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Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch ’07 and Summer Sun (Happy 4th!)

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

A summer white in the the summer wind.

It’s the 4thand the hunter/gatherer in me feels the need to grill something. There are a couple of Albacore steaks in the fridge and the marinade now contains: olive oil, white wine, a fistful of fresh basil, mined garlic and ginger, crushed hot peppers, salt and pepper the fish, not the marinade… and I’m out of citrus, so a dash of Pellegrino Limonata, looks like just the thing. I’ll also confess that the white wine is Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2007 that was vacu vin’d in the fridge from yesterday. I am still not sponsored by Vacu Vin but, per dollar spent, I’m not sure anything else has added more to the enjoyment of my wine consumption. And I’m not above sponsorship cash and products.

I’m listening to Yo La Tengo’s Summer Sun. They’ve been so good for so long that it’s inspiring and intimidating in the same moment. Summer Sun achieves and maintains a complete aesthetic throughout, without ever reaching monotone, in a way that few records ever have. The climax, literarily speaking, is the 10 ½ minute gorgeously ethereal and meandering “Let’s Be Still,” which sounds like the finest of all summer afternoon naps, no sunburn, no mosquito bites. At sundown, one wakes to the falling action of Georgia’s breathy rendition of Alex Chilton’s nostalgically sweet “Take Care”. And that’s how you end a great record.

Very little of the Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2007 went into the tuna marinade. Some is currently in the glass in my hand in which it appears to be 18 karat gold with just a hint of gripping viscosity to the swirl. There’s an apparent yeastiness to the nose, under which peach, wildflowers, and strawberry are rapidly emerging. There’s a butteriness to the texture and a firm but fair acidity that carries through a long finish, where pineapple persists. It’s nice juice that has another handful of good years in it, properly stored.

Rutherford Hill Port 1986 and God Bless Warren Zevon (Tasting on Shuffle Pt. 5)

July 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Looking pretty sharp at 25 years.

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 and Songs from the Tin Shed (Tasting on Shuffle Pt. 4)

July 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Bottle shown here is 2008.

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.

Andrew Bird, The Jack of Hearts, and DeLoach Zinfandel OFS 1997

June 28, 2011 Leave a comment

DeLoach Zinfandel OFS 1997 is yet another example of a reasonably priced old vine CA zinfandel that proves what an underrated varietal it is for aging. While it’s almost cheating to bring up Ridge– well-known makers of some of the finest aging zin that’s ever been bottled- a ’94 Ridge Geyserville was once the crowd favorite at a tasting I held of CA heavyweights and I have been an advocate ever since. This DeLoach OFS ’97 (a growing season of high yields and excellent quality) was deliberately made in a more traditional style that the winery had retreated from in the mid-’80s in attempts to produce a younger drinking crowd-pleasinger bottle. The timing couldn’t have been better meteorologically and what remains today is braving the years with fortitude.

Another compelling iphone 3G pic.

While getting to know this bottle of DeLoach Zinfandel OFS 1997, I’m listening to an entire itunes library on shuffle, the one on a decade-old imac, which once ran the office of my defunct publishing company, but now only functions as a jukebox and DVD player. I’ll skip the gratuitous Dylan reference today even though the alternate (original) version of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is just fading out. On however to Andrew Bird, “Tables and Chairs” off of his breakthrough album, Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs. It’s a heavy-minded, light-hearted, off-kilter glimpse of a post-apocalyptic playground: think Fight Club meets SpongeBob, aesthetically. Individually, the lyrics and spritely flowing orchestration of the melody are more than minor paradoxes. Together they make up a textural menagerie that’s like the structure of a Beach Boys tune (sad lyrics over happy music) with a head full of DMT. The beauty of Andrew Bird’s best work- which is most of it- is that one can get lost in the music alone, which is crushing when one ponders the depths of his stories. This is why Andrew Bird has been my platonic man-crush ever since Beck‘s records started to suck; a Sea Change indeed.

For an inexpensive wine, this ’97 DeLoach Zinfandel OFS, with proper aging and now a decent amount of air in it, is still as weighty as one might imagine, but it’s got a supple roundness to it that is more than what could have been hoped for, and depth to spare. There’s been some softening, visually, and of the raspberry and cherry, which make up the majority of this wines fruit profile, but it is not yet thin in the middle. Not relenting are the pronounced cedar, pine tar, dry forest floor, hearty herbs- rosemary, and a touch of menthol, hanging down around the 14.5% alcohol, which will always be present. For a non-luxury (industry code for ‘over-priced’) cuvee, this wine over delivers, but that’s part of the magic of old vine CA fruit, particularly from a banner vintage.

Venge, Not Vengeance

June 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Why would one alter this label?!

Okay, I’ll admit it. I first became intrigued with Venge wines because of the cool name and the attractive labels. It turns out they’re more benevolent than the family name may imply and more importantly, they make really nice (red) wine. Venge’s cultish top cabernet has seen significant increase in popularity as well as in release price, while their other bottles, such as their tasty merlot and the remarkable Scout’s Honor Zin-based blend and Penny Lane Sangiovese, have remained modestly priced, per quality. While the labels have been modernized, this 1999 Venge Sangiovese Penny Lane Vineyard wears the older label, pictured here, and has aged quite nicely.

This single vineyard Oakville Sangiovese is not shy, containing over 14% alcohol, and bearing a deep, dark ruby hue, right up to the rim. With notes of raspberry liqueur, coffee, and juicy red cherry, it’s a fistful of raw sweetness away from qualifying as a dessert wine. Don’t believe me? Open one with a rich cheese plate and thank me later. At over a decade in the bottle, the only age it currently shows is with it’s mouthfeel, and a pleasurable front palate dryness. Venge Sangiovese Penny Lane Vineyard 1999 is a full bodied encompassing mouthful, with enough spice to hold up to the middle eastern fare with which it was paired on this occasion.

Long Live(d) Chapoutier!

May 19, 2011 2 comments

Checking in with some old friends.

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.

Gracefully aged.

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.

Unhesitating Beauty.

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.

Without VacuVin this finale would not have been possible.

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.