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.