I haven’t yet written. It’s deeply complex stuff that changes dramatically over many hours of breathing and is an experience in itself rather that something to drink with any nameable specific food stuff. Structurally the experience of this debut Agharta is similar to Sean Thackrey’s Orion in that the sheer number of flavors per breathing time makes these wines infinitely faceted (and fascinating) gems. Looking forward to following the evolution of these bottles over the next decade or two.
And I don’t mean to disparage Chateau d’Yquem. There’s a reason it has the reputation it does. Yquem has been producing some of the words finest sweet white for centuries. By the time Jacques Sauvage was granted feudal tenure over Yquem in 1593 special growing techniques and late harvesting were already in practice and the estates finest vintages live for over a century. Very few estates, winemaking or otherwise enjoy such a rich history, which certainly comes with a hefty per bottle tariff, here in the future. For my dollar, if I’m going to spend way too much money on a half-bottle of sweet white, it’s more often going to be a 6 puttonyos tokaji, essencia, or something on which the Austrian genius, Alois Kracher, once had his hands.
Speaking of which, our final wine of the evening was Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. The Mr K series was a partnership of Sine Qua Non proprietor Manfred Krankl and the aforementioned Kracher, which ended abruptly upon Kracher’s untimely passing. Kracher’s family continues to produce the eponymous wines that made him famous. While the SQN Mr K The Nobleman 2002 (Chardonnay) is one of the lighter, thinner wines ever produced under this label, it is still a beautiful, balanced, nuanced, (almost) unreasonably honeyed joy to sip. The ’02 Nobleman is only “lesser” in the way that a mediocre Radiohead record is still worlds better than all of the crap on the radio. This golden wine is a treat on it’s own, but pairs well with a range of cheeses and non-chocoalte desserts, and with residual sugar at this level, the remaining wines may outlive many of us.
Hello Wine Drinkers of the World!
As I actively switch wine related web presence in this direction, previously residing @:
I’m drinking a glass of K Vintners Milbrandt Wahluke Slope Columbia Valley Syrah 2006 (see comically low-fi iphone pic).
The wine is a big concentrated fruit forward full-bodied red, as most Charles Smith wines tend to be. Much of the nose, after considerable breathing time, is still masked beneath a heavy waft of alcohol, but the dark berries that make up the most pleasurable aspects of the palate are beginning to make themselves known to the olfactory as well. I have tasted a number of these wines going back to K Vintners The Beautiful Syrah 2002, which was not just a clever name, and Smith continues to impress at a number of price points, even as those price points creep skyward with each vintage.
While today’s photo quality is poor and these wine notes abbreviated, soon you will find unreasonably in-depth reviews, interviews, research, hi-res images, and video.