Bourgogne Passetoutgrain: Gamey Gamay

Pinot Noir doesn’t need my stamp-of-approval of course, but Gamay is a groovy grape that occasionally wears a stamp-of-ignominy because of Beaujolais Nouveau—which I also like—and which, in any case, is as absurd as dissing Zinfandel because of Sutter Home.

Gamay in Passetoutgrain

Gamay in Passetoutgrain

Passetoutgrain, sometimes written with a hyphen after the ‘Passe’ and another one after the ‘tout’, is an interesting Burgundian appellation in that it not location-centric and may cover all of the AOC ‘Bourgogne’. This includes the communes of Côte d’Or, Rhône (not the wine region Rhône), Saône-et-Loire (not the wine region Loire) and Yonne.  But, since it is an appellation defined by grape varieties, one of which is Gamay, the bulk of it comes from areas in the Côte Challonaise, where red wines may be spicy and relatively inexpensive, like the Pinot Noirs of Rully and Mercurey.

Domaine Arnoux Père et Fils

Domaine Arnoux Père et Fils

Created in 1937, Passetoutgrain means ‘All Grapes Pass’, and indeed, there is little separation of varieties at harvest.  But there must be some, since the rules of the game say that to wear the name Passetoutgrain the wine must contain more that 30% Pinot Noir, more than 15% Gamay with the rest made up of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris in any quantity totaling less than 15%.  The resulting hodgepodge, if vinified with circumspection, equals a beautifully rustic, everyday wine that is suited to casual consumption without pedantics; no requisite mention of lieu-dits and two-acre-parcels that often accompany wines from Burgundy, the most coveted real estate in France.

peasantsAnd that pretty much describes Domaine Arnoux Bourgogne Passetoutgrain, 2011.  A touch older than ideal, the wine nonetheless shows more complexity than might be expected from a like-priced Beaujolais (around $16), opening with a carbonic whiff of cranberry juice and fresh tart cherries, leading into deeper, chewy scents of dry, earth and leather, and then even deeper to roasted meat. It’s sharply acidic and slightly smoky, filled with immediate flavors that emphasize the fruit in the nose (kirsch as well) and less of the savory fleshiness. The wine shows satisfactory, medium length on the palate and seems suited to a family of intrepid, Pre-Revolution subsistence workers hunched in a peaty hovel supping thistles, salt fish and beans and raising a cup of the meal’s highlight:

Peasant wine.


Posted in Burgundy, BY VARIETAL, FRANCE, Gamay, Gamay, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Droning On About Smith-Madrone

New-Year-inNothing like new friends and new wines to introduce the New Year along with the anticipation of making new enemies over our old opinions on wine, eh?

Although I am sure my pal Julie Ann Kodmur will not unpal me over my opinions of the triumvirate of tasty treats she sent me from Smith-Madrone: Three thumbs up.

Spring Mountain District

Spring Mountain District

The selections represent three unique vintages, offering a cross-section of both fruit and fruition in the tiny Napa appellation of  Spring Mountain District. Nestled into the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains at elevations as high as 2,600 feet, the region is home to around 30 wineries offering the quintessence of mountain-grown wines. That is, cooler temperatures and longer hang times result in cleaner, acid-driven wines packed with ripe but nimble flavors; they may be cleaner in profile than valley wines and, in good vintages, showcase the ‘red’ contours of red wine grapes, cherry and raspberry, while in white varietals, melon and stone fruits predominate.

Smith brothers

Smith brothers

Smith-Madrone is named for the brothers Smith (Stu and Charles) and the Madrone trees that cohabitate with them on the 34 acres they grow on hillsides that may reach 30% grades. Eastern slopes are reserved for Riesling, southern and western exposures for Cabernet Sauvignon and northern slopes for Chardonnay. The vines are dry-farmed, meaning that the roots struggle to find water and thus, penetrate deeper and through varied soil strata, often resulting in nuanced wine with greater complexity. Vines aged 25 years or more can also produce multi-layered wine with sensory dimensions beyond the reach of their younger counterparts.  And it shows in the Smith-Madrone portfolio, drawn from vines up to forty years old.

20112011 was somewhat wet and dreary, with long rains in April and May delaying bloom on some vines and disrupting fruit set on others.  This set the stage for a smaller-than-average harvest.  Diligent vineyard managers opened up the leaf canopies to allow maximum sunlight to reach the clusters, and a long warm summer salvaged the vintage, leading to some intense wines of great depth.

2012 was an ideal year for Spring Mountain, with ample rainfall during the winter and a dry early spring. The growing season, while cool, offered no real climate exaggerations until a heat spike just before harvest, but that settled down and allowed a longer, more leisurely final ripening.  The heat inversion that plays a vital role above the valley fogs allowed for a slow accumulation of grape sugars and extended the time the grapes were able to develop the riper flavor nuances.

2012If possible, vintners were even more satisfied with 2013 than the previous year, with each development phase of a vine’s yearly cycle occurring in an orderly and predicable fashion. According to Tom Ferrell, Executive Director, Spring Mountain District Association, “Winemakers are never perfectly content with any vintage; there is always something they would change. But this year I was hard-pressed to draw anything from Spring Mountain District winemakers other than praise for the fruit the vintage handed them.”

Try the following as an introduction to the nuances of vintage and the alpine amplitude of Smith-Madrone’s wines. They are wines that define the region, from a winery that is not only on top of Spring Mountain, but also, on top of their game.

cabSmith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, 2011 ($48)

Brisk perfectly-ripe red and black berries in the nose, neither jammy nor stewed.  The juicy perfume is shored by dry-leaf tobacco notes and a bit of wood smoke.  Eager but adolescent, the wine has its dominant acids up front and its mouth-coating tannins holding up the rear, but the fruit—though lively and restless—is too solidly framed by both.  These are traits that fade with time, and will doubtlessly lead to an integration of the whole, at which point, I predict a silken, voluptuous wine that expresses harmony in this indispensable trio of cab components.

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District (Napa), 2012

The wine opens with a blast of lemon custard, vanilla and honey, leading to concentrated blend of peach and and citrus acid framed by malo cream.  This is an exquisite Napa chardonnay with a textbook California unctuousness balanced by cool-climate crispness—a wine that take cues from Burgundy, but signs it with an expression of pure, New World clarity.

rieslingSmith-Madrone Riesling, Spring Mountain District, 2013

A commendable representation of Riesling in California, albeit with restrained aromatics. There’s a touch of sulfur in the foreground, but it quickly dissipates into light aromas of peach syrup and almond. In the mouth, these sappy stone fruit flavors flesh out and become an expansive fruit bowl of sweet melon and apricot with clear mineral tones and tart grapefruit in the end.  Acidity is fresh and corralled by sweetness, and the wine offers an advanced course in Rheingau-styled Rieslings in a climate where only impassioned winemakers succeed.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Spring Mountain District | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Life’s A Bubble: Sparkling New Thoughts, Fizzy New Year

In the week before Christmas and New Year’s, it is customary to write a column about Champagne and related species.  And doing what is expected, occasionally a thorn in the paw of creativity, also keeps us focused in this time of hedonistic overload, when corks fly merrily and cheer is synonymous with alcoholic indulgence and the only reason you have a job in 2015 was that your boss was too drunk at the holiday gathering to remember what it was you said about his wife that made him want to fire you in the first place.

Thus, a little discipline is in order.

And thus, the stolid tale of three sparkling wines.

VallDolina Cava Reserva

Americans don’t drink enough Cava, and that which they do drink tends to be the stuff you find at 7-11 between the Monster Energy and 40-ounce malt liquors.  If this was your introduction to Spanish méthode traditionnelle and you opted to pull the plug on future experimentation, you are to be forgiven: It’s as if your first dating experience was dinner and a movie with Lorena Bobbitt.

Catalan vines

Catalan vines

Nearly all of world’s Cava comes from Catalonia in Spain’s extreme northeast; in fact, the word ‘cava’ is Catalan, a language that in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar is said to be closer to French than Spanish. It’s the official tongue of Andorra, and in any case, ‘cava’ means cave. It was adopted by Catalan winemakers in 1970 to distinguish the product from Champagne, which must, by law, come from the eponymous region of northern France.

Like the language, Cava is a different beverage. The Holy Trinity of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; in Cava, it’s Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. Tasting notes in either category are as varied as the price tags, but in general—to my senses—Cava’s profile runs toward richer, baked apple flavors and Mandarin orange, and the earthier, croissant-like sweetness of yeast and butter—when experienced together, reminiscent of a fruit turnover.  Champagne may seem more elegant up front, with crisper citrus notes, fresh apple in the nose and finer toast scents.  Exceptions, of course, abound.

Garraf-Massif.10The Garraf Massif is a Catalan mountain range, and from its calcareous slopes come some of the world’s finest Cavas. Like chalky Champagne, these lime-rich, easy-draining soils are loaded with the remains of marine micro-organisms which may also act as a reservoir, providing the vines water even during drought. Such soils are said to impart a certain mineral quality to the wines they produce, and however much this can be disputed by geologists, the clean, slate-like quality in Garraf Cava cannot.

Considered one of the finest winemakers in Penedès (where the Cava DO is located) Raimon Badell of Cellar Masia Can Tutusaus produced organic Cava since 1998, adhering to the European Directive 2092/91.  This nod toward an ecological future does not diminish Badell’s time-honored practice of manual disgorging without freezing the sediment, an arduous tradition requiring a special expertise.

valldolinaVallDolina—a name that refers to the valleys that bisect the Garraf mountains—contains, beside the three primary grapes of the region, a small percentage of Chardonnay to add structure and ‘vinosity’—a buzzword that, like ‘minerality’,  is hard to pin down.

Four years on the lees leaves an impression much easier to define: The wine opens with a full-flavored nose of apple custard and toasted brioche, leading into a palate balancing crispiness with cream. The acids are bright and omnipresent from beginning to end, tempered with nuttiness and dried apricot notes that may, in part, result from Cava’s climate, warmer than Champagne, allowing for the development of phenologically riper grapes.  Plus, the years the wine spends sur lee allow for the emergence of complex autolytic compounds that heal too-aggressive acidity and provide the characteristic pastry and honey flavors.

The clear VallDolina advantage, of course, is price. At $18, this Cava Reserva, a robust and exquisite sparkling wine that can rival Champagnes—and even other high-end Cavas—costing three times as much.

Lancelot-Pienne Brut Blanc de Blancs à Cramant, NV

You say Crémant, I say Cramant—but let’s not call the whole thing off just yet.  Crémant, of course, is a wine word used to describe sparkling wines with a bit less fizz, and may also refer to sparkling wines made outside of Champagne and from varieties other than those legally permitted in that region. Cramant is a place—a commune in the  Côte des Blancs sub region of Champagne. Thus, all Cramant is Champagne, but not all Champagne is Crémant.

On to the wine:

Tlance labelhe estate of Lancelot-Pienne’s history traces back 120 years when Jean-Baptiste Lancelot, then a vigneron for Mumm, put in the first of what is now 20 acres of vines.  His son, Jean, took the reins after World War II and began produce his own cuvées. The third generation of Lancelot married into the Champagne family Pienne, and in 1967, the vineyards of both houses came into common ownership.  Since then, the estate has produced wine exclusively from its own estate, releasing a tiny yearly average of 700 cases.

Gilles Lancelot

Gilles Lancelot

Gilles Lancelot has been the knight in charge since 2005, and the Blanc de Blanc—a 100% Chardonnay cuvée—comes from plots Grands Crus villages of the Côte des Blancs.  These vineyards enjoy an optimal southeast exposure and are on steep gradients to maximize sunlight. About 80% of the base wine is vintage, with the remainder being steel-aged wine stored under a Solera system, blending freshness and finesse with complexity and richness.



Indeed, the wine shows a strikingly metaphorical nose, one suited to a Blanc de Blanc—everything I inhale is redolent of white stuff.  White truffles, white peaches, pears, white stones.  It’s followed by silken-textured mouthfeel filled with toasty, biscuity notes (white ones), an almost crystallized honey expression and a good show of textbook Cramant minerality.  At around $40 a bottle, it is at an equivalent price point of the house blends which by their breeding—though meant to reflect a consistent style—tend to be generic and somewhat limited in complexity. Lancelot-Pienne Brut Blanc de Blancs à Cramant, by contrast, is filled with depth and lyrical character.

Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blanc Brut, 1999

With a beautiful vintage Champagne from a respected estate (not to mention a $160 price tag), I did what bubble purists might consider sacrilege: I blew it off for twenty-four hours after opening it.

The immediacy inherent in sparkling wine is part of its legacy, especially during this gimme, gimme season.  Corks are popped and the wine is poured so quickly that frothy run-off is part of the tradition; Champagne screams ‘now’, and the quick dissipation of the sparkle is science of which there are not many ways around. Nor are there many reasons to want one: Champagne is for festive moments, shared celebrations, and five skinny flutes is about all you’ll get out of a bottle in the first place.

L.: Wrong R.: Right

L.: Wrong
R.: Right

Except that flutes are all wrong, especially for a pricier Champagne.  Trust me, if you don’t care about the sensory nuance that aged vintage Champagne brings—and plenty of arriviste Champagne fans don’t—save yourself the do-re-mi and go for the label’s standard $40 non-vintage bottling.

Mousse is a must, but an excess of theatrical lace tends to mask the wealth of aromatics that are vintage Champagne’s real calling card; rising carbon dioxide may showcase citrus and yeasty tones, but it doesn’t encourage the release of subtle esters, ethers and aldehydes; that happens when wine mixes with oxygen, and that’s the reason we swirl it in the glass.

And, of course, swirling a flute is a futile and messy endeavor, which is one of the reasons it is a silly choice for a Champagne glass.  Flutes focus the bubbles while denying the bouquet sufficient space to expand.  Wine should be a faithful messenger of the soil, and the soils of Champagne are so connected to its glory that to mute them is, to me, a far greater sin than giving them time to open up: Even the twenty-four hours I waited.

This time lapse was certainly at the expense of the lion’s share of the froth mane, but (a nod to the quality of the winemaking) not all of it.  It created a wine in the style alluded to above:  Crémant.

Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blanc Brut bottleNot entirely the experience that the esteemed estate in Mareuil-sur-Ay may have intended, but I can, perhaps, be forgiven if I point out some of the deeper mysteries that revealed themselves in the wine when the fizz settled and the wine was given leisure to unzip itself:

The wine leads with a savory whiff of rich, buttery strudel—the dénouement of eleven years on the lees; the earthen crust gives rise to poached pear and waxy lemon peel with light undertones of ginger.  The thickness—and this is not a pejorative—of the fruit is revealed with a tamed effervescence, showing a succulent array of apple peel, lemon chiffon, toasted almond and spice, finishing with a long, sensuous, bracing minerality and an acid spark.

You may not want to leave an entire bottle in the cooler overnight, but I suggest you save a single glass and try it the following day.  See if you agree that there are dimensions to this delightful beverage–depths to be plumbed—that are often overlooked for the sake of instant gratification.

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Six Achingly Bold Wine Predictions For 2015

Jeane_DixonEvery year at this time I channel the ectospasm of Jean Dixon, who gives me access to a smattering of trade journal wine headlines that will appear throughout the upcoming year. 

Use this information with wisdom and circumspection, my children, because it is entrusted to few.

‘Low Alcohol Wine Reaches Final Nadir‘
Practical Winery & Vineyard, January, 2015:

Frē, the ethanol-less wine from Sutter Home, should have been the final nail in the coffin of the lower-alcohol wine movement, but a couple of doctoral students at Brigham Young University have come up with something even more insidious: A wine containing cobaine—a killjoy molecule named after Kurt ‘Headless In Seattle’ Cobain, which actually enters the hippocampus and robs the body of serotonin, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid and other neurotransmitters responsible for making life seem worth living.

Biff McQueeferson

Biff McQueeferson

“Far from offering the soft, uplifting, wholly Satanic buzz of normal wine, a single glass of our product leaves you with the physiological and emotional fallout of a four-day bender without forcing you to undergo that silly, life’s-a-bubble phase of inebriation,” says inventor and LDS Church History Major Biff McQueeferson.

The wine is called Carrē (after the teetotaling psychopath Carrie Nation) and will be on the market in time to ruin everybody’s weekend.

‘Millennials Embrace Dried Wine’
Food & Wine, March, 2015:

Fahrblunget Shaygetz

Fahrblunget Shaygetz

“Millennials are storming the wine market and they want adventure and demand more innovation from the industry,” says Fahrblunget Shaygetz, CEO of Ferklempt Wines in Gorxheimertalhausen, Germany.  “That’s why we came up with ‘Sweet, Dry ‘n’ Dried’, a product line that offers estate wines in a dehydrated format which can be snorted off a toilet seat.” She added, “We discourage smoking it for health reasons.”

Snorting wine hygenically

Snorting wine hygenically

The new-wave of dried wine descriptors include ‘Mucous membrane-ruputuringly dusty,’ and ‘Chronic nosebleed followed by light notes of nasal gangrene.’

“Historically, wine has been marketed to older generations and came with a huge pretense,” says Maria Conchita Consuela Repomuceno y Gomez, owner of Sea Donkey Brands.“But this generation is blowing all of that out of the water. They don’t care about the pretentiousness of a wine, its pedigree or its history—what they want, what they really, really want, is something that can be ingested nasally.”

‘Natural Wine Found To Contain Leprosy’
New York Times, June 20, 2015

Adhémar Laizoraclevonbontrain

Adhémar Laizoraclevonbontrain

When it comes to the Emperor’s new clothes, ‘natural’ wine (as opposed to unnatural wines like Pétrus and Châteauneuf-du-Pape) has been shedding garments quicker than Gypsy Rose Lee in her prime, but the coup de grâce may have finally come with l’Ecole d’Anciens Elèves’ isolation of infectious Mycobacterium leprae in over six dozen bottles of wines that wear the ‘natural’ label.  According Adhémar Laizoraclevonbontrain of the the academy’s research department, “Refusing ze use of preservatives, vitamins, enzymes allows the proliferation of ze funny little bugs wizzin ze wine, including zose related to ritualized impurity.”

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh

Leprosy, of course, is the Biblical scourge that presented the Living Incarnate, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, Son of Man, with his most opportunistic photo-op miracle-working moments, but today—lovers of natural wine take note—it is fully treatable, leaving the infected with after-effects no worse than a  complexion like Joe Walsh’s.

Laizoraclevonbontrain was very quick to point out that no ebola virus was discovered in the natural wines, putting to rest a rumor that had spread in wine circles quicker than pus on a griddle: “Zat was E. coli,” she assured us.

‘Chinese Discover Red Bean Wine’, August 4, 2015

“We’ve come full circle!”

Chin Fat, journalist

Chin Fat, journalist

That’s how drink journalist Chin Fat of the People’s Wine Daily describes China’s recent move toward a thousand-year-old chinkabilly brew made from indigenous adzuki beans.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time for us, either,” Chin noted. “We Chinese have already purchased all of Bordeaux and most of Burgundy, but there still isn’t enough red wine to satisfy the thirteen billion chorks with corks. We’ve search in our ancestors vaults amd have discovered that the ancient Chinese secret isn’t Calgon, but shōzu pútáoji.

VaChina, a wine importer based in Beijing, carries several brands of shōzu pútáoji, which critics have described as tasting like a cross between raw sewage, yellow soybean paste and fermented descending colons.

Adzuki, of course, is a loan word from Ebonics and is a mispronunciation of ‘dookie’.

‘Pinche Pendejo Introduces Fruity Pebbles-Flavored Moscato’
The Gray Market Report, October 13, 2015

Mindful of the unprecedented popularity of Moscato among the young, the hip and the non-Caucasian, Málaga-based importer Pinche Pendejo has introduced a line of ghetto Moscato in various flavors mimicking the sugar bomb cereals that we buy our kids to shut them up.  “We know that marketing wine to a younger generation involves making them comfortable with the taste,” says sales director Nacho Nacimiento.  “So we opted against the costly alternative of education and decided to make wine in flavors they already knew and craved.”

pebblesThe first of those offerings is Fruity Pebbles Moscato, released through a select group of inner-city liquor stores, where a random sampling of tasting notes has included, “Molar crumblingly cloying, with fresh notes of niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, toasty zinc oxide and ample layers of ripe unnecessary sweetener. Rich, concentrated and filled with depth of artificiality, this special wine offers beautiful impurity and imbalance while coating your palate with hydrogenated vegetable oil and sensations similar to an untreated dental abscess.”

Buoyed by such success, Pinche is poised to release Cap’n Crunch Cabernet, Golden Grahams Grenache and Count Chocula Băbească Neagră by early next year.

‘Homeless Protest To Remove Poison From Ethanol’
Wine Spectator, December 3, 2015

exxon-mobil_Logo1As we all know, the largest single expense in the daily life of the homeless is alcohol, and the single cheapest source of bulk alcohol is the ethanol pump at the gas station. That’s why the recent WikiLeaks exposé showing that ExxonMobil intentionally adds paraquat—a pesticide used by Monsanto in the eradication of non-GMO cornfields—to ethanol intended for car fuel in order to discourage poor people from consuming it is drawing such condemnation from the homeless.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, DeMarcus G. Demeter of sidewalk outside 23 West 116th Street, New York, said, “Alcohol is a right, not a privilege. This is a conspiracy perpetrated by big business in Temperance Movement uniforms.”

'Drunk Lives Matter'

‘Drunk Lives Matter’

Other cities have recently seen mass demonstrations by the domestically challenged, including a march on the White House led by legendary alcoholic David’s Hasselhoff, where the chant du jour was, “Drunk lives matter.”

In other cities, police in riot gear have dispersed the crowds of thirsty, sober homeless people by dousing them with Thunderbird from high-powered fire-engine hoses.

Contacted by Ouija Board, President John F. Kennedy, who asked not to be identified, said, “Those who make peaceful imbibing impossible make violent imbibing inevitable.”

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New Year’s Soul-Search: 3 People Who Are Bigger Losers Than You

…Or me.

shoplifting-pic-dr-906736505At this contemplative season of the year, when we add up our lives on our brand-new shoplifted Wolfram Mathematica 9 calculators, many of us heave sighs of resignation. We are not wealthy, we have not won Heisman Trophies or solved the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture; we have not immortalized our handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater nor hacked Emma Watson’s cell phone photos; not only have we not run any four minute miles, the only perfect innings we’ve pitched is while scamming on drunk chicks who are (frankly) barely 5.5s, even at two AM in the Corktown Tavern.

Dipshit Richter Scale

Dipshit Richter Scale

That’s why we would all do our egos a solid by reminding ourselves that however wretched our existence may seem and even though we may wake up in cold sweat in the middle of the night remembering stupid things we’ve said, even decades ago, there are a handful of people darkening the paths of our shared humanity who carry within them shames of such magnitude that the Dipshit Richter Scale simply can’t keep up.

To name but a few:

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Can Don Currey Hear You Laughing at Him?

Donald Rusk Currey loved his Planet Earth. Widely respected for his research into primordial Lake Bonneville, a large body of water that once covered most of what is now Utah, his colleagues referred to him as a paleolimnologist and a geoarchaeologist and a geochronoloist, rarely citing the degree which perhaps best sums up his most memorable moment: Epic dumbassologist.

L.: Donald Rusk Currey R.: Festering corpse of WPN-114

L.: Donald Rusk Currey
R.: Festering corpse of WPN-114

In 1964, as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Currey was on a field trip to the White Mountains of California studying climate dynamics using an approach that involves boring out tree rings and counting them.  On a wooded peak in the Snake Ridge he discovered a population of Bristlecone Pines that seemed to be much older than research indicated they should be. So, he began taking core samples to find out—a technique that does not in general prove fatal to trees. Currey focused his attention on one particularly old pine which he dubbed WPN-114, and it proved such a recalcitrant patient that he broke not one, but two very expensive carbide steel increment borers while trying to obtain overlapping cores.

So, like a good little conservationist, he simply cut the fucker down.

Back at the lab, counting the rings from the section he chainsawed off, he discovered to his horror that he had killed the oldest tree ever discovered on earth. Not only that, but shortly thereafter some braniac biologist informed him that WPN-114 was not only the oldest tree, it was also the oldest living organism ever discovered on earth.

Phhhht.  All in a day’s work; huh, douchenozzle?

Although Currey went on to have a career in academia, he was never able to outshine that monumental doh! moment with all of his stuffy published tripe about geomorphology combined.

Somebody Forgot to Put on his Thinking Capa…

The best thing about cinema in 1944 was that when Cary Grant flubbed a line, you simply did another take. The best thing about war in 1944 was that when something went haywire during a photo shoot, you couldn’t.

Capa wore this expression of disgust for the rest of his life.

Capa wore this expression of disgust for the rest of his life.

Robert Capa was a war correspondent who embedded himself before embedding was in vogue.  No, it was in Life.  That’s who Capa worked for when he stormed ashore at Omaha Beach with the first wave of American troops, braving relentless fire from German troops inside the bunkers of the Atlantikwall. Attached to the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, Capa used two Contax II cameras to capture more than a hundred real-time images of the beach assault before returning to London with four rolls of film.  There, a fifteen-year-old jagoff in Life Magazine’s photo lab promptly cranked the heater up past critical mass and fried nearly all of Capa’s pictures—only eleven remained even somewhat visible, and those were blurred and surreal.  The kid’s name was Dennis Banks, and ironically, he is not this story’s biggest loser: That would be Larry Burrows.

See, Larry—another teenager who worked for the magazine—was initially, and for a long time afterwards, blamed for the utter FUBAR dickweed fail that melted Capa’s priceless images.  Never fully vindicated, Burrows nonetheless went on to become a respected war correspondent, dying in the line of duty in Vietnam in 1971.

Dennis Banks, on the other hand, continued his losing streak by purchasing the top five hundred feet of Mount St. Helen’s in 1979.

The Planet’s Priciest Puddle

We all know that Thomas Jefferson, besides being a miscegenatist deeply committed to slavery, was the closest thing we’ve had to a wino president. Fewer folks know that some of the wine from his lauded cellar—which was probably paid for by taxpayers—is still around, and when they go up for auction, they command jawbreaking bids.

L.: 1787 Margaux R. Butterfingers Sokolin

L.: 1787 Margaux
R. Butterfingers Sokolin

One such wine was the 1787 Château Margaux (inscribed with Jefferson’s John Hancock) that had been discovered in Paris in 1985—it was owned by a French firm and consigned to Manhattan wine merchant William Sokolin. Sokolin was attending a tony black-tie Bordeaux dinner at the Four Seasons when it occurred to him how much attention he could draw to himself if he rushed home to get the bottle, which he had carefully stowed away in a refrigerated safe.  Sokolin had once (he claims) played in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system and apparently had a hard-on for Rusty Staub, who was also at the dinner. Hurrying back to show off the bottle, he accidentally smashed it against a table edge—likely, other adult beverages were also involved.

Thus, the loser in the story is the insurance company who then paid out a quarter million dollars for the world’s most expensive carpet stain—Scotch Guard not included.

Posted in GENERAL | 2 Comments

L’Enfant Jésus: Good to the Beaune

Everything about Burgundy is eternal; nothing about Burgundy is predictable.

Except for one thing: The Little Drummer Boy could not have afforded L’Enfant Jésus.

'Two Buck Chuck for the bucket-banger.'

‘Two Buck Chuck for the bucket-banger.’

When I was a fledgling fan of French phantasmagora, I used to use the mnemonic Beaune—pronouced ‘bone’—to remind me that the stunning wines of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune were white as a bone, whereas the great wines of the Côte de Nuits (nuit means night, which is dark) are primarily red. But as I said, nothing about Burgundy is predictable, and so the wine that fits into the obligatory category of a Christmas wine is both red and Beaune.

There are, of course, a number of stellar red wines from the northern part of Côte de Beaune, and the town itself—ground zero for much of Burgundy’s wine trade—is an appellation whose wines are predominately so.  And by red, it is understood to mean, wine pressed from Pinot Noir—the flagship variety in the commune. They are distinctive, delightful wines, leaner and racier than the heavier reds from neighboring Pommard and less domineering than the wines of Corton to the north.

Les Grèves

Les Grèves

Les Grèves is a hallowed vineyard in northern Beaune, a Premier Cru climat considered one of the best in the appellation. Despite ‘Beaune’ being pronounced ‘bone’, Les Grèves does not mean ‘grave’ but ‘gravel’; it is the high proportion of small stones in the plot that gives the land it’s characteristic drainage as well as a root-warming, subterranean rockpile. Maison Bouchard Père et Fils owns a handful of these acres, and from them, Vigne de L’Enfant Jésus has been produced since 1791.

It’s a delicately scented, scarlet wine, luminous in the glass with a concentrated perfume of tangy red cherry and currant with a wash of  spice. There’s a fragility in the nose that becomes elevated in the mouth; the wine is fleshy and freshly acidic, supported by a framework of velvety fruit and sumptuous tannin.  2012’s weather conditions limited the yields in Beaune, resulting in smaller grapes with suberb focus, and this carries through the wine’s finish, which is long and lavish.

ringoAt a hundred plus per bottle, this is not a wine for drinking from a dirty paper bag in the park, but would do fine paired with a clean, contemplative fire in the hearth.  At Christmas, especially—although the only little drummer boy I can think of under whose pay grade it falls is named Starr.  You know, the like one shining in the East?

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Château Palmer: Margaux Your Own Way

If you find the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 irrelevant, confusing, frustrating or all the above, rest assured: You are in good company.

The snit of owner Baron Philippe de Rothschild over Mouton’s second-rate status led to decades of lobbying, resulting in the only change of note to the original listing: In 1973, Château Mouton Rothschild was elevated to premier cru.

labelWhen it comes to Château Palmer, a troisièmes cru vineyard in the Margaux appellation, you will note that no bronze medal is displayed on the label, not even a whisper of the Les Grands Crus classés designation. I’m not party to Palmer label decisions, of course, but part of the pique may be the fact that the only other Margaux with which most wine drinkers are familiar—Château Margaux—has been lording their gold medal in the classification sweepstakes for a hundred sixty years.

Jean-Louise Carbonnier, who blinked at the moment of exposure.  His eyes are a lovely shade of blue.

Jean-Louis Carbonnier blinked at the moment of exposure. His eyes are a lovely shade of blue.

“We’re a unique estate in our approach to marketing, perhaps,” admits Château Palmer, director of the brand in the United States.  “Our new generation of winemaking is leaning toward biodynamics, and our push is toward reminding American consumers, who have come to love Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends, where that blend originates.”

This answered one question I had when I said down to a Palmer vertical tasting last week:  Why would a winery that makes around ten thousand cases per year—on the small end of boutique, which can sell its entire production in a tasting room—need a brand ambassador in Manhattan, let alone decide to dispatch one to Detroit to push product.  It would be the equivalent of Rosenblum Cellars opening an office in the 6th arrondissement and sending someone to Normandy to sell old-vine Zin.

Palmer does, to her credit, command several hundred dollars a bottle, and produces a second, less expensive label (not a ‘second wine’; often denoting a lesser quality along with the price—Palmer has separate vineyards for a wine with a distinct philosophy) but more on that in a moment.

Foremost, Carbonnier sees his role as one of an educator, and the promotion goes along for the ride: As one of the most respected names in the Médoc, his mission is to remind you and me that a wine can enjoy a noble heritage and still look to the future through the lens of innovation.

First, the heritage:

Château Palmer

Château Palmer

Palmer has been around nearly since the outset, having been part of the ancient Château d’Issan estate, divided in 1748 with the hectares now called Palmer, then among vineyards held by the Gascq family. These wines, no longer attached to the noble name d’Issan, were of such remarkable quality that they became staples in court of Versailles under Louis XV. Even so, financial troubles plagued the estate nearly from the beginning; in 1814, the widow of the last Gascq heir sold the property to English socialite Charles Palmer, who had retired from the military to invest in land. His TLC raised the reputation of the château considerably, and by 1830, Palmer was spoken of with the same reverence as Châteaux Margaux and Beychevelle.  But Palmer also had money troubles, and in 1843, he sold the estate for centimes on the franc.  Another ownership happened in 1853, two years before the famed (or infamous, depending) 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris, when industry brokers ranked the wines according to reputation and trading price, then a direct reflection on quality. At the time, Palmer vineyards were in the throes of a outbreak of powdery mildew, a fungal disease that severely compromises a vine’s output. Thus, the classification could not have come at a worse time for the estate, and may have been the cause of Palmer’s relegation to third class status, while Château Margaux was pretty much handed the keys to the kingdom.

Thomas Duroux

Thomas Duroux

In any case, fast forward through the first half of the 20th century, a a big war and a big Depression and several more hands in the Palmer pie. In 1938, the château was sold to a syndicate of  the Sichel, Ginestet, Mialhe and Mähler-Besse families, who formed the Société Civile de Château Palmer—a name which does appear on the label. In 2004, management of the estate was undertaken by Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia’s winemaker Thomas Duroux, and this brings us to the second half of the Palmer equation: Innovation.

Under the directorship of Duroux—34 years old when he took over—the holding began a gentle but inexorable stroll into the new century. Fearful of the old scourge of powdery mildew, the estate had been reluctant to leap into organic farming, but Duroux has not only seen the vineyards go organic, they are now 100% biodynamic. So far so good.

Duroux insists that his duty is one of a caretaker, and sees biodynamics as a philosophy as strongly rooted in preserving the health of the legendary soils—Palmer’s 130 acres boast 16 unique types—as in appealing to the consumer’s growing allegiance to green farming.

alter egoThe decision to drop the ‘La Réserve de Général’ line, which until the ‘90s was wine made from cuvee not selected for use in the Grand vin, was another dramatic paradigm shift for the estate. Alter Ego de Palmer is drawn from the same quality terroir as Château Palmer herself, focusing on wines more easily accessible when young and more consistent during troubling vintages, primarily by revising techniques to produce a wine more immediately appealing to consumers as well as one which commands a more reasonable price tag. Even from a stellar vintage like 2009, Alter Ego sells for around $90 a bottle, whereas Château Palmer fetches upward of $400. There’s less of the latter now, too: Alter Ego now accounts for around 40% of the estate’s primary acreage.

Consistency in product is a goal which Bordeaux had traditionally found elusive, both to their benefit and otherwise, and even—or especially—in the top estates, vintage and quality seem inseparable.

“Massive wines from spectacular years are the Bordeaux that the critics love to talk about,” says Jean-Louis Carbonnier, “But finesse and elegance rather than potency and size are the trademarks of Palmer. We use an unusually high percentage of Merlot, equaling velvety wines with phenomenal aromatics and a lush, but refined palate. But in general, gigantic Bordeaux is the exception, not the rule. Most estates can make great wine in a great vintage; the challenge is making good wine in an awful vintage.”

Duroux getting all biodynamicky.

Duroux getting all biodynamic.

It was these wine we tasted; no sense in tooting the trumpets of 2000, 2005 or 2009—those horns have been blasted by those with deeper pockets and deeper cellars, and that’s where most of them (many purchased en primeur) are already stored.

We tasted a few of the ‘challenging’ vintages, where the objective is to produce charming wines if not stunning wines; character-driven wines if not powerhouse wines—wines with less flesh and more finesse, drawing focus on bright red fruit flavors rather than the brooding blackberry jams of warmer years; wines that are super without needing to be superlative.

And for the most part, I think that Palmer does just that.

Château Palmer, 2006

2006This was a season with brutal temperature variations; June and July were hot and arid while August turned wet and cool and the best the doyens can say is that the vintage was ‘interesting’, although some have claimed that it’s among the best values in First Growths.

The 2006 Palmer opens with a blast of plum and violets with a dusting of spice on the nose; this is due, in part, to the quality of the Merlot, which is planted on terroir usually reserved for Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannins are broad-shouldered and puckery and have not yet settled in; the wine can use more age to allow the silken qualities most prized in Margaux wines in general, and Palmer in particular, can rise to the surface.

Château Palmer, 2007

2007For growers in the Médoc, 2007 start out bad and got worse—and just as the wineries were about to throw in the towel, September cleared up and became balmy, turning what would have been a Biblical-quality disaster into a Children’s Bible ‘meh’. Even so, the white wines, making up around 11% of Bordeaux’s output, were far superior than the reds. The cloud’s silver (not gold) lining was that the wines are early-maturing and about ready to drink now.

Palmer’s 2007 is light in both hue and aromatics, showing a delicate mingling of black cherry, cassis and fresh flowers on the nose and a rather tucked-in softness in the mouth. Flavors center on bright rather than brooding, but the sensuous velvety feel that is the hallmark of the brand is fully unveiled. It’s a lovely, unassuming wine that is ready for the dinner table tonight.

Château Palmer, 2011

Merlot at Palmer

Merlot at Palmer

Pro reports call 2011 ‘one of the most difficult growing seasons in recent history’, alluding to an early bud-break, a summery April and a hot, dry May that led to a premature flowering of the vines.  Near-drought conditions in June were accompanied by a heat spike, making the first half of the year the hottest in six decades. Adding insult to injury, the following month proved to the be the coldest July in thirty years. If grapes can be confused, the vineyards of Château Palmer showed it.

Harvest at Palmer was the smallest since 1961, one of history’s legendary vintages.  But the magic of that year was not replicated; the output at Palmer was around half of what’s normal, and the wine remains sheathed in a barrel of tannins. But underlying the wood is a solid core of cedar, current, mocha and refined, elegant floral spice—everything shored-up by mouthwatering acidity. Too young to Tango, the wine has gobs of potential, and could likely be nurtured into a remarkable selection.

Alter Ego de Palmer, 2011

Silken and sweet, the wine is somewhat gentle on the nose, showing tart cherry and raspberry with an underflow that suggests tobacco leaf and integrated chocolate notes.  It’s mouthfilling and briefly luscious, with a fairly rapid drop-off point, but offers a framework of the Palmer trademark at a fraction of the cost.

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