know when to hold ‘em

Kate and I spent a couple of weeks in Italy for a business/pleasure trip.  Actually, it was all business, but it’s hard not to have a little pleasure when in Italy.  We happened upon a retail establishment offering a free tasting of several wines from Pio Cesare (CHE-zar-ay in Italian).  Since 1881, the eponymous winemaker and his family have been making beautiful wines from Barolo and Barbaresco.  Those are two winemaking zones in Northern Italy’s Piedmont region known for their production of classic, age-worthy wines from the nebbiolo grape.  Marked by aromas of dried fruit and rose petals, well-made nebbiolo wines offer an incredible pairing with many types of Italian cooking, as well as grilled meats and even smoky BBQ. Pio Cesare wines have a reputation for quality, so I was happy to indulge in the tasting.

A couple of wines deep, and the young lady pouring the wine offered the Barbaresco. I could see its characteristic orange tinge, even though is was a relatively young 2007. I savored its aromas (prunes, fig, tar, licorice), took a sip, and after swirling it around in my mouth I said, “Oh, I love nebbiolo.”

At that point, she told me that the nebbiolo was coming, as she would be pouring the Barolo last.  My first instinct was to ask her why should would say that when I just enjoyed a nice sip of nebbiolo. She was clearly trying to educate me on the finer points of winemaking in Piedmont, but she was wrong! Alas, I stopped short and decided to let it be.  Why do such a thing?  Why indeed…

I find that there is a line between when I should educate and when I should just let well enough alone. In that setting, who am I, a monolingual American, to correct the Italian woman who is actually pouring the wine? I’m not wearing my sommelier lapel pin, and she certainly has not paid to attend my class. By offering a little information, I feared that she would take it as an affront and try to educate me. I knew I could avoid the whole encounter by just smiling and holding out my glass.

I try to read the situation in times like these. I’ve taught an eager restaurant waiter all about decanting – why we do it, how we do it properly, when to do it, and most importantly, when not to do it.  I’ve also smiled politely (and cringed inside) when a know-it-all general manager spun my beautifully-aged, and carefully-transported, bottle of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard around in the air as she told me she’s “had this before.”

We all have our areas of expertise, and we’ve all encountered somebody who presumes to know more than we do. More times than not, I’d rather nod and smile while I grab another free glass of Barbaresco.

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reach for the stems

I’ve written about wine glasses, and I’ve written about serving wine at the proper temperature. Let’s bring those two together and discuss how to handle the hardware.

Have you ever wondered why wine glasses have stems? I suppose I should clarify by saying “most” wine glasses, as some glass makers have been selling contemporary-styled stemless glasses for a few years now. But in general, when dining out, we expect that our wine will be served in a bowl set atop a stem firmly planted on a base etched with a stout German name like Riedel or Spiegelau (ok, Riedel is in Austria, but the name is still German…).

And after all that work and German engineering, most casual drinkers grab the bowl and gulp away. I see two problems with that – one is aesthetic, and the other is functional (i.e., one is tied to my anal-retentive nature, the other actually means something).

First, consider the time your server, or the sommelier, has put into polishing the glass. Not only has someone prepared the glass prior to setting on the floor (not the actual floor, but the area where guests dine) or at the bar, but it often gets a once-over prior to being filled. The guest’s insistence on placing his or her fingers, dripping with roux or béarnaise, all over the bowl is a slap in the face to those who have worked to present a spotless utensil. And honestly, do you really want to look at that carefully-selected pairing to a nice meal through a butter-crusted thumbprint?

do this

But beyond the mere courtesy, there is the effect your hand imparts on the glass’ contents. As you read this, your body is radiating heat derived from your internal, upper-90s temperature. When you grasp the bowl of wine, nothing but a millimeter or two of mouth-blown glass separates your radiating fingers from the wine that is almost 40 degrees cooler (or should be, anyway). When we consider the importance of consuming wine at the right temperature, it seems like such a shame to hasten any change by holding the glass like we’re kicking back with a glass of Richard Hennessy.

not that

Now, I have used this effect to my benefit, such as when warming a white wine that someone has poured for me from a bottle on ice. But such behavior should be adaptive and not the norm. Let’s grab what the Germans (or Austrians) gave us and enjoy wine as it was meant to be consumed.

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desert island wine

We all have things in our lives that we love so much, or simply cannot do without, that we would most certainly include them on our list of items that would make being marooned on a desert island just a little easier. I would bring a book (The Count of Monte Cristo) and my wife, although knowing us, we would view our dire situation as an opportunity to build a world-class resort with a lively fitness program and an upscale restaurant.

Ahhh, but what wine to serve at the restaurant? This is a desert island, so we can only select one. What would you pick? What wine would you absolutely not want to live without?

Kate and I were enjoying an intimate dinner at a relatively upscale restaurant in Las Vegas when I made a comment that most definitely diminished my street-cred with the sommelier. I said that zinfandel is my desert island wine. He quickly noted that his is white Burgundy, and we proceeded through the meal as though our exchange had never happened. I knew what he was thinking – “You have one wine in the entire world to select, and you pick zinfandel?!” He likely pictured me sipping my treasured wine from a shoe that washed up on shore while enjoying an accompanying helping of desert island mac and cheese.

But hear me out. Zinfandel, with its core of red fruit and brambly, spicy finish, goes so well with so many things. I imagine it would pair equally well with bugs and wombats. Even a steady diet of seafood would not be overwhelmed by a well-made/well-balanced zinfandel.

I realize that a sommelier at a nice restaurant in Vegas must declare white Burgundy, or Champagne, or German Riesling, or even the best of Bordeaux as the only real choice for a desert island. As I only somm for you on this website, I suppose I have the luxury of selecting outside the box – a pure, ripe, layered zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley will do me just fine…or at least hold me over until we start importing some Rioja for the restaurant.

Check the recommendations page for a couple of zinfandels that will make you appreciate the peace and quiet on your island.

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level 1 down – 3 more to go??

I earned my Level 1, or Introductory Sommelier certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers this past week. What a fantastic experience. I came away having further tuned my process of deductive tasting, which will not only improve my blind tasting skills, but, more importantly, will improve my ability to describe wines and their places of origin. I also received a lapel pin similar to the picture at right. Unfortunately, my work as a sommelier occurs mostly at my computer and among friends and family, so I will proudly display it at home as I continue studying to advance to the next level.

Yes, there are four levels, but it’s not like attaining the fourth level is a given.  Since 1973, only a handful have earned the coveted distinction of Master Sommelier each year. Most do not pass at least one of the three parts of the exam – knowledge, service, and blind tasting. To date, only 186 people in the world are able to wear that particular pin.

I was most fortunate to have five of those Masters teach my course in Washington, DC last week. They included Michigan-based restaurant and wine consultant Ron Edwards, Melissa Monosoff of Savona Restaurant in Philadelphia, educator and Boulder Wine Merchant owner Wayne Belding, New York restauranteur Scott Carney, and our own local Master Sommelier, Kathy Morgan of Michel Richard Citronelle in DC. These five individuals not only posses a passion for the subject, surpassed only by the breadth and depth of their knowledge, they have an uncanny knack for teaching and entertaining. Consider yourself lucky if you have the good fortune to cross paths with these or any other Master Sommelier out there. Oh, and go ahead and order whatever they recommend. You won’t be disappointed.

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my $0.02 on sideways; merlot’s unfair dive

Have you seen the movie Sideways? It’s on my mind because I recently started reading the sequel, Vertical.  Sideways is the 2004 dramedy (based on the book of the same name) starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, and Virginia Madsen that chronicles a bachelor party / California wine country tour that struggling writer Miles (Giamatti) gives his struggling actor friend Jack (Church). Despite wine’s presence as a backdrop for a complicated story about relationships, much of the world came away from that movie with two conclusions: pinot noir is king, and serious wine drinkers do not drink merlot. Thus began the rapid rise of the former and the untimely demise of the latter.

Miles waxes on, sometimes at length, about the glorious potential of pinot noir. Two hours of that will leave almost anyone wanting to pour a glass. But at one point in the movie, as Jack coaxes him to the dinner table with a couple of lady-friends, Miles vigorously, and rather comically, declares that he will not be drinking merlot at dinner. That one statement sent sales plunging.

We also learn during the movie that Miles’ prized bottle of his small collection is a 1961 Cheval-Blanc from the Saint Emilion

1961 Cheval-Blanc from Saint Emilion AOC

growing area in Bordeaux. The irony is that Cheval-Blanc is a blend of merlot and cabernet franc (the standard blend of “right-bank” wines from the area of Bordeaux to the right, or east, of the Gironde and Dordogne Rivers). Many viewers assumed this was commentary on Miles’ true ineptness; he portends to be a wine expert, eschewing a varietal that many “common” wine drinkers embrace, only to [unknowingly?] hold in greatest esteem a wine made primarily from that very grape (the 1961 had more merlot than usual; Cheval-Blanc is known for its backbone of cabernet franc).

My take, though not original, but indeed in the minority, is that merlot represented Miles’ ex-wife. He still had feelings for her, and at that time in his life, she represented the epitome of his high standards. He also recognized the self-destructive nature of his reliance on her, and that frustration boiled over when he lashed out at merlot. Unfortunately, the nuance was lost on the majority of the viewers, and merlot was tagged with an inferior label.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on merlot by folks who assume I would take the same stance as Miles. As with most questions about wine posed to me, my answer is more than a couple of words. I say that merlot is made by a lot of winemakers around the world, and some of them throw it in oak for too long and create a bulk wine that eliminates terroir. In general, I’m just not a fan of oak juice. But in the right hands, merlot can be a very satisfying varietal (bottled as a single grape), and it most certainly can be blended into the stuff of legends, as demonstrated in Bordeaux for centuries. To that end, I’ve added a couple of recommendations where merlot is either the star or sits among a supporting cast. Either way, I encourage you to look past any tarnished image of merlot you may have and discover the opulent, velvety nature of the most widely-planted grape in Bordeaux.

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dependable duckhorn

Last night’s dinner was an impromptu celebration of the close of a tough work week for both Kate and me. The week was so full of complex issues, rigorous thinking, and important interactions (Kate’s interview piece with the French media among them), we spun our wheels for 20 minutes just trying to settle on a type of cuisine. We both generally make quick decisions; this time we just wanted to be told what to do. When indecisive, it’s hard to turn down the idea of a steak and a bottle of wine.

Enter Ruth’s Chris. Sitting on the 11th floor in Crystal City, the restaurant’s large windows allow diners to watch the constant take-offs and landings at Reagan National airport, which comes off more like a ballet and less like an industrial “airport” operation you might imagine. Beyond that, the view turns to boaters on the Potomac River cruising in and out of the city, and finally the sweeping vista that is the Nation’s capital.

We were pleased when our server, Al, greeted us, as he’s taken great care of us before. An Army veteran from Tennessee, his southern drawl and genuinely friendly approach is a refreshing departure from DC’s usual hustle. As Kate and I slowly perused the wine list, Al brought over a taste of white wine, which, I am happy to report, I correctly identified as a Riesling from Mosel, Germany (maybe some of that studying is paying off). Kate and I both had filets with shrimp. As expected, everything was delicious. The sous chef even sauteed some mushrooms and onions for us (after a little sweet talking from Al).

Our wine selection was a standout. We had several ideas, but settled on the 2009 Decoy Meritage from Duckhorn Vineyards. Founded in the Napa Valley in 1976, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, along with winemaker Bill Nancarrow, have earned a reputation for crafting quality, complex, age-worthy wines primarily using Bordeaux varietals. The Decoy is a blend of Merlot (46%), Cabernet Sauvignon (43%), Cabernet Franc (9%), and Petit Verdot (2%). The mocha of the Merlot and the black currant of the Cabernet Sauvignon shine through, while the subtle complexities from the other two grapes, along with aging in mostly used French oak barrels, offer an appealing earthy, smoky, licorice.

One small digression: The Meritage name was created in 1988 by a group of Napa Valley vintners who wanted a way to identify their wines as red Bordeaux blends, that is, a red wine composed of up to five grape varieties that are permitted in France to be bottled as Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. This is essentially America’s Bordeaux blend, and the name rhymes with “heritage.” That means you don’t want to infuse an artificial foreign pronunciation by turning the last syllable into “taj,” as in “Taj Mahal.”

I call this post “dependable duckhorn” because this is the second time Kate and I have settled on this brand at a restaurant, and so far they are two for two. The last time was at Olives in the Las Vegas Bellagio, and we chose the 2007 Parradux Red Wine, a blend that uses Zinfandel as its backbone. I’ve mentioned that wine on here before, so I won’t belabor the point.

We all lead busy lives, and sometimes we just want to kick back with a nice meal and a glass of wine. If you don’t live in DC, you might not be able to enjoy Al’s company while looking out across the Potomac, but you can always rely on a good steak and a bottle of Duckhorn to cap off a hectic week.

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tasting and studying

I’ve been out of touch for a while, primarily because I registered for the August Introductory level exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers in Washington, DC.  Any free time I have to devote to wine, during which I would normally be writing here, has been spent with my nose in a book or in a glass.  The study guide that the Court sent me is 22 pages; I recommend that they trim it down to one page with one sentence: “You should study everything.”

I certainly did not register for the exam without a decent base of knowledge of varietals, regions, and vineyards, but raising that knowledge up a few notches has proven to be a humbling, and quite rewarding, experience.  Burgundy…yeah, yeah – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Montrachet, Domaine de la Romanée Conti – got it.  Oh wait, how many Grand Crus are there in Chablis?  And what’s the link between Corton and Ladoix-Serrigny?  Yes, I have some studying to do.

Wine is one of those fields where the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.  I felt that way a lifetime ago (so it feels) when I was trying to wrap my brain around astrodynamics.  I know that I love the wines of Italy’s Piedmont, that those wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape, and that the great powerhouse communes of that area are Barolo and Barbaresco.  I also love that I can peel back layer after layer of knowledge and information about that area – its history, tradition, culture, geography – and still only scratch the surface of what makes Nebbiolo such a beautiful wine.

Kate and I conducted a tasting with another couple this weekend during which we drank some superb wines and learned a lot about new world and old world styles.  We covered France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.  Unlike astrodynamics, this is the kind of studying I can really appreciate.

So if my postings get a little sparse leading up to August, it’s because I am flipping through flashcards (love the Flashcards Deluxe app for iPad and iPhone), reading through Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, or recording tasting notes to understand the influence of climate on Sauvignon Blanc grown in Sancerre versus Marlborough.  I’ll keep you posted on my progress, and look forward to sharing some insights along the way.

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