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Deep into 2004 Napa Cab and Deeper into David Byrne Radio (part 1)

August 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Classic Napa.

Digging through a case of predominantly dry red half-bottles, I pull a Ruston Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004 and a Flying Horse Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004. I have been a regular buyer and proponent of Ruston Family wines ever since stumbling across their Bordeaux-style flagship blend, La Maestra, from ’01 and ’02, releases I am still hoarding in multiple formats (which are aging quite nicely). Since they have only been making this wine for a little over a decade, it has been (and continues to be) especially interesting to follow its aging progress.

Serious juice, nice presentation.

I’m listening to David Byrne’s current playlist as streaming from his website. Byrne’s selections usually involve obscure, often instrumental, and more often than not, vocals in tongues other than English. But today, I seem to have caught dear David in the midst of a melancholy rock block of Nico. When I ducked in, it was “Valley of the Kings” playing, which makes thick textural chaos of its slow tempo, and features Nico’s signature haunting, accented, charmingly dour vocals that are now inseparable from the image of Margot Tenenbaum. Then came “Afraid” and “Chelsea Girls”, which I had little time to digest before being interrupted by a voice that could only be Lou Reed, in his post-Velvets solo years.

In general, Ruston produces small batch primarily Cabernet-based wines that tend to drink above their actual price point(s) and this Ruston Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004 is no different. This blend of 66% Rutherford fruit, 34% Oakville boast blackberry brandy, dry raspberry, cassis, damp fall earth, tobacco, and crushed nuts. There’s a fair amount of alcohol on the nose, but the palate is much more nuanced and refined. Tannin still looms large, but it is integrating well, and this wine has the structure to age well for a decade more. There is now a textural roundness that is so exemplary of good Rutherford Cab, once it has truly begun to settle into itself. Ruston Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2004 ($40) is a solid value per quality and is an ideal wine to accompany a properly seasoned steak.

Spanish Secrets Under the BQE and the Mountain Goats’ Hyperbolic Sadness

August 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Today I’m tasting a bargain Spanish blend, Cataregia Gran Resereva 2001, picked up at my favorite local wine shop, here in my corner of Brooklyn, BQE Wine & Liquors. I don’t mind letting one of my neighborhood secrets out because they neither ship out of town nor deliver locally, so anybody that wants to take advantage of their excellent selections and prices will have to walk in, just like everybody else in the 11222. So much has been said (rightly so) of the 2001 vintage in most of Spain (especially Rioja and Ribera del Deuro) that finding a Gran Reserva for under ten bucks makes me cautiously optimistic.

I’m listening to the Mountain Goats’ (John Darnielle) “Autoclave” from their (his) Heretic Pride album. Mountain Goats is basically one guy, John Darnielle, who always plays as the Mountain Goats, regardless if he’s playing solo or with supporting players. While I know that so many of his long-time hardcores prefer his stripped down man-and-a-guitar stuff, and I can see the slick production rubbing some of these folks the wrong way, but the songwriting remains as remarkable as always. “Autocalve” has the awesome dichotomy of an upbeat, hooky tune and profoundly sad and deeply isolationist lyrics.

Cataregia Gran Resereva 2001 is 70% Tempranillo and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and initially it tastes like mature Tempranillo and immature Cabernet in the same glass, somehow not blended; integration does occur, over time. The nose immediately hits with raspberry, which becomes sweet and ripe with some air in it. There are also notes of tobacco, tar, and a dusting of powdered black pepper. The alcoholic bite which initially lingers in the olfactory, integrates after an hour of oxygen contact, revealing a touch of vanillin and wildflowers in the negative space of the glass. This is really quite a nice wine for the fee. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find a 10 year old wine from a marquee vintage for ten bucks. I’m going to go buy a few more bottles before I post this.
Happy hunting!
WineGeist

Hot Nights in NYC: Rampolla Sammarco ’94 at Novita and Sex Mob Does Bond

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

A fitting label for a classic Italian red.

Amongst some of the finest, most consistent Italian food in New York, at Novita, I braved the $28 corkage fee and brought a bottle of Rampolla Sammarco 1994. Castello dei Rampolla Sammarco is the original bio-dynamic Super Tuscan, predating (1980) the much more hyped (and expensive) Ornellaia, both of whose vines reside deep in the heart of Chianti Classico, also next door to Sassicaia and Solaia. As far as I’m concerned Rampolla Sammarco is one of the classic Italian red wines and it has always felt like an Italian take on Bordeaux to me, encompassing a cabernet-based structure and a deeply earthy berry character.

I’m listening to Sex Mob Does Bond. Sex Mob is a New York based jazz quartet lead by Steven Bernstein and his slide trumpet. They don’t play together as often as they used to, largely because each of the band’s members is involved in so many other bands and projects, but when I first moved back to Brooklyn from Seattle, Sex Mob was regularly playing the midnight set at Tonic (RIP) for $5. I don’t believe I’ve since spent better entertainment dollars. Sex Mob does Bond is a collection of interpretations of John Barry’s legendary soundtrack work from the James Bond film series, taken to the jazz club level. The resulting record maintains both the power and subtlety of the original John Barry orchestral compositions while completely transforming the language by which they are conveyed, renewing the vitality of their spirit.

Work, work, work, all the time.

Rampolla Sammarco 1994 is rich with black and red fruits, ash, underbrush, pine needles, a dusting of white pepper, a hint of menthol, and wisp of chalkdust to the nose. There are also notes of overripe raspberry, tobacco, cedar, and after an hour+ of breathing time, smoked bacon emerges from the depths of the glass. The finishing mouthfeel is as dry as the Sahara. This ’94 Sammarco is far more integrated than a recent ’95 of the same, which is still a tannic monster, begging for several years more of cellaring. Conversely a recent ’93 Sammarco tasted 10 years older and was showing soft, powdery tannin, giving it that old cabernet (in a good way) feel. This ’94 Rampolla Sammarco displays fine integrated tannin, just hinting at approaching powdery. It is full and complex with excellent structure giving the impression that it has several good years left to evolve and likely adecade or more to live. This wine is ideal for roast lamb, braised beef, or a peppercorn fillet.

Pacific Northwest Daydreaming: Foris Port 2002 and Jimi Hendrix’ Stages

July 27, 2011 1 comment

And a pretty label too...

I’ve gone back into the mixed case of half-bottles and pulled to taste, Foris Port 2002. Foris is a high quality, low cost wine producer in Cave Junction, OR (Rogue Valley) whose first estate vines were planted in 1974. While it’s their unreasonably inexpensive per quality Rogue Valley Pinot Noir that has kept me coming back, I’ve also tasted and enjoyed several of their whites and stickies, and beyond Syrah and Cabernet Ports, they currently bottle a good number of different varietals (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, various Cab, etc.).

I’m listening to the Jimi Hendrix Stages Box Set which, in all my years of collecting live shows, both official releases and bootlegs, remains one of the greatest documents of American music of whose existence I am aware. Each of the 4 discs is a single set from ’67 (Stockholm), ’68 (Paris), ’69 (San Diego), and ’70 (Atlanta). Just a brief listen to these shows reminds one of just how good Jimi actually was and the recording quality here is about as high as it gets, given the era and circumstances. There is so much listening gold on these discs, but it’s hard not to give the nod to the ’67 disc as tops. Not only is it clear that Jimi’s sounds was already fully developed, but he was in the process of writing his best songs. On the Stockholm ’67 disc, when he shyly admits, before a glorious “Burning of the Midnight Lamp“, that he and the band had never before played that tune in front of people, one gets a tiny glimpse of the man’s sincerity and the joy he took in doing what he did.

The back tells several stories.

The 2002 Foris Port was made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and spent 19 months in barrel. It was bottled at 18% alcohol and 8.5% residual sugar. The resulting port-style wine is aging quite well and, by the time of these notes this one had the advantage of a couple of days sealed by the Vacu Vin, after having been opened. The wine is aging beautifully and what was once (pleasantly) grapey at last taste is now more raisin and chocolate, though fruit still persists in the form of wild blackberry jam. Foris Port 2002 drinks almost unreasonably nicely for the price point yet the residual sugar and current mouthfeel lead me to believe this wine will continue to age with grace for the better part of the decade. If you are unfamiliar, do yourself a favor and pick up just about anything bearing the Foris name and taste a secret slice or Oregon.

When in doubt, Go Rioja! A Few Rules for Basic Wine Shopping (and the Absurdity of Linear Thinking)

July 7, 2011 1 comment

There are so many intricacies to wine which can make just walking into a proper wine shop a daunting task for the uninitiated. But one doesn’t have to know all that much to be a good wine buyer. There is method to the madness and ways to make small pieces of information work for you. Like this: When in doubt, go Rioja. The Spanish region of Rioja makes some of the nicest wine in the world, per dollar spent (particularly red Tempranillo), and most wine shops will carry at least a couple of them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re in a wine shop that can’t sell you a decent Rioja for $15 or less, you should find another shop. Also, OR pinot noir is pretty amazing stuff these days and in 2008, they had one of their best vintages ever, so you can’t go too wrong with most any bottle from that region and year, and again, most decent shops will carry at least a couple, though the best ones can be costly. There are numerous recent examples of these little generalizations that can help: ’05 Bordeaux, ’09 Sonoma Chard, ’07 North Coast everything.

On a critical level, it’s relatively silly to generalize like that. Every single bottle of wine comes down to the grapes grown in a particular place and time and the choices made by the winemaker who begins the winemaking process with those grapes. But generalizing is like playing the percentages and certainly is no sillier than rating wine on 100 pt scale, implying that linear perfection can be achieved. One of the reasons I drink wine and- to this day- one of my favorite wines in the world is 1986 Dunn Vineyards Napa Cabernet. Some guy named Bob tells me it’s 92 points good. This isn’t far from walking into the Louvre, finding yourself before the Winged Victory of Samothrace, taking in its mass, its setting and the nuances of its construction (and destruction) and proclaiming, “I give it a 93.” Both of these things are artistic expressions in their given mediums and they are each effective on their own terms, to an open recipient. Empirically they are high quality examples of what they are. But assigning them numerical values and insinuating that they have a linear place in a measurable hierarchy from shit-on-Hellfire to absolute perfection is comical. But people like numbers, marketing is important, and anything that can be quickly described as an “A” should sell briskly.

Abbreviated Notes on a Past Private Tasting in Boston

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

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:

The Cultish Cabs and their invited guests.

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.

Classic Napa Cab at it's finest.

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.

Nice juice, not just a clever name.

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.

Though new labels don't wear his name, Pax Mahle still makes remarkable syrah-based wine.

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.

Like Agharta, the depth of SQN Mr K wines crush the feeble descriptives of the written word.

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.

Few partnerships have ever created such beauty.