Bob Lindquist proves me wrong. My second article for LE PAN Magazine.

Check out my second article for LE PAN Magazine.

Bob Lindquist is a Rhone variety pioneer, not just in California, but anywhere outside the Rhone Valley. As such, he’s one of my heroes. I love the wines he’s made at Qupe Winery over the last few decades, and he’s not so bad either. Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t mind expressing my ignorance around him; it’s a rather easy way to get schooled. I’m in the wine business to get schooled. Happens a lot.

So on one of those occasions when I just couldn’t stop myself, I told Bob that I believed Marsanne was a problematic ager. Let’s be honest: what I actually said was that it doesn’t age. Or something that stupid.

Bob laughed and told me he’d send me some wine. So you see my evil plan worked to perfection. A few weeks later I opened a box of Qupe Marsanne of various and sundry ages.

The first one was corked; let’s leave it at that. The next one, 1994 Qupe Marsanne Santa Barbara County, was definitely not corked. It was clean and correct and delicious. It showed citrus, lime, orange, lemon, wet wool (something like Vouvray), roasted nuts (something like Meursault), buttered corn (he didn’t really use American oak, did he?) and roasted green apple (something to do with aging crisp and tart white wines).

This sort of wine is exciting like old Hunter Valley Semillon is exciting; it breaks expectations apart, it makes a taster question notions of New World and Old World characteristics, and cool climates and warm climates. Does time trump all varietal and regional flavors?

I wish I had ten more bottles like this. It has successfully aged, in the sense that it has not only survived, but has improved. As it lingered, I tasted almond slivers with green apple, wet linen and lime and orange notes. The length however was not as I might have hoped. There were few earth aromas and flavors at the end, so I was left with a delightful wine, but not a GREAT wine.

Was it Marsanne’s fault? The region’s fault? The vintage? We don’t know or at least I don’t know. Maybe Marsanne always needs a bit of a boost from Roussanne, as is so common with the top Hermitage Blanc. But who needs great wine all the time? I’d take delicious wine all the time and count myself amongst the luckiest tasters in the world.

Bob’s Marsannes are that. They’re delicious. Even, and maybe especially, when they age.

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My first article for LE PAN Magazine

Hope everyone enjoys my first article for LE PAN Magazine on The Carcavelos crusaders: Resurrecting an ancient wine. I’m very excited about this new project.

A famed and legendary dessert wine of Portugal, Carcavelos was once considered a worthy peer to the country’s other great fortified wines of Madeira, Port and Moscatel de Setubal.

Yet it has been virtually absent from the marketplace for decades. Now a young group of enthusiasts is rescuing it from near-certain extinction.

The vines of Carcavelos barely hang on, snaking along the backyards of a row of sterile, modern apartment buildings. These vineyards date back to the mid-18th century, planted as part of an agricultural station founded by Marques de Pombal, the (sometimes) benign dictator responsible for Port’s delineation in the mountains above the Douro River, and countless other public works.

But many of the vines were grubbed up to make room for these high-rises looming overhead; and the ribbon of vineyards leads to a refurbished agricultural station (again, courtesy of Pombal).

Here two young wine lovers, Alejandro Lisboa and Tiago Correia are making Carcavelos, something that hasn’t happened in years.

They’ve had the backing of the nearby town of Oeiras; with EU assistance, 3 million euros (US$3,271,590) have been spent on the restoration project. It was a last ditch chance to resurrect Carcavelos, though vines can be still found here and there around the region. “The other [vintners] are not producing anymore,” explains Lisboa, “they’re just bottling old wines [wines still in cask].”

There are a total of 60 acres of vines in the defined district of Carcavelos, half of them are hiding between those apartments.

They’re a mix of grapes: Arinto, Galego Dourado, Ratinho, while Lisboa explains, “the oldest wines mixed red and white grapes.”

The law still defines Carcavelos as having two years in barrel and six years in bottle; here, they prefer five or more years in barrel. But they’re experimenting with grapes, barrels and everything they can to restore the region’s past glory.

Alejandro is a landscape architect; his partner Tiago is a technical engineer.

These are not their day jobs. “It is our passion but not our businesses. When we sell one bottle, we are not getting rich. We are restoring our heritage.”

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The Flavors of Spirits Past

A counterfeiter of old wines, Rudi Kurniawan, was recently convicted for earning millions selling faked bottles of wine. Such is the value of certain old wines, some of them selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Thankfully there is not yet a similar market for old spirits bottles, though it may not be far in the future.

But at this particular moment, old spirits bottles are mere novelty to many, with auction markets and sites only recently including them among their offerings. There is a market nonetheless: among noteworthy bars, Seattle’s justly famed Canon includes tastes of pre-Prohibition whiskies for $100 a shot and more, some bottles scoured from forgotten home bars. Indeed there are probably goodies slumbering in countless basements and unlike wine, time and fluctuating temperatures need not destroy the value and quality of these beverages.

Most spirits are bottled at forty percent alcohol or higher, and they are tough to kill. Their alcoholic strength reflects their very purpose: they will retain their flavor and character nearly forever unless they are exposed to bright lights, air or high temperatures. When someone fishes a bottle of wine out of their grandparents cellar, it’s usually devoid of fruit and good flavor, but when folks come forth with old spirit, chances are good the spirit in the bottle will still be willing.

At a recent tasting, there were several decades-old bottles and all of them seemed no worse for the wear.  Gene Darby, a local enthusiast, had brought in several gems: a Canadian rum and two blended Scotch whiskies. We were mightily impressed by the rum from Gooderham and Worts, a Toronto distillery that closed in 1990, the last of a once proud and robust Canadian rum industry. The pint bottle had its own tin shot cup as its lid, and the bottle was embossed with the facade of a mountain man and his prodigious beard, covering nearly the whole bottle. The rum was quite pleasant, with buttery, somewhat hot, molasses notes. As far as we could ascertain, it dated from the 1920s.

The first of the whiskies was a bottle of Seagrams VO with a tax stamp of 1977, courtesy of Ryan Maybee of Manifesto and the Rieger. It was enjoyable with caramel and chocolate notes, but it was fairly light and short, much as VO has been for as long as I can remember. Indeed this was good evidence that time may have no particular effect on most spirits, for better or worse.

Darby had also brought along Highland Queen Grand 15 blended Scotch whisky 15 year old, and it carried a 1969 tax stamp. This was fairly delightful with smoky notes of peat and iodine, a buttery texture, a nutty intensity with almond and hazelnut, ending in caramel but consistently showing elegance. While a similar Highland Queen bottling is available, this was my first taste and I might seek out some others.

Tasty but perhaps not as exciting was a Dewars Victoria Vat that probably dated from the 1940s. Victoria Vat no longer exists but today you may find Dewars Ancestor to be a similar whisky from the same house. The Victoria Vat offered honey, almonds, and hints of caramel, flowers and seaweed. Throughout it was light and mild, but carried good length.

The excitement of some of these old spirits differs greatly from old wines for which you expect flavors and aromas to have evolved into something heretofore unrevealed. Spirits can go more or less only one direction (down). Unless the spirit has deteriorated, what is exciting instead is the rediscovery of flavors that may no longer be part of the repertoire of a particular brand, as is the case with some old bottles of Chartreuse, a brand that has evolved and changed for centuries.

There may not yet be big money in it, but there is plenty of reason to see what your parents and grandparents have squirreled away in the drinks cabinet. Good hunting!

This article previously appeared in the Kansas City Star

The pain and the pleasure

Novelist Jay McInerney once wrote “Sometimes I think the difference between what we want and what we're afraid of is about the width of an eyelash.” While McInerney’s wine writings are too often dewy-eyed panegyrics to the lifestyles of the rich, there is something to the conflation of desire and anxiety, even fear. A strange study in British Columbia last year showed that a group of men crossing a swaying suspension bridge were more likely to a find a particular woman sexually attractive than if they observed that woman on flat, safe ground.

Silly news? Perhaps. But with Valentine’s Day as background, could we dare to move beyond our safe choices into less charted territory, and if we did so, would that add to the excitement? Instead of the usual Prosecco or Cava for bubbly, what if true Champagne were the tipple? Yes, it’s expensive (likely to be forty or fifty dollars) but you and your companion might discover the remarkable mix of yeast, toast, fruit and effervescence that exemplifies the best of bubbly. Try Billiot ($65), Feuillatte ($45), Gosset $50), Pol Roger ($65) and for the loveliest of pink sparklers, Bollinger Brut Rose ($90)

Oregon Pinot Noir is more talked about than consumed; the 2011 vintage has been completely overlooked: beauties such as Ayres ($28) or Adelsheim ($30) are far too gentle and elegant for most critics. The earthy notes of Rhone wines remind many of bodies in motion: Chapoutier’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2009 is spicy and rich.

The silken juiciness of great German Riesling may offer wine’s shortest path to pleasure. There are plenty of stars in Germany’s firmament: Fritz Haag, Gunderloch, J.J. Pruem, Karthausershof, Moenchhof, Schloss Lieser, Weins-Pruem and Zilliken are just a few. Or you can evoke Greece’s bright beaches with the brilliant sunniness of Sigalas Assyrtiko ($22) or Skouras Moschofilero ($19), both vibrant icons. Chenin Blanc has a mineral, savory character expressed best in the Loire Valley (try Huet’s Vouvrays) or in South Africa: Raats ($14) and Ken Forrester ($16) are easy to highlight.

But if deep red is the color for your Valentine, the extravagance of Italy’s Amarone is hard to top: Masi Costasera ($65), Tommasi ($70) or Zenato ($75) are deeply generous in spirit.

When your intention is to demonstrate your ardor, then ardent spirits may be just the right drop. Sure, you know Cognac, but there are other brandies to explore: I can ardently recommend its wilder sibling Armagnac (there are not many in this market, sadly) or California’s Germain Robin Craft Method Brandy ($55). As for me, I’ll give my Valentine her choice of all of these. She knows I’ll be content with any of them, along with a copita of head-spinning Del Maguey Mezcal, as good a mix of fear and pleasure as any.


This article previously appeared in the Kansas City Star



What I Drank Tonight (and quite enjoyed)

Ackerman Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Napa Valley – After the relative elegance of 2002, I found many 2003 North Coast reds to be a bit brutish, and I have a strong affinity for wines that whisper more than shout. I would also have to admit to a prejudice regarding such wines, at a minimum, believing the elegant wines to be more likely to age gracefully. But the damning admission would be that I am as often wrong as right about the ageability of some of these wines with big tannins and warm fruit. The 2003 Ackerman strikes me as such a wine: the label says 13.5%; I find that rather unlikely. The tannins have some grit to them; there is an earthy element that is more humus than stone. But the fruit is ample (if a bit warm and stewy), the oak deft and compelling. If I am suggesting that this wine is not particularly elegant, I can also state (perhaps confusingly) that it is aging very elegantly. But this drives to the crux of the biscuit as I admit to a frequent misapprehension of Napa Cabs such as this: instead of hanging on to its hard edge, it has perceptively softened and widened its layers of flavors. A touch of spearmint, black plums and black cherry compote, elegant spice and barrel elements in the moderately long finish. Short version? I would gladly serve this to my European friends who doubt California’s ability to be true to their traditions and to make lovely ageable wines nonetheless. 

Imagining Better Wine Communications in Logrono, Spain

Winery in Spain

At the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Spain, a keynote talk was given by one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, Clark Smith, a winemaker and winemaking gadfly. It would also be true that he is amongst the most vexing. To some degree, that’s by design. He wants to challenge our notions about wine and wine “purity” whatever that is.

Clark’s biggest complaint is wine writers; fair enough. He correctly denigrates many of the prejudices today’s wine press and bloggers bring to wine: the use of sulfites (must be bad, right?), additives (sounds terrible) and most annoying to him: manipulation. Writers will tell you: wine manipulation is bad. But as Clark points out, “wine does not make itself. Benign neglect is not high moral ground”, he says. “Wine writing is done today by people who don’t understand winemaking.”

Clark begins his argument by noting that the word “manipulation” has dual meaning: it might describe “shrewd or devious management by artful, unfair or insidious means.” Or it might mean “treatment or operation in a skillful manner.” When it comes to wine, the term manipulation is itself not so subtle manipulation of the reader’s prejudices. But wine is food (grape juice). Food is supposed to be natural, so isn’t manipulation in itself bad? Winemaking, as Clark likes to say, is just cooking. Would these writers insist that a chef is a devious manipulator of foodstuffs when they transform wheat into pasta and tomatoes into marinara? Beef into meatballs?

Winemakers, like chefs, ought to use all the healthful and beneficial tools in their toolkits to make the most delicious wines. Some of those tools include the addition of water, sugar, powdered tannins or tartaric acid (basically ground up parts of wine grapes), sulfur (used for centuries and in far greater proportions in bagged and dried fruits), and micro-oxygenation (just getting some air to wines), among other tactics.

There are some techniques that may be particularly confusing or unsettling, such as the addition or removal of alcohol or other compounds by fairly complicated processes. But I’m not sure I understand precisely what is happening when a chef magically creates that marvelous transformation from egg yolks and butter into hollandaise. That doesn’t mean something evil is happening.

Now, I am decidedly not arguing for wine to be something other than the fermented grape juice that it has been for millennia. Ideally, I’d like it to be affordable; and I’d like it to speak of the place in which it’s grown. I want it to remind me of human culture too. And winemakers are always coming up with some ideas for improving their own particular wines. We can argue plenty about whether or not the wines are in fact better as a result. But today, there are words and practices that frighten consumers. As Clark says, “You [in the wine press] have made honesty too expensive.” So instead we pretend nothing has happened at all. And that’s a bad strategy for wine improvement and consumer understanding.

People Drink What They Like

With the U.S. the largest single wine market, there are outsized trends for which we must bear responsibility. First up: Moscato, a gentle, (usually) sweet, (often) low alcohol white wine that has rather surprisingly been adopted by the hiphop community. Drake likes it and so do lots of other people, some of whom make records and hold microphones very close to their mouths.

But should this really surprise us? Wines with distinctive sweetness have historically been consumed in greater number than dry wines unless, of course, you are a wine snob, er, expert. Those who embrace wine with fervent passion are often dismissive of people who want their wines to have some sweetness. The people who consider themselves wine-knowledgeable can be downright rude about wines like Moscato. Too sweet, they sniff. Too simple, they snort. Apparently, at least in my telling of it, they make lots of noises with their noses.

The people who like sweetness in their wines are understandably put off by all this sniffing and snorting. Neither group has the faintest idea why the other group can’t see reason. But there’s the problem: each is having a different experience with these wines. Those whose palates prefer sweet wines are often reacting against the bitterness, astringency and tartness of dry wines. Their bodies, in effect, are telling them not to like these wines.

The people who drink these “bone-dry”, “earthy”, “powerhouse” wines (and all the other odd descriptions we wine people generate) are just as perplexed because our bodies are telling us these wines taste good. Most of us wine people aren’t very sensitive to tartness, so we often seek out things that are tart: “dry” wines are just our thing. People who lack sensitivity to bitterness like the aforementioned big, astringent wines; they figure those who don’t haven’t yet learned how great these wines are. The sweet wine drinkers have, they will say, “uneducated palates”.

What a crock.

It’s personal, as taste should be. We are not supposed to agree on what tastes good and what doesn’t. But I’ll tell you this much, more people like the sweet, mild character of Moscato than the wine snobs will admit. You go, Drake.


Wine consultant & writer, one of only four people in the world to hold both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine titles