Zinfandel — California’s Wine

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events, Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-29-2011

After having the privilege to attend a dinner last week with Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson at Blue Hill in New York City’s Greenwich Village, I became curious about Zinfandel.

Yes, Zinfandel, the much maligned California grape that is often associated with that gunk called “White” Zinfandel.

Joel founded Ravenswood winery in 1976. And since then, he has been producing well-known, often acclaimed, terroir-driven “Red” Zinfandel. At Blue Hill, we were fortunate to taste through the six single vineyard designated (SVD) Zinfandels that Joel produces. They are really great examples of Zinfandel — fruit driven, bold, rustic food-friendly wines that are made in a serious style. Unlike many of today’s examples of Zin, Ravenswood’s SVDs are not characterized by over-the-top alcohol levels or overripe fruit. Read the rest of this entry »

California Wines — From 1982

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine History, Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-16-2011

Feldsen and White, about to eat a pig.

1982 was arguably the greatest vintage in Bordeaux since 1961. To some, it is the seminal Bordeaux vintage of the twentieth century. It was also the vintage that made the young lawyer from Baltimore, Robert Parker, a household name in the wine world. Contrary to his peers at the time, Parker called the ’82 vintage superb and urged his nascent Wine Advocate subscribers to buy up all the wine they could. It was the call that made a career.

1982 was also the year in which I was born, so to celebrate my birthday a few weeks ago, several friends and I decided to drink our way through 1982 in New York City. Unfortunately, prices for 1982 Bordeaux have hit astronomical levels. Since none of us was willing to drink the monetary equivalent of a small car — five bottles of 1982 Lafite would have run us nearly $20,000 — we had to be more creative. And so we turned to Napa and a seemingly unheralded and under the radar class of 1982 Napa Cabernet.

There is something exhilarating about drinking something that is as old as you. The aging process can be unpredictable and unforgiving and it’s interesting to take stock of how things — people and wine — have evolved at certain points in their lives.

At the ripe old age of 29, ’82 Napa Cabs seem to be at their evolutionary peak! Read the rest of this entry »

Schrader: What It Means to Be a (Wine) Libertarian

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 01-10-2011

As a recovering economist, I was heartened to read the other day that Fred Schrader is going to sell some of his current release at auction!

For those that don’t know, Schrader is the current talk of the (new) wine world as its Old Sparky and CCS cabs have received perfect 100-point scores from Robert Parker three years running now (2006, 2007, 2008). Schrader is owned by Fred Schrader and the winemaker is Thomas Rivers Brown (check out his Rivers Marie label if you want some more bang for your buck). Schrader is monomanically focused on Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery makes six wines and all showcase different sections of or different clones from one of the all-time great Cabernet sites on the planet – the Beckstoffer To-Kalon vineyard in Oakville.

Some, likely those stuck on the Schrader waiting list, are dismayed that the winery has held back some of its 2008’s to sell at auction. Surely if they have more wine they should allocate it to the patient, passionate, die-hard Schrader fans who have been twiddling their thumbs for years in anticipation of wine, right?

For those who aren’t Econ wonks, a quick intro to micro-economics — a free market that lets supply and demand set prices without artificial interference is the ideal way to allocate scarce resources (or so Milton Friedman and his Chicago disciples propound). The theory asserts that high prices will encourage more supply to be produced. And those that are willing to pay the most will be allocated goods that are in scarce supply. This is how Adam Smith’s invisible hand makes sure that things, all of which are inherently scarce to some degree, go to their highest and best uses.

Why should wine be any different? Why should Schrader only be available to those who were savvy or fortuitous enough to sign up years ago on the winery’s mailing list? Wine, especially good wine, is scarce. Shouldn’t it go to the people who value it most? And, if the market sets extremely high prices then that should encourage Schrader to produce more wine. Obviously quality will suffer if they produce more, but the market will figure that out and adjust the price. And then it will be up to the producer to figure out the optimal balance between quantity and quality such that profits are maximized. For what it’s worth, high end Bordeaux has essentially been sold for decades via futures at the highest price the market is willing to bear.

Academics have written extensively on inefficient methods of allocating other scare resources. Examples include concert and sporting event tickets and initial public offerings (IPOs). Concert tickets are often “scalped” for significantly more than face value. Why do promoters and performers allow this to happen? If tickets are being sold in secondary markets at premiums to face value then the performer left money on the table; he or she could have charged more in the primary market and sold the same number of seats! Similarly, Wall Street investment banks tend to price IPOs such that they experience a first day “pop.” Why do they do this? Their client is the seller of the stock and their goal should be to maximize proceeds from the IPO. If the stock increases on the first day of trading then clearly there was more demand at the offering price than there was supply and the investment bank could have sold the IPO at a higher price!

I know wine is a unique, living thing made by passionate producers who toil for years at their craft. And for that I love it. But sit back for a minute and think of wine like any other scarce resource in the world – it’s totally fair (and economically efficient) for Fred Schrader to sell his wines at auction. So if you want some, then go out and buy it – it’s a free market. And if you think the auction is going to clear at some astronomical price (as I do since the auction is taking place in Asia) then sit back and watch the fireworks.

To be fair, there is another side of this debate. It could make perfect sense for some vintners to sell their wine solely to a mailing list in violation of the free-market dogma I’ve espoused. By selling to a mailing list at reasonable and relatively static prices, wineries build loyalty. Yes, Schrader will likely be able to sell its 2007 and 2008 production at eye-popping prices. But what happens in several years time if the wine isn’t as good? What happens if Robert Parker gives the wine a measly 90-point rating? The clamor for the wine (at least for these lower-rated vintages) will decline and Schrader will be stuck selling its wine at significantly lower prices despite having invested the same substantial amount of time and money in the product. Businesses are easier to run when demand and pricing is predictable and stable – selling to a dedicated, loyal mailing list is one such way to create calculable and reliable demand!

Holiday Wine Musings

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 12-28-2010

1996 Chapoutier Hermitage La Sizeranne
It’s cold on the east coast. Thankfully, I’ve now departed for a week and a half in warmer weather. To get me through my last night in New York I turned to a Hermitage. This time, one from Chapoutier that I paired with a pizza. This wine was totally different than the ’89 Jaboulet La Chapelle I drank recently, which is also from Hermitage. Unsurprisingly (and unfortunately), the La Sizeranne wasn’t in the same class as the La Chapelle. The La Chapelle coats your mouth with lush, full bodied syrah nectar, while the La Sizeranne is more ethereal, almost thin and monotone. The tannins in Chapoutier’s 1996 effort have now faded completely. There is not a ton of fruit remaining and the wine did not surprise with many secondary flavors or aromas. The nose in general was not particularly enchanting- this was in start contrast to Jaboulet’s ’89 wine. It was fine wine, just not truly special wine. I say drink it now if you have some in your cellar.

2009 Marcel Lapierre Morgon
This was awesome and one of the best values I’ve had in a long time. Morgon is in the Beaujolais  Lapierre is an incredible, small artisan producer who makes terroir driven wines from Gamay grapes.  And 2009 is the most heralded vintage in Beaujolais in years – buy these by the caseload, cellar them and enjoy Grand Cru Burgundy style wine in 10-20 years that you picked up for ~ $20 a bottle! I drank the ’09 Morgon out of a half bottle (you can get these for less than $15). Lapierre has bottled these in 375ml olive oil bottles – kind of cool. The wine is well balanced with great acidity. It’s light bodied but packs loads of intense fruit. It’s just delicious and downright quaffable. If we didn’t have to get home I would have ordered another bottle on the spot. As it turns out, I ordered 12 of the 375ml bottles on the Internet when I got home. Don’t wait – go out and buy yours now before they are gone.

2007 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel
Fruit forward, full bodied and pretty powerful is how I would describe Ridge’s 2007 Lytton Springs. A bit young for me and I think it will improve with age. In fact, the wine maker says to let it cellar for 10 years before drinking it so we were something like 8-10 years early in popping the cork on this one. But what is one to do when stuck at a restaurant where the oldest bottle on the list is from 2003? Shockingly, this was at Thomas Keller’s LA outpost – Bouchon. But the LA Bouchon feels like Thomas Keller trying to make money and not Thomas Keller trying to deliver mind-blowing food in a small setting. The restaurant is big, noisy and a bit sterile in my opinion. The French Bistro food is executed perfectly but at the end of the day it’s bistro grub. I don’t need to pay $15 for a frisee salad and $32 for roast chicken, and I certainly don’t want to eat them in a commercial, “be-seen” setting. These are simple dishes – even I’ve managed to make delicious versions in my little kitchen in New York. But I digress…anyways, save your Ridge Zins for some years. Quality wine, quality winery, just a little early to be drinking.

2003 Chateau Pradeaux Bandol
Wow. Run, don’t walk, to your iPad and buy this wine for your cellar. This was awesome. It’s nearly 100% Mouvedre from Bandol – the AOC that Tempier put on the map. It’s rugged and rustic. It’s backward, full bodied and coats your mouth with a delicious array of dark fruits. And the finish is long and beautiful; it’s still a bit tannic but that will fade as the wine ages. This is a wine to drink in the winter with hearty meals – think braised meets or stews. I drank it with roasted chicken (at Bouchon in LA) and it was still tasty. This wine will age for years and we certainly drank it too soon.  Still it was an awesome experience and it’s fine to pop a few of your bottles now as long as you decant them. I’ve got a bunch of the 2004 in my cellar and am going to stock up on some 2003’s now as well. At $30-$35 this is a steal.

The King of Wines

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 12-15-2010

I don’t know much about Barolo. But I want to.

1990 Paulo Scavino Bric del Fiasc Barolo

They say that Barolo is “the wine of kings” and the “king of wines.” With that in mind, I figured that I should learn about Barolo from one of the best. No messing around, no new guys and certainly no recent vintage. I wanted a king to teach me Barolo. And so I turned to Paulo Scavino and his 1990 Bric del Fiasc Barolo. Read the rest of this entry »

Que Syrah Syrah: ’89 Jaboulet La Chapelle

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 12-03-2010

I drank an ’89 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle the other night that we brought to Mas (farmhouse) in New York’s West Village (Galen Zamarra’s restaurant on a really charming part of Downing Street). It may be as close as I’ll come to a truly religious experience. If you like Syrah then you’ll fall in love with the reds from the Northern Rhone. And if you don’t like Syrah, then you probably haven’t experienced the reds from the Northern Rhone yet.  

Our bottle of '89 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle

Good Northern Rhones from good vintages will age forever (or long enough that it might as well be forever). For me, they have a magical and mythical appeal.

Perhaps it is the way the wines are made. For starters, the vines grow on exceedingly steep hills that scare away any and all machine harvesters. Grapes must be painstakingly picked by hand and carried down the slopes on small sledges before being hand-sorted; yields from these vineyards are ridiculously low.

Back to the wine. Soft, silky and lush. Big but not overpowering. Smooth, but not too smooth. Thick but not sludge-like. Jaboulet nailed it with the 1989 effort; the wine has aged gracefully and has many years ahead of it (although it is in prime drinking form now). The color is dark and inky, and the wine has a beautiful nose. Notes of blueberries and blackberries and a 30-second-plus finish.

The name of Hermitage La Chapelle is derived from the little chapel Saint-Christophe that overlooks the terraced vineyards in Hermitage that have been in the Jaboulet family since 1919. The wine is comprised of syrah from 60-year-old vines in four vineyards: les Bessards, les Greffieux, le Méal and les Rocoules.

Some seem to have experienced a lot of bottle variation with this wine, but the one I drank had been stored perfectly. It was clear the bottle had been stored on its side for some time without having been disturbed as one (and only one) side of the bottle was permanently stained by the dark syrah nectar. The cork came out clean and was also in great shape. All in all, a tremendous experience!

Scholium Project

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 12-01-2010

The diagram on Scholium Project labels

Last week in New Orleans, I drank a 2008 Scholium Project “Prince In His Caves.” We were eating at John Besh’s August restaurant, which was quite good and set in a really pretty room near the French Quarter.

The wine left me thinking, and I think that is what proprietor Abe Schoener wants. The trouble is I can’t decide whether I actually like the wine or not!

I was first exposed to Abe’s wines about two years ago when I was eating at Momofuku Ko in New York City (no, I did not have to sacrifice anyone to get a seat at David Chang’s East Village counter). Ko is a tasting menu only restaurant and I decided to let the Sommelier pick wines for each course. The 2007 Prince in his Caves was one such wine. Two years is a long time ago and I didn’t write anything down at the time, but I recall finding the wine incredibly intriguing and really liking it. I was at least intrigued enough to do a little research on Scholium and to try some of Abe’s other wines (I did buy some more Prince in his Caves to enjoy at home too).

Schoener was a philosophy professor at St. John’s college when he got the wine bug. In 1998, he went on sabbatical and took an internship at Luna Vineyards, where John Kongsgaard of Kongsgaard fame was making wine. John makes, in my opinion, one of the most amazing California Chardonnays – it’s up there with Kistler and Aubert and was the wine that made me realize that white wine (like red) could actually be contemplative, interesting, alive and downright delicious. After Luna, Abe worked at a family winery called Whiterock and in 2006 he moved his very own Scholium Project to the Suisan Valley (a 3 mile by 8 mile AVA bordering Napa Valley) where he could focus almost exclusively on his own wines.

Schoener openly acknowledges that sometimes his wines don’t taste like other wines. He admits that sometimes the wines are the result of experiments. And he claims not to be a renegade, but he certainly does push the limits of wine and most importantly, make people think! And speaking of thinking, his label (or logo) is a diagram of the first proposition of Issac Newton’s Principia (now that is pretty cool). Abe taught John Kongsgaard’s high school aged children for a couple years in exchange for John’s wine lessons and Abe and the kids spent nearly a year on Newton!

The Prince in his Caves’ name comes from Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, the Prince of Venosa who in Schoener’s words was “a winemaker who toiled for years, alone, on a tiny estate outside of Rome.” Apparently “the prince” did not release any of the wines that he made from 1986 – 1994; the wine simply sat in his “cave.” Scholium’s Prince in his Caves is comprised of skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc from the Farina Vineyard. This is NOT your typical Sauvignon Blanc largely due to the fact that unlike nearly all white wines made today the grape juice is fermented with the grape skins. The inspiration for this technique comes from the winemakers of Friuli (in Italy, but near the Slovenian border) where winemakers like Gravner and Radikon have been experimenting with skin-fermented whites for years.

Most notable initially with the 2008 Prince in his Caves is the wine’s color. It’s more orange than golden/yellow and it’s cloudy (the wine is unfiltered). It can be oft-putting to drinkers used to traditional whites; I find it exciting and if nothing else, conversation provoking. The nose is intense – your olfactory glands will immediately be stimulated with big grapefruit notes. The wine tastes slightly oxidized. This is actually purposeful as Schoener does not top up his wines while they ferment as frequently as most vintners (thereby allowing the wine to interact with air). Abe isn’t going for fruit; he’s going for secondary flavors and aromas. He’s trying to make you think.

For me, the 2008 is interesting but I’m not sure it’s delicious. I love the nose and I love the way the wine makes me think with every taste. But after the initial shock, it’s kind of flat. The wine improved as it was open longer and the finish became longer and more complex, but it still left me searching for more. Perhaps that is Abe’s point; after all, he is a philosopher.

Old School Rioja: ’54 and ’68 Lopez de Heredia

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Events, Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-29-2010

A corner of the Lopez de Heredia cellar

I had the good fortune to attend a charity wine-tasting event in New York the other evening. It was a standard NYC charity affair — lots of well-to-do, well-dressed folks who knew little (to nothing) about the charity and were instead focused on tracking down a job or a spouse. You know, those endless pursuits that make the city that never sleeps so inexorably restless.

I was there for the wine. Two wines to be precise: the 1968 and 1954 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Vina Tondonias.

Most could not resist the siren calls of the well-known Italian and California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends. There was a constant clamor to secure a spot in front of the tables pouring wines like Sassicaia, Silver Oak and Quintessa. The proprietors were busy — no time for talk or debate or a discussion of the merits of the wine. Instead, the theme of the evening seemed to be “Pour, baby, pour.”

These were great wines, made from grapes grown in meticulously groomed vineyards by winemakers who are no doubt incredibly passionate about their craft. But the wines being poured were from 2007. I don’t mean to take anything away from 2007. After all, it was a phenomenal vintage in Napa and a strong showing in Tuscany, following the much-hyped 2006 vintage. But drinking 2007 Bordeaux blends just after they’ve been bottled is not for me. If I want to have the enamel stripped from my teeth I can do it more cost-effectively by scheduling a dentist appointment.

Lopez de Heredia was founded around 1877 when Don Rafael Lopez de Heredia began construction of the building that is today known as the Lopez winery. The winery has been in family hands since and is today run by great-granddaughter Maria. The Lopez process of making wine is the same today as it was 130 years ago. The grapes are harvested by hand every October. Red grapes are destemmed and fermented with skins in large 240 hectolitre oak vats; wine is aged in American oak and then aged in bottle for varying amounts of time. Time is important to Lopez — unlike many modern commercial wineries. Even their most commercial wine must age in the bottle for a minimum of six months. The 1981 Gran Reserva was just released in 2006 — and it tasted like a baby in 2010. For those that are mathematically impaired, that is a whopping 25 years post-harvest!

The Lopez Gran Reservas, and the Tondonia in particular, are the estate’s finest wines. The Tondonia vineyard was founded between 1913 and 1914 by Don Rafael. It’s a beautiful 100-hectare vineyard located on the right bank of the Ebro river in Rioja planted mostly to the Tempranillo varietal. The Gran Reserva distinction is only granted to the highest-quality wine and is reserved for unique vintages that produce a truly exceptional crop.

The Gran Reserva wines spend an incredible eight years in the barrel before being bottled. Each year, a committee of three family members tastes the wine and tracks its progress. When the wine turns eight and is about to be bottled, the committee finally decides whether the wine is worthy of the “Gran Reserva” distinction. If so, then the wine spends at least another eight years aging in bottle before being released to the public. Since 1890, only 22 vintages of Lopez have made it to Gran Reserva status, including the 1954 and 1968.

Both the 1954 and the 1968 are still alive and kicking. That’s not a trivial statement, as these wines are 56 and 42 years old, respectively!

They drink like aged Grand Cru Burgundy; light on their feet, elegant, spherical in mouth feel and an oh-so-long finish. Both are now a brownish amber in color, but there is surprisingly little bricking for wines this old. Both wines still exhibit lovely aromatics, although the 1968 is more robust. The ’68 belies its old-age and gives off tastes of tobacco and dried cherries and cloves. The ’54 is smokier – tobacco and cigar smoke flavors are notable.

The tannins have faded but both wines (although the 1968 in more abundance) have a complex minerality and an acidic spine that makes them delicious (and makes you crave food).

Both wines are special, but for me, the 1968 was the wine of the night, with a little more fruit and a longer finish than the 1954. But perhaps what makes these wines truly special is that they still have more years of life in them. Here’s to another bottle of the 1968 in several years!