Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Whiskey Impossible

In the world of food and beverage there are certain experiences that exist which we fetishize and put on a pedestal above all else. For example, in the culinary world a trip to Spain’s el Bulli when it was still in full swing, or a supping of sea weed soup at Noma in Denmark are the sort of dining experiences that one would partake in not just for the cuisine itself, but also (perhaps unadmittedly) to make our friends and colleagues projectile vomit with jealousy - here in this age of self branding and remarkably public consumption.

And of course in beer, one could snap a selfie while sipping a Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead, or Pliny the whatever for a similar experience, but last week I had the bourbon equivalent: a tasting of every bottling of Pappy Van Winkle in addition to William Larue Weller twelve year old bourbon and EH Taylor’s bourbon bottled in bond. Commence drooling, prostration, and the gnashing of teeth.

I won’t go into the history or backstory of why Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is significant enough to have a tasting of because there already exist virtual tomes, written by those of greater dedication than I, on the internet already. Instead, I’d like to convey a casual (occasionally professional?) bourbon drinker’s experience tasting through an entire line of impossible to obtain whiskeys.

This tasting was a great exercise in not just critical assessment of a spirit, but of acknowledging preconceived expectations and bias. The bias I held entering the tasting is a product of week after week, year after year, fielding requests by consumers (particularly around October/November) thirsting for this oh so rare, and cyclically more rare every year, whiskey.

Having to say politely, “We can’t get it from our supplier and as a result we are unable to get if for you,” to a couple hundred people a year can cause one to become rather weary and jaded.

Specifically, a jaded mentality created by the quest for whiskey that is so rare, so coveted, that we as merchants no longer taste the whiskey. We simply sell it to a corn-frenzied crowd who idolize this whiskey above all others, regardless of how it actually tastes. It’s hard to get so it’s better, right?

How good could it actually be? This was the bias I entered the tasting with, but it’s good to be humbled sometimes.

The Pappys themselves were, I almost hate to admit it, a rather impressive line of whiskeys. I found the ten year old bourbon to be a bit raw, though it did contain rather appealing fruit flavors. The highly sought after fifteen year old bourbon struck me as a bit hot before the addition of water, rather pleasant afterwards though; the fifteen year old also contained many of the dried cedar/cigar box flavors I often find so appealing in whisky (and the odd Pomerol).

The twelve year old bourbon had a nice balance between the two, drier in style, and is realistically more available than the fifteen. Though that really is an availability that is more relative than realistic.

The twenty and twenty-three year old whiskies were really quite special: soft, smooth (I hate that flavor descriptor), and possessing qualities that reminded me of twenty year tawny port. Neither of them showed their alcohol, and they both struck me as world class whiskeys, even though I was hoping for the opposite, just so I could tell people in the future that they weren’t as good as people made them out to be.

Blasted well made whiskey.

The final whiskey in the lineup was the Pappy thirteen year old rye whiskey, which to me was the outright winner in the bunch in terms of value and possible availability. The “fair” market price would put this whiskey around $100 (plus or minus a few dozen dollars), and its price combined with the fact that it is often less sought after than the bourbons makes it a more obtainable and appealing whiskey. Additionally, it is just a very well made rye, bolding on very.

All of that being said, are they worth it?

If these products were regularly available and sold for fair prices, I would say that they certainly would be worth it. But that’s if. No, instead what these products have going for themselves is their scarcity. While a fair markup would put the 23 year old whiskey these days around $250 - $300 a bottle, I can instead obtain it from less scrupulous retailers or grey market vendors between $2300 and $4500 a bottle. That value rye whiskey around $100 a bottle can be found in the world between $500 and $1000 a bottle.

I bought a motorcycle which cost less than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon.

I’m very glad that I had the chance to taste these whiskeys and I am of the opinion that they are very well made products. Would I ever recommend anyone ever seek one out and buy it? Ultimately, no.

There are many good whiskies available that can be purchased any day of the week, under a hundred dollars a bottle. If money is no object, and collecting scarce and rare curios (bourbon, stamps, crystal skulls, etc…) is more your speed, then please by all means collect these whiskies.

For those of us mere mortals who don’t opt to spend our time hunting white wales, literally or figuratively, I would encourage enjoying whiskey as a regular beverage, worthy of our attention, instead of being treated as a soulless commodity.

*If at any point you noticed a variation in the spelling of whisky, whiskey, whiskeys, whiskies it is simply a flip flopping I opt to do since there are multiple accepted spellings for whisk(e)y. And yes, I realize that the American spelling and the spelling associated with bourbon is with an ‘e’, but who am I to bash the letter ‘e’ into a word that the Scots have been doing a fine job with for so many years.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

You Obviously Love Owls

YOLO is more than just a slightly dated acronym (you only live once) for a two syllable utterance that one might give before doing shots of Fireball whisky or using a funnel to drink... anything, but it is also the final sound in the grape name Nebbiolo (Neb-bee-yolo).

Nebbiolo is arguably one of the most important grapes on the Italian peninsula. This importance is not for its prolific acreage, compared to Sangiovese, but due to its ability to produce world class vineyard specific wines rivaled only by Pinot Noir in Burgundy. The comparison here to each of these grapes is important because Sangiovese (known for Chianti and Brunello) is the other grape to know if one has any interest in approaching Italian wine and Pinot Noir (Burgundy) is a grape reputed to be truly fine at expressing delineated vineyards.

This curious grape Nebbiolo is often tough to approach without at least a little work, because like many Italian wines the place name appears on the bottle before the grape ever will. To give you an idea, here are the regional names what you might see on a wine bottle label before you even know that these wines are made from this surreptitious Nebbiolo: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Roero, Valtellina, and Ghemme.

Agriculturally, this is a difficult grape to grow. In my experience I’ve never seen or tasted anything of note outside of Italy’s Piedmont, Lombardia, or the Vallee d’Aoste which draws a stark contrast to grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that you find in every practically every wine producing country in the world.

(A disclaimer should be made here that I’ve heard Randall Graham has had small scale success with Nebbiolo production in California and that there’s increasing interest in parts of Australia and New Zealand, but as of yet nothing worth commercial note.)

Now when it is vinified, the wine is often very pale in color which belies its aromatic nature, high tannins, and marked acidity. While this description makes it sound challenging to appreciate, I find it much easier to spend time with a bottle of Nebbiolo than a dishonestly sweet, out of balance Aussie Shiraz or Cali Cab.

Depending on its age and where it happens to grow, the wine can smell like any of the following: cranberries, tart cherries, strawberries, mushrooms, wild fennel, dried flower (rose) petals, tar, and leaf piles in late Autumn.  

The downside is that the average bottle of Nebbiolo tends to be a wee bit more expensive than almost every Malbec we sell, but what you lose in obvious savings, you gain in stimulating drinking experience.

Wines to try:

Casata Monticello Nebbiolo $9.99
Tintero Barbaresco $21.99
Bruno Rocca Nebbiolo $26.99
Reverdito Barolo $29.99
Altare 2010 Arborina Barolo $124.99

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In Which Philosophies Clash

This week I was "fortunate" enough to taste a wine that has been lavished with a remarkable 96 points from the Robert Parker's Wine Advocate: Caymus Vineyards 2012 40th Anniversary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Among'st other praises, the Advocate review included this enticing sentence, "Its dense purple/black color is followed by copious quantities of crème de cassis and blackberry fruit, silky tannins, a voluptuous texture and stunning purity as well as length." Accompanied by the claim that the wine will cellar well for 20 - 25 years.

I'm inclined to think that 20 - 25 years may be an overestimate on how long the wine is able to age since, by initial first taste, it's already atrocious. In the glass the color is pure, impossible, Platonic purple. The nose is of roasted and splintered barrel covered in melted Tootsie Roll and mint syrup. The fruit, much like the color, can best be described as purple. On the palate it is something of a harsh, burnt, mocha soup mixed with (the most complimentary thing I heard about it) Dimetapp. With a quality to cost ratio kept in mind, quite possibly the worst wine I've had all year.

All of this for a respectable $45 - $65 per bottle, depending where you are shopping. If you can find it for $48, then it comes out to a respectable two quality points per dollar spent.

My disgust with the cost and quality of this wine is equally as enthusiastic as the praise on the other side. So then one must wonder what would make me the arbiter of good taste or why is my opinion any more valid than the contrary? On its own, without dissent, it is a solitary choice leaving no other options to indicate its own positive or negative qualities. But with two contrasting opinions of enthusiastic wine drinkers a reader or drinker is given two diverging roads to take in the exploration of wine.

If, for example, you find the cost appropriate and agree with the virtues of mocha, creme de cassis, and a long vanilla finish on this 96 point wine, then by all means continue to follow the guidance laid forth by Robert Parker who wrote the review for the above wine. 

Although if you are in the other camp that finds this dreck to be an undrinkable, overpriced, alcoholic sludge inspired by real wine, then perhaps other guidance should be sought out. 

The important thing is to discover what you value in wine and find a way to express that to your merchant or sommelier to find ever more exciting and delicious wines. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Unfined, Unfiltered, Un-What?

After an exhausting few hours of climbing at the Philadelphia Rock Gym at East Falls and a super filling dinner at the Falls Taproom I was ready to finish the day in a comfortable chair with a glass of red wine a la Stanley from The Office. The wine settled upon is the one pictured here aside my editor Turnip, Domaine des Deux Puits 2012 Cotes Catalan Syrah

A pleasant wine with low tannins and aromatics that remind me of something between Celestial Seasoning's Red Zinger Tea and crushed raspberries. It's an easy wine to drink at the end of a long day, priced well at about $12, but not the kind of thing I'm going to cellar for ten years to break out at a wine dinner and rave about the developed bouquet. The juice itself is an everyday sort of wine, but what got me thinking was the sentence on the label that mentioned the wine being, "hand harvested at optimum ripeness to give a full, generous style of Syrah with no oak aging or filtration."

There are a few items in that sentence that would catch my eye if I was in an unfamiliar store trying to pick out a bottle. Now the bit about "... optimum ripeness," I tend to glaze over, because what wine would boast picking at anything else. 

You'll probably never see, "We pick two weeks after optimum ripeness to create something akin to a Denny's Blueberry Syrup." Although some folks do make that wine.

So that part can be ignored. The no oak aging is a nice piece of information, because to my tastes I don't usually like to see oak as the dominant flavor in the wine; whisk(e)y is one thing, but I generally prefer my wine to taste like fruit, herbs, and stones inspired by the vineyard in which it was grown. It's the "no filtration," part that catches my eye. But if you aren't familiar with the role of filtration, let alone the choice not to filter, then how would this help?

This is a wine making decision in which the philosophy of the winemaker begins to express itself. There are those that believe the act of fining (using a protein of some sort to clarify the wine), filtering (running a wine through filters), or cold-stabilizing (another conversation to come) ruin a wine's inherent flavors.

If you are trying to make a $10 Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia that tastes the same regardless of vintage, then you will generally fine and filter the hell out of that wine. But if you are trying to make a wine taking as few steps in the process as possible to deliberately adjust the final product, you might not fine or filter.

The advantage to fining and filtering is a consistent product that won't make any one nervous because of sediment in the bottle, but if one doesn't fine or filter a wine there's a greater chance the wine can throw sediment. Sediment is not going to hurt you, but if you don't know what it is, it could be rather alarming to find in your glass. 

Now for whatever series of reasons in my upbringing and life experience, I fall into the camp that believes too much fining, filtering, and cold stabilizing will remove flavors unnecessarily to make a consistent brand instead of a more (I know it's a loaded term) honest wine.  

"Honest wine" is a term I hesitate to use because in simply saying it that way it creates a stark dualism between honest and dishonest wines, which I don't think is a correct dualism to form. But in a time where the use of oak dust, chips, and staves are used in conjunction with processes like reverse osmosis and confectionery adjustment agents like Mega-purple, it's refreshing see terms like unfined or unfiltered on a label to give me a clue about where the winemaker is coming from.

For further reading on wine adjustment agents and Mega-purple, I turn you towards more informed individuals than I: Dan Berger and Keith Wallace on the subject.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Unfortunate Reputation of Sherry

Breaking through preconceived notions about wine is an onerous task, and the case in which I was reminded of this came about a few weeks ago when we did a tasting of Delgado Zuleta Sherries at the store. Tom George, the founder of Frontier Wine Imports, was good enough to lead us through a tasting and educational seminar about these wines from Jerez de la Frontera in Spain and we had some enthusiastic and interested tasters with us there that evening - which I was thrilled to see.

That being said we had a smaller crowd than if perhaps had we made it a focused tasting on other more popular Spanish wines (Rioja, Priorat, garnachas, etc). I would pose the question of why that might be, but a handful of anecdotal interactions have already answered it for me.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sherry?

Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids doing shots of the cream stuff? An elderly relative who has a small glass of “sherry” from New York state that comes in a three litre jug? A shot of it in crab bisque? These are all essentially the answers that came up when I offered the idea of sitting through a sherry seminar to other employees and customers. A sample dialogue would go as follows:

Me: Would you like to taste and learn about sherry at a seminar we’re holding this week?
Almost Everybody: Sherry? Eww, no.
Me: When was the last time you actually tried Spanish sherry?
Almost Everybody: (Either) Hmm, I had it in soup once. (Or) Never.

I sure do hate travelling in Norway. Granted, I’ve never been there, but it sure is a terrible place to travel in... So you get my point. Here is a style of wine wholly unique unto itself that is reviled for nonspecific reasons. At this point I would go into the history of sherry, but that’s a lot of reading when I could simply link you to the wikipedia page for sherry if you really want a springboard to find more out about the wine and its history.

What I will say is that the wines were absolutely fascinating, seeing the difference between the Fino, Manzanilla, and Manzanilla Pasada was enlightening. Here you have essentially the same style of wine that is separated, respectively, by geography and length of aging. The flavors were marked by prominent acidity, a dry nuttiness, and the potential to pair well with salty fatty foods.
The also dry, but fuller bodied, Oloroso cried for grilled or smoked food. One taster wisely pointed out that heavily smoked foods, briskets and the like, often overwhelm and can be difficult to pair with wines, but the Oloroso had rich savory flavors that would act as a perfect foil. And even though the apparent ultimate good of wine is to be “dry & smooth” the sweet dessert sherries would be considered deserving of the word ambrosia.

If one approaches sherry with malbec or chardonnay on the brain, it’s easy to dismiss them based on flavor alone. But with an open mind and remembering to look at sherry within its own idiosyncratic framework there is a lot of interesting, and delicious, potential.

Conveniently you wouldn’t even have to go broke trying these wines; entry level Antonio Barbadillo starts around $10.99 per bottle and these Delgado Zuleta sherries that we tried are all on our shelves at $14.99.

I think there is more to lose by not trying these wines than there is by avoiding them due to prejudice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Somm - Doing for Wine Professionals as Sideways did for Pinot Noir

The word sommelier has been in the English lexicon since at least the early part of the twentieth century, if not prior to that, but the evolution of sommelier into ‘somm’ is a relatively recent development. The sommelier is the stodgy unpronounceable sibling to the hipper, and more relatable, monosyllabic somm. The somm as a figure has been made more prevalent and known outside of the wine wine industry by the recent documentary of the same title.
  As little as two years ago if I told someone I was in the business of wine they would most frequently say either one of two things, “That must be so much fun, you get to drink for work,” or, “oh, are you a summolyear?” And of course the response would either be, “It’s a job that has its perks,” because we don’t get to drink all day and it’s not always that fun, or “No, but I am an enthusiast.” Now I find that while pouring for casual public in-store tastings on a weekend afternoon, I think I’ve had at least one customer a week ask if I’ve seen Somm and whether or not I’m certified as one.
    This of course begs the question about the somm’s status as knowledge wielder and authority within the wine industry. Why does the somm have the popular backing as knowledge repository in the industry? One easy answer is that it offers quantifiability for the public and for those involved in an industry that is often a territorial pissing contest full of one-upsmanship. A small pin, received upon passing each level of testing, with what appears to be the disembodied head of Bacchus immediately allows those in the know to look around a room and rank their contemporaries. Take that with the sometimes mythic ability of blind tasting and you have a very sexy image; encyclopedic knowledge paired with comic book style super senses. So far no one has come up with a pin for someone who has travelled, worked, and tasted in all of the major wine regions in France or a pin for someone who has built a business and customer base on fine wine through thirty plus years of hard work. Despite the important role that passionate retailers and importers play in the wine world, it is often the somm that’s elevated in the newspapers and magazines.
It would seem up until this point that I don’t have a very high opinion of sommeliers, but that is simply not the case. I actually have great respect for sommeliers that take great amounts of personal time to increase knowledge about wine, cultivate a passionate wine list in concord with whomever is crafting the food menu, and make customers feel comfortable and well served. However, there are countless of knowledgeable retailers and importers that work long hard hours to do the same thing: provide for their customers.
It is also worth noting that for as many pompous somms that are out there who, instead of really listening to their customer, would rather give a litany of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that you should be perceiving there are at least twice as many know-nothing retailers who would rather compete in a nuclear arms race for the lowest price on Kendall-Jackson and Yellowtail just to collect a paycheck at the end of the week. These are a low bunch who treat wine as any other commodity, assuming that funny labels, points from wine publications, and rock bottom prices will replace knowledge and good customer service.
 Now why the reference to Sideways at the beginning? When that movie came out merlot sales began to lag and pinot noir sales shot up. Is this because of a fair inherent superiority of one grape over another? That’s probably a bigger debate for another time, but I would still say no. There are many examples of world class and rotgut bottlings of both grapes, but pinot noir had the good fortune of receiving positive press in a movie. Even with positive and negative examples of wine professionals, the recent documentary has continued to add weight to the notion that sommeliers are the leaders of the pack for all your wine needs - whether it’s fully deserving or not.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Back on the Horse

There comes a time in all of our lives that we are forced to reassess who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Leaving wine retail and entering wholesale has created one of those paradigm shift moments bringing me face to face with what wine, the business and drinking of, means to me. What helped me refocus a little was listening to interviews on where host, and pro sommelier, Levi Dalton interviews people in the wine world. Each conversation he has with an importer, a winemaker, authors, etc. illustrates the knowledge, passion, and tenacity necessary for each of their fields. So this forced me to think: why wine?
What is it about wine that has captivated my attention and that of so many others? I spent time thinking about this after listening to the interview with Peter Weygandt while I was running on some length of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System. I decided that, in a Kantian sort of way, I believe in wine because I think it can improve the quality of one’s life. I choose it for myself and thus I choose a world in which I think it should be important to others. Obviously wine is also an intoxicant that, if misused, has the ability to ruin the quality of one’s life as well. Anything taken to excess can be problematic, though. I respect the decisions of those who don’t drink wine, but the person who abstains from wine and instead consumes an equal amount of Mountain Dew, or mindlessly consumes case after case of Coors are not better for their substitutions. So what is it that I believe makes wine superior?
The maxim that wine is food is not a novel one, but it does illustrate a relevant point about what makes wine worthy of our attention. The amount of farmer’s markets, ethnic, artisan, and specialty shops that can be found with relative ease I take as evidence that there are people who are interested about where their food is coming from and put thought into what they consume.
Further examination into a food culture or, for the purposes of this essay, a bottle of wine forces inspection into just that: culture. Wine does not exist within a vacuum, but it instead exists because of where and when it is from. Examining wine forces the examination of geography, history, philosophy, language, literature, art, politics, science, agriculture, and an unnamed litany of other specific fields of interest.
Not to belabor a point, but this is why I believe wine has the potential to improve quality of life. It can help teach about the world around us and open our minds to all sorts of opportunities and experiences we might not expect. It may not be a new theme in this blog of mine, but I will continue to promote the idea that we should all learn a little more about the wine we’re drinking and to seek out the new and novel and learn about that as well.

… an Obligatory Aside About Thanksgiving Wine

What should you drink for Thanksgiving? Whatever you damn well please! If you want to try new and novel, do it. If you want to stick to the old tried and true, that’s fine too. The holiday is about enjoying yourself and trying not to let family or travel drive you too crazy. So even though I think we should always seek out new wine, I’ll leave that up to you this week as time is spent with loved ones.

What I’m having though will be something along the lines of:

  • Domaine de la Pepiere 2010 Clos des Briords Muscadet, never a bad idea in my opinion
  • Who wants Vouvray?.
  • If I’m in a Greek sort of mood, maybe DioFili 2009 Xinomavro.
  • Perhaps some grignolino or ruche from northern Italy?
  • Dominique Piron’s Cru Beaujolais (I haven’t decided on the cru or the vintage yet.)
  • A late bottle vintage port will appear somewhere during the meal.
  • Maybe some hard cider if I see anything interesting.

Happy Thanksgiving.