A Must Muscadet

‘What can you say ‘bout Muscadet that’s not about lemons and briny spray?’

Like me, you probably have an image of Muscadet that begins on a scale of steely simplicity and works down to utter vinous neutrality. The region, on Loire’s far left, butting the Atlantic Ocean, relies on a grape so innately forgettable that most people forget about a second after they learn the name.

Melon de Bourgogne

Melon de Bourgogne

Want proof? Ask a roomful of people who dabble in wine knowledge what varietal goes into Muscadet and I’ll give you a dollar for every one that says Melon de Bourgogne if you’ll give me a dime for every one that doesn’t.

The wines from this strange little appellation were originally grown for distilleries, like the insipid sippers made from Cognac’s one-dimensional Ugni Blanc. At least Burgundy was planted by lusty Romans; Melon de Bourgogne found its way to Loire via the race least likely to know anything about viticulture other than the headhunters of Papua New Guinea: The Dutch.

The vines in Pays de la Loire used to be red, but after a frost in 1709 froze them all to the ground, the Wooden Shoe Brigade marched in and planted a cold-hardy white varietal then on the decline in Burgundy. The intention was to produce eaux de vie, but for myriad horticultural reasons, the grape did better in the Loire than it had in , and the iconic wine called Muscadet has been a mainstay of the region ever since—the wine that many Europeans consider to be the best shellfish match on the planet.

Dutch sandwich

Dutch sandwich

Why do we call it ‘Muscadet’? Whereas it’s obvious that telling people that your wine is made out of Melon leaves room for cantaloupe confusion, it seems strange to settle on a name destined to be confused with Muscat and/or Muscadine, two separate and unrelated species, or Muscatel—a fortified sugary wine for hobos. But again, we are dealing with the Dutch, a race that eats chocolate sandwiches, say ‘Hi!” when they’re leaving and respond to everything else with “Tsjonge, jonge, jonge, jonge, jonge.”

In any case, the Muscadet appellation was only made official in 1937 and includes three sub-regions: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu and the miniscule Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire, which is smaller than a square mile. At over 20,000 acres, Sèvre et Maine is the region’s powerhouse—something that proved a detriment during Muscadet’s first wave of trendy popularity in the 1980s, when high-volume négociants encouraged Melon overplanting, much of it on land that was better suited to growing actual melons.

Overplanted Melon

Overplanted Melon

As a result, there was a glut of cheap, watery Muscadet on the market for many years, doing indelible damage to the brand.

In its textbook, and perfectly lovely incarnation, a Muscadet is desert dry, bright with acidity, demonstrative of an elusive sense of minerality that may show up as a slight, pleasant saltiness and even a bit prickly from carbon dioxide dissolved during the bottling process. But above all, the paradigm version displays an underlying richness from a period the wine spends aging on the lees; the residual yeast particles formed during fermentation.

In balanced measures, these attributes equal a shivery, steely—although often relatively simple—sip.

Michel Brégeon Re-Invents The Steel

Michel Brégeon

Michel Brégeon

In 2011, a cru communaux system was developed in Muscadet, intended to designate superior growing regions within the appellation. The first three named were Clisson, Le Pallet and Gorges.

I assume that there are more of them available in France, but in my secluded corner of the wine world, it is rare to encounter a Muscadet with the creamy depth of these exclusive crus, where a slightly different soil structure and an extended growing season produces riper grapes; older vines produce fruit with more intensity, and thus, the Muscadets, though not quite on steroids, tend to be pumped versions of generic tasting Sèvre et Maines.

img_4537_largeDomaine Michel Brégeon has been a leading advocate of these small, intense, privileged plots. His Gorges vineyard, for example, is less than twenty acres. It is built on gabbro soils, locally called ‘green rock’—acidic, decomposed granite that helps the vines assimilate micronutrients. Combined with ripe harvests from vines that are, on average, 50 years old and prolonged aging on spent lees in underground, glass-lined vats until bottling (up to seven years at times), the wines develop a structural backbone that allows for that most rare of Muscadet phenomena: Traction—an innate ability to get better, not worse, with age.

The wine I sampled from Brégeon, ‘Gorges’ 2013, was still youthful and vibrant, and probably will not reach an optimal maturity for another five or six years. It opens with a yeasty, late-harvesty nose of honey and pineapple, leading into a crisp palate filled with green apple, mint and notably, smoke.

Yet, somehow, the lemon notes that so typify the region remain intact, as an undercurrent that buoys the complexity.

220px-tulipomaniaMaybe that’s the lesson learned from the Dutch, who, fifty years before they got into vineyard management, were in the midst of Tulpenmanie—Tulip Mania, considered the first recorded speculative bubble in economics, during which virtually every soggy bog of reclaimed land was planted to bulbous show flowers.

Rewritten for Muscadet, that old saying goes:

“If life hands you lemons, plant more Melon.”



Posted in FRANCE | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Tale of Two Carignans

Jon Bonné is so enamored with the letter ‘e’ that he borrows a deformed one from a different language just in case we assume the one in his last name is silent. So, it’s no surprise that he spells ‘Carignan’ with a totally superfluous final ‘e’, as though he’s a grapheme pack rat and Vanna White is having a closeout sale on vowels.

Jon and Lisa Bone-ay

Jon and Lisa Bone-ay

The ‘Carignane’ spelling is a California thing, or so I’m told. I wish someone would tell me why, because it’s dumb. I mean, if you are going to re-evaluate Carignan’s spelling, aren’t you better off with ‘Carinyun’, which would at least serve some functional purpose among the phonetically challenged?

Unless, of course, you happened to be obsessed with the letter ‘e’.

ye-oldeWhen Bonné writes about the old vine Carignans of Central California—of which there are a few superb examples that date back more than a century—I’m surprised he doesn’t spell it ‘olde’ vine, the way advertisers do to evoke a sense of faux medieval archaism. Or better yet—and even more pretentiously—‘Ye Oldé Viné’, which would completely screw with the syllabic integrity of the concept but use a bunch of gratuitous ‘e’s. Alas, Jon, I suppose we can’t have archaic and pronounce it too.

But I digress.

When I was in Lodi last year, I had a chance to sample some Carignans from the extremely (with a capital E) old head-trained vines of Jessie’s Grove Vineyard—acres originally planted in 1886. For a level set, during the year those cuttings went into the ground, Karl Benz was applying for a patent for the world’s first automobile, the first bottle of Coca-Cola was being sold in Atlanta and in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty was being dedicated; Grover Cleveland was President and Jon Bonné’s great grandfather wasn’t yet a gleam in his great great grandfather’s ‘e’.

Bechthold Vineyard

Bechthold Vineyard

The exceptional longevity of this vineyard—lying within the Lodi sub-appellation of Mokelumne River—is due primarily to well drained soils composed of deep layers of sand and loam. The colander effect proved so effective against the phylloxera plague of the late 1800’s that hundreds of acres of vines still grow on their original rootstock. These are bragging rights that fewer than 1% of the world’s current vine crop can claim.

Does endurance equal excellence? Much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, a certain amount of wine tasting is mystique tasting, but I think it’s beyond debate that older vines can produce wines with more subtlety and depth; more concentration and intensity—and for reasons that are easy enough for a layman to grasp: In the era that Jessie’s Grove was planted, irrigating vines was basically unknown in California, so the vines were forced to produce marvelous networks of roots to search for water.

lorenza-roseAnd, as Amador County winemaker Bill Easton points out, “Underground is where you get all these flavor complexities, all the microbial activity. Older vines are just greater translators of that complexity.”

I’m not sure how much value vine pedigree brings to the rosé party, which tends to benefit more from delicacy than grandiosity, but Lorenza Winery’s 2015 Rosé is made with Lodi old vine fruit—33% Grenache, 25% Carignan, 24% Mourvèdre and 18% Cinsault.

One thing is for sure: Being a rosé, it fulfills Jon Bonné’s primary condition: It contains a fancy ‘e’.

Nothing Languid about Languedoc

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in the Coteaux du Languedoc in Southern France, winemaker Sylvain Fadat is waging a battle of reputation. Not his own, of course—la famille Fadat is five celebrated generations into the wine growing business along the lower slopes of Mont Saint-Baudile in the Cévennes foothills.

Sylvain Fadat

Sylvain Fadat

In 1989, Sylvain established Domaine d’Aupilhac in Montpeyroux, one of the former ‘crus’ of Languedoc, embarking on a singular mission: Despite naysaying critics who consider Carignan at best a blending grape, and at worst a crude, overproduced anachronism better replaced with the Holy Trinity of nearby Rhône, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, he has invested heavily it, opting to blend ‘Le Carignan’ with… nothing.

So iconoclastic is producing a pure Carignan in the Montpeyroux AVA that it’s illegal. Fadat has opted to declassify his 100% Carignan in order to showcase the majesty he believes the lowly varietal can (if properly attended) display: ‘Le Carignan’, his lone varietal centerpiece, thus wears a generic Mont Baudile IGP label.

“I’ve produced a pure Carignan since 1989,” says Fadat. “I know it can produce incredible wine with finesse, balance and good acidity. Carignan holds its acidity even if the summer is hot. ‘Le Carignan’ is made without any oak because I don’t want people to say my Carignan is good because of the quality of the barrels.”

carignanHe also avoids macération carbonique, the technique many local vignerons rely upon to tame Carignan’s tannins and amplify its fruit. Over the years, borrowing wisdom from his grape-growing kin, he has learned to temper any inherent roughness the varietal may show by careful vineyard management and patience: Carignan’s ability to maintain acid levels allows for longer hang times, and Fadat’s 60 year old vines enjoy southern exposures to extend the ripening time required by this grape in Languedoc before it can produce world class wine.

And ‘Le Carignan’ is that: The wine is opulent and elegant, opening with an intense burst of blackberry and honeyed violet. On the palate, it is silky and fruit-bold with light, sweet wood notes, as likely from the grape guts as from the foudre. A generous length as long as the Languedoc growing season, ‘Le Carignan’ is, in general, refined and polished. But there remains the slightest tug of rusticity that and allows the wine to maintain a sense of the casual—this is precisely what you’d hope to find in a wine from the Languedoc.

You spell ‘Carignane’; I spell it ‘Carignan’, let’s call the waiter over and rack up another bottle:

“Whaddaya sé, Jon Bonné?”

Posted in Languedoc-Roussillon | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Elie and Chris, Halloween, 2016: ‘Black Tongue Tastes’

Horticulture is a word that most of you winefolk know and love; it’s the branch of agriculture that deals with growing, improving, marketing and using produce–and grapes, of course, are produce.

Horrorculture is, perhaps, less familiar to you, probably because I just made it up.  But henceforth, it refers to the branch of literature that deals with the art, science, technology and business of scary shit.

Whereas horticulture concerns itself with the propagation of life, horrorculture involves snuffing life out, then burying it, then waiting around to see if it reanimates.

If it doesn’t, horrorculture digs it up to see what went wrong.

Halloween: Wine and Writ

Birmingham, MI; Oct 31, 2016:

clipboardIt’s October, when (as Danny Boy’s mistress reminds us) all the flowers are dying, and by now, most of the grapes are harvested and the vintage is in the books, the barrels, the cans or the concrete eggs. It’s time for us wine people to put away our childish summer toys and fully embrace the dark heart of autumn.

For those of you who have retained brain matter through the zeitgeist of iPhones and Netflixes, this may occasionally involve the reading of a fiction book.  If you have been even a fair-weather follower of this column you know that writing fiction may not be what I do best, but it’s what I do most.  Ragging on and on about wine is a merely placeholder in my personal dementia, and becoming regularly lost inside a labyrinth of pathological nightmares is actually how me and my keyboards spend our quality time.

myfile-1As such, I’m releasing Black Tongue Speaks, my fifth book of fiction, on October 31, 2016, at Elie Wine Company, 1601 E 14 Mile Rd, Birmingham, MI 48009 (248 398-0030).  The titular black tongue is my own; these are seventeen short stories in the style of my favorite creepy tales from childhood—works in homage to the masters, Poe, Blackwood, Jackson, Lovecraft, Bierce, et al.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t claim to be swimming in the deep end of the literary pool with these cats, but after thirty plus years of publishing horrorculture, I am infinitely comfortable that we’re in the same murky waters.

You may well be the sort that likes a little blood with your wine, and if so, we will gather in your name on Halloween night at Elie Wine Company between 5:30 and 6:30 PM.  I’ll read a selection from Black Tongue Speaks and we’ll tipple from Elie’s superb portfolio.

And for Halloween, What Better Than Graves?

elie-wine-company-logoNothing, of course.  Elie will pour Château Carbonnieux, one of the first estates included in the Graves wine classification of 1953 and known for production of both whites and reds.  We’ll do 2014 for the former and 2012 for the latter.

Elie Boudt has been at the forefront of both the fine wine and the fine arts movement in Detroit for as long as I can remember. He specializes in top-drawer French, Spanish and Italian wines and runs the best wine shop in the city, and also features local artists in his brochures and in displays around the store.

He’s been a longtime patron for all that’s good in this somewhat dystopian ville, and actually, I am quite honored that he has volunteered to bring a little culture to my horrorculture.


Elie Wine Company
1601 E 14 Mile Rd, Birmingham, MI 48009  (248) 398-0030



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Oenophiliacs Beware: Lettie is Upsettie

Minister of Stemware

Minister of Stemware

If there is a wine title more obnoxious than ‘critic for the {terminally dull} Wall Street Journal, I can’t think of it.  Maybe being the Minister of Stemware for the Sultanate of Siak Sri Indrapura or an Environmental Commercial Flooring Hygienist in the wine aisle at Costco.

Nevertheless, I suppose it’s good work if you can get it, and better work if you can keep it, although the latter seems dependent on coming up with an endless stream of ridiculously non-relevant filler pieces to satisfy the insatiable journalistic monstrosity called ‘deadline’.  Hitherto, this feverish crusade for something—anything—to spin into column length has led to such riveting WSJ gems as ‘New York’s Best Sommelier Hails from Philly’ (April 19, 2016) and ‘The Pros and Cons of a Bike Trip Through Napa’ (June 30, 2016) and ‘Dinner and a Movie with a Glass of Wine’ (August 30, 2016). That last one was almost a thousand words about a movie theater that happens to have a bar, including descriptions of what patrons drank during ‘Pete’s Dragon’.

So be it.  I used to write wine columns for newspapers, and as I recall, among the many constraints placed upon wine journalists in a for-profit publication, actually producing interesting shite was fairly low on the checklist.  Fodder is filler, little more.  If you can stumble over the odd story or two that make people say ‘hmmm’, that’s coolabaloolies, but it isn’t necessary:

Plugging up inches in the Food & Drink section is.

For the record, for a wine journalist with chronic writer’s block, one safe bet (the same impetus that drives this piece, in fact) is this:

There is nothing wine people enjoy reading more than a wine person making fun of other wine people.

My Mt. Vedeer memories.

My Mt. Vedeer memories.

And the reason is obvious: Compared to, say, celebrity suicides, cannibal cop trials or the size of Kim Kardashian’s ass, writing about (and reading) wine minutia has a very short shelf life before the ‘grippiness factor’ inevitably and irrevocably breaks down.  If I read about a bike trip through Napa, for example, I expect a bleeding lead about some drunk cyclist pedaling off the edge of Mt. Vedeer.  If I read about the top NY sommelier being from Philly, I want the reason he left Pennsylvania to be that he had a crawlspace filled with Eagle Scouts. If it is wine with a movie, I want the theater to be in Aurora and James Eagan Holmes to bring the ice bucket.

Frankly, without a sensationalist angle, the five or six sentences I can read on line before the copy gets all fuzzy and I’m urged to subscribe to the WSJ ‘if you want to read the full story…’ are generally sufficient to ensure me that I don’t.

casually-racist-whites-bing-o-brings-im-not-up-black-3602314However, a chance to stir up a little shit within your own tribe?  Golden.  It’s like those self-effacing ‘Casually Racist White People’ memes that are essentially white people mocking other white people for their subconscious racism, thus elevating their own non racist status to ‘super not racist’ because they can recognize this foible in others.

Likewise, Lettie Teague’s recent column ‘Wine Lovers Behaving Badly: More Tales of Obnoxious Oenophiles’ allows all us (we believe) non-obnoxious oenophiles to sit back and choke on our own laughter vomit when our benighted fellows display the social equivalent of a closed-head injury.

Give the Suckers What They Want…

Check out those face spots, dear.  They could be... you know.

Check out those face spots, dear. They could be… you know.

Teague’s original column about obnoxious oenophiles (detailing such anecdotes as a stingy, teetotaling dentist who was incensed at having to share a restaurant tab with a wine drinker) so lit the bunsen burner of indignant schadenfreude among WSJ subscribers that a sequel was all but required.

The second article—which I assure you, is well worth the two hundred dollars per year that the WSJ charges for a subscription—includes a new slew of oenologically obnoxious offenders.  There is “a high-profile divorcée who regularly invites men to lunch or dinner and orders expensive wine,” and a wine drinker who was pissed when a couple with whom they were dining ‘drank half the bottle even though they said they didn’t want wine’:

“Perhaps these piggy Pinot drinkers were the same ones who as kids ordered triple scoops when someone else was paying,” whines Paul Berton Birkeland of Bellevue, Washington in a pique of puerile pig-persecuting pomposity.

And then there’s some cheap-ass prick named Robert Rosenthal who dodges paying for an expensive wine ordered by one of his ‘guests’ by announcing loudly (and falsely) to the group that said guest has volunteered to pick up the entire drinks table.

“What could he do?” says Mr. Rosenthal with detectable glee. “He had been hoisted by his own petard.”

So, let’s now take leave of Ms. Teague’s codex of passive-aggressive assholes who invite people to dinner only to publicly humiliate them, and turn our attention to ‘Tales of Obnoxious Wine Writing’, which is more in my codical bailiwick.

  1. Retard's petard

    Retard’s petard

    “What could he do? He had been hoisted by his own petard.”

Unless you are talking about retarded Peruvians, this is a word you should avoid, and probably even then. What could he do, Robert?  He could have said, “No I didn’t, you sniveling, chintzy, schlocky, felch-faced liar,” then strung you up by the petard that contains your gonads.

That’s what I would have done.

  1. “Perhaps these piggy Pinot drinkers were the same ones who as kids ordered triple scoops when someone else was paying.”
Wu hoo!

Wu hoo!

Lettie loves alliteration, perhaps more than moi, so I highly doubt that Mr. Berton Birkeland of Bellevue even exists.  But in the event he does:

“Sir, no amount of righteous indignation over a bar bill makes body-shaming fat children acceptable behavior.  Are your own children playground bullies like you?  Are they Toddlers & Tiaras models all? Your entire family should be fed to Wu’s ravenous hogs ala Deadwood and I’m just the wine writer to cry Sooo-weeee.”

  1. “…a high-profile divorcée who regularly invited men to lunch or dinner and ordered expensive wine.”

Am I that out of touch with WSJ’s demographics?  Who uses the term ‘divorcée’ in 2016?

You Are Probably All Wondering Why I Gathered You Here Today…

Okay, fess up time.  It wasn’t to groupthink tubby tykes and their tubs of Tin Roof nor to ridicule Rosenthal’s ridiculous rhetoric nor to dis dorks determined to describe disunited damsels as divorcées.

It was simply because, to me, there is no post-modern irony more delicious than an opinionated oration about obnoxiousness that uses of the word ‘oenophile’.

Mathematically, how obnoxious is the word ‘oenophile’? It is obnoxiousness raised to the power of infinity.  It is even worse that the more modern, more logical, only slightly more palatable spelling ‘enophile’, which merely reduces the obnoxious factor to the power of google-plex.

whoopi-tmntsetpic1_bigYes, I get the alliteration angle again, but really.  Have some self-respect.  I’d rather be a necrophile than an oenophile.  I would rather strap a gavage tube to ice cream boy’s throat and force-feed him three pounds of Spumoni per hour—I’d rather hoist Whoopi Goldberg’s sweaty, stanky, smelly petard than be referred to as an oenophile.

Oenophile.  Let it roll off your tongue like a pretense-flavored slug trail a final time or two.  Oenophile. Oenophile.  Get it out of your system oence and for all.

Now, go in peace, and in future, dephile not the oenosphere with that obnoxious word.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Intoxicology Report Endorses Candidate Clinton

In an unprecedented move, the normally apolitical, unreadable and non-committal Intoxicology Report  makes its first ever Presidential endorsement.

“Let’s return the Oval Office to rich white lawyers and forget all this idealism bullshit.”


Posted in GENERAL | 2 Comments

Can You Naima Red Wine Grape from Campania?

How about Aglianico?

If, like me, you associate this grape with Greece, then like me, you probably know less about Campania than you think you do.

On the other hand, if you can point to Campania on a map, you know more about Campania than I do, and for that matter, if you can point to Vermont on a map you know more about shit in general than I do.

Now, age for two thousand years.

Now, age for two thousand years.

Turns out that within their respective countries, Vermont is in the upper right and Campania is in the lower left. One contains Bernie Sanders and a lot of drugs and the other contains Pompeii and a lot of Aglianico. In fact, Aglianico is the main red wine grape of the region, where, along with neighboring Basilicata, it was brought to town by immigrating Greeks around the same time that Bernie Sanders was born. It became the principal grape of famed, Cleopatra-approved Falernian wines, praised by Diocletian and which Pliny the Elder claimed was so strong he could light it on fire.

More recently, the late Denis Dubourdieu—professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux—suggested that Aglianico “…is probably the grape with the longest consumer history of all”.

The mention of Pompeii as a Campanian landmark is not incidental: Aglianico grows best in volcanic soils. In Basilicata, among the most complex and expressions of the grape in the world is found in Aglianico del Vulture, Monte Vulture being an extinct volcano whose several eruptions over the past million years or so have left aggregates idea for the cultivation of Aglianico.

Bruno De Conciliis

Bruno De Conciliis

In Campania, Vesuvius is the dominant stack-blower, but there are plenty of other malignant mountains in the region, including Palinuro, a complex of volcanoes about forty miles off the coast of Cilento.

In 1996, nineteen hundred years after Vesuvius ruined Pompeii’s day, Bruno De Conciliis convinced his father to abandon the Cilento chicken farm and plant Aglianico (along with Fiano, a fascinating, indigenous white wine variety). The estate proved ideally suited for viticulture; the slopes are steep and south facing, and the soil is rich in the scorched-earth minerality that is emblematic of volcano country.

 What Does Any of This Have to Do with John Coltrane?

This: Bruno De Conciliis is a huge fan of the equally volcanic saxophonist, and borrowed the name ‘Naima’—Coltrane’s moody 1959 ballad—for his signature wine. Naima was the middle name of Coltrane’s wife Juanita, and now graces a bold, musky, melodic Aglianico that displays the temper and texture of the original tune.

hqdefaultAs a song, ‘Naima’ is constructed around a sustained bass tone with a beautiful, rich chord progression is touch with slight dissonance. As a wine, the bass pedal is reflected in the tannic bedrock, almost Barolo-like in its profundity. Above that rises berry notes blending with layers of sweet spice and fresh tobacco leaves; and there’s your appropriate dissonance. It’s that interplay of brilliant, acidic fruit and jarring fragrance that often typifies volcanic wines, with their cornucopia of trace elements.

In general, overthinking a ballad or a bottle can lead to some loss of simple hedonistic pleasure. Not so Coltrane’s music, and by extension, Naima Aglianico—they wind up being artwork you can overthink and still not plumb all the innards and the implications.

Posted in ITALY | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Yo Ho Ho, Diplomático

Ever have one of those nifty, treasure-trove moments where you find a cache of cash in some random article of clothing? And isn’t the moment all the more delicious when the discovery happens inside one of your own pockets, not inside the pocket of whoever you happen to be standing next to in the elevator?

I had one of those moments yesterday, only it was even better than that. I found a whole bunch of excellent liquor somebody sent me months ago—a box that somehow got overlooked in the kerfuffle of boxes that make up our post-modern hyper-reality where the paperless society uses more paper than ever.

jack2But, finding booze instead of Benjamins is not only good for the soul, it is good for the environment, because it saves energy. There is no need to jump into the old Diplomático-getter and drive to the liquor store, which is the only sane response to finding money you didn’t know you had. Plus, us Kassels aren’t ‘middle-man’ people.

Let me say that I felt very much like Captain Sparrow on Rumrunner Isle when he discovered a stash of the selfsame substance that sweetened my strike:


Not just any rum, mind you. None of the dimestore dreck with bats on the label—you’d have to have bats in your belfry to take that stuff seriously. I’m talking about Diplomático Rum, the Venezuelan powerhouse premium with its own DOC.

abDiplomático has been around since 1959, but the designated status only happened in 2003; it is important because the same sort of territorial combination required to make great wine also come into play for rum, although in a slightly different format. The distillery is built in northwest Venezuela in the foothills of the Andes and about a hundred miles from the coast, where the sugar cane grows. This puts it in proximity to the refining plants on the edge of the Terepaima National Park and allows access to Andean melt-water, among the purest in South America.

Sugar, of course, is the key ingredient in rum: It is to the spirit what grain is to whiskey and grapes are to brandy. Generally distilled from fermented molasses—a byproduct of sugar production—it was originally discovered as a way to use industrial waste. One pound of refined sugar leaves half a pound of molasses behind, and there are only so many shoofly pies a fellow can eat, so the refining industry’s excess brown goo was generally dumped into the ocean—until somebody figured rum out.

In the Caribbean, that happened in the 17th century, where rum appears to have been the brainchild of slaves, who were allowed all the molasses they wanted. It’s likely that the original product was about what you’d expect from distilled garbage, but as a concept, it has been rarefied over the years, and today, the best rums stand on stage easily with world’s top liquors.

Diplomatico cane fields

Diplomatico cane fields

Diplomático—produced since 2003 by Destilerías Unidas S. A.—is a diva on that stage. Dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices and distilled under the supervision of a Maestro Ronero (rum’s answer to a Master Chef) there are several versions at several strata reflecting the different styles of rum that are growing in popularity in today’s market.

As a newly ordained Maestro Crítico, allow me to distill the distillate down to a little verbal essence:

Diplomático Blanco Riserva, $38: A slight creamy tint is the hint that this rum has aged for six years in what I assume are neutral barrels; it shaves off the simple, sugary bite of most white rums and replaces it with a spicy lemon-vanilla curd. The cream color is echoed by a soft, velvety palate offering an array of tropical fruits; especially, pineapple, papaya and mango.

6169-0w0h0_destilerias_unidas_diplomatico_reserva_exclusiva_rum_venezuelaDiplomático Riserva Exclusiva, $45: The color of crystallized amber, the rum sends up an array of delightful and competing aromas with none emerging center stage. There are stone fruits like peach and apricot, there is a citrus tone reminiscent of orange peel, and there is a rich toasted walnut nuttiness slipping into the crevices. Aged for up to twelve years in small casks, the wood has imparted a Oloroso Sherry type of richness to the spirit, but unlike grape-based wine, foundational notes of roasted sugar underscores everything. Long satiny finish with chocolate in the after tone.

Diplomático Single Vintage, 2001, $85: This is what molasses wants to be when it grows up: vivacious vintage rum. Like wine, the category reflects the nuance of the sugarcane harvest in a given year. This one is extremely rich and aggressive, with notes of dried fruit, brown sugar, cinnamon and candied orange zest filling the bouquet, and sweet, mouth-coating viscosity rounding out the mouth. There is nothing restrained here, with maraschino cherry, licorice and a solid punch of vanilla. It sees an initial aging period in Bourbon barrels, but it is finished in Sherry casks. Even so, I noted a Port quality to the after-palate that was remarkable and appealing.

ambassadorDiplomático Ambassador, $200: The peak of the brand and the pick of the litter, with every stop pulled. If Single Vintage is what molasses aspires to in adulthood, this is what molasses wants to be when it is beatified by the Papacy in Rome. Reddish brown and impossibly complex to the nose, the rum peels back layers of fruit and spice that easily rivals any Cognac at the price. Initial notes of caramel and butterscotch, pecan pie and a cornucopia of tropical flavors keep the beat, but it is the sheer and consummate elegance to the texture, and the subtlety with which ‘Ambassador’ is woven together than makes this among the finest spirits of any denomination I can recall having tried, and trust me here, I’ve tried through the prestige gamut.

Inquam, my sincere apologies to the diplomats of Diplomático for having waited so long to discover the treasure buried in my box room, but at least I can assure you that, unlike the Deppmeister, this stuff won’t go up in smoke.


Posted in Rum | Tagged | Leave a comment

Leaving Las Lodi: Final Chapter

Lodi_front_coverI must say, last week in Lodi I finally discovered the secret of a successful, personally-gratifying book signing, where dozens of friendly faces were delighted to have me scrawl my illegible signature and indecipherable dedication in the frontspiece of ‘Starstruck in Lodi Again’:

The secret, fellow authors? Give the books away for free.

Of course, that was due to the largesse of Anthony Scotto, patriarch of Scotto Cellars, who purchased enough copies that every single attendee at the Wine Blogger’s Conference could get a free one in their swag bag.  If, in fact, you were one of those who didn’t get your copy, fret not.  Stop by the spanking new Scotto Cellars tasting room in downtown Lodi (on School Street) to get one, or message me with your address and I’ll send you one myself.

Chef Warren Ito

Chef Warren Ito

Meanwhile, on the night of the WBC’s opening ceremony, the extended Scotto family—Anthony, his wife Graciela, wine-wise kids Anthony, Paul, Natalie and Michael, who are the real muscle behind the brand—threw a welcoming shindig for the bloggers inside said tasting room. They brought in celebrated Stockton Chef Warren Ito to cater a four course dinner with a theme they called Mexital; fusion cuisine borrowing elements from both traditional Mexican and Italian cooking.  This makes sense once you understand that Anthony Scotto is of Italian decent and his wife Gracie is of Mexican decent, so the family-run winery is eager to celebrate both branches of the family tree.

The meal was sensational, too, with the proper balance of guido, gringo and guapo; Chef Warren, who blew away the group, somehow managed to do everything without access to a formal kitchen.

masthead-labelThe wines poured were from Scotto Cellars, of course, but the featured wine was a new concept wine, the collaborative work of Scotto PR man Bradley Gray, winemakers Paul Scotto and Napa legend Mitch Cosentino and… wait for it… four bloggers, who slurped and suckled and swirled through three hours of barrel samples from eleven lots of selected Lodi-designated wine.  Afterward, they conferred and compared notes, finally coming up with a blend they all agreed upon.

This has now been released as ‘Masthead’, the first commercial wine ever blended entirely by that lowliest species of journalist, the blogger.

Why yours truly, the lowliest of the lowly among wine bloggers, was not asked to participate? That remains unknown, but the fact that I wasn’t may explain why I have to give away books at wine conferences.

Anyway, other than Pete Best, who wants to be the fifth Beatle?  The four consulting bloggers in the Masthead project did just fine without me, of course. They were Nancy Brazil and Peter Bourget from www.pullthatcork.com, Melanie Ofenloch of Dallas Wine Chick of http://www.dallaswinechick.com and Cindy Rynning of www.Grape-Experiences.com.

Mitch Cosentino

Mitch Cosentino

In fact, in Chef Warren style, they outdid themselves.  The wine is killer; the ultimate, mutually-agreed-upon blend is not a varietal blend at all, but 100% Sangiovese from the Mohr-Fry Ranch, aged partially in Hungarian oak, partially in American oak. They made these decisions without input from the winemakers, but a nod afterward indicated that Mitch Cosentino thought they’d gone down the correct path.  His praise for the single variety choice is a testimonial still more remarkable when you consider that among other accomplishments, Cosentino is one of the founding fathers of America’s most well-known blend, Meritage.

Masthead's Staff Directory

Masthead’s Staff Directory

I agree with him, and with the bloggers.  Both in character and pedigree, the wine is pure Sangiovese; it is rich, fruited with luscious cherry and warm strawberry compote, but—as in a Brunello—wrapped in a package of earthy, leathery sophistication  The palate length, now brief, will almost certainly improve with a little age—there may have been a touch of bottle shock, soon to be settled out of it.

‘Masthead’—a name reflective of the journalistic ju-ju of the quartet who created it—will sell for around $30. 50 cases were made, and I suspect it will be a hit among bloggers and bloggees alike.

DSC_0015It was wonderful to be back in Lodi near harvest time—what a difference a few months made.  The scraggly, diabolical-looking zinfandel vines that I saw mid-winter had enjoyed heavenly repatriation, now thick with green foliage and heavy with grape bunches.  The temperatures, hovering in the low hundreds, were about what I’d expect in Satan’s vineyards, but the good folks of Lodi—the Scottos especially—remain unchanged: The portrait of wine country hospitality.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Red, Interrupted…

…Or, as my buddy Elie says, Tintus Interruptus, which may be a direct translation into one of the several languages he speaks, possibly Latin, but probably not.

The term was coined as we tried to describe a wine at a midway point between rosé and red, a wine in which the free run juice is bled before the grapes are pressed.  In general, this technique is called saignée, and requires a few asterisks before it produces a wine of the sort over which we were confabulating.

Saignée method

Saignée method

Some saignée juice never sees a bottle, or even a yeast cell, and is merely discarded as a useless by-product.  That’s because some wineries use the bleed-off method simply to concentrate the phenolics, color and flavor in the remaining  red wine. Lest this seem less conscionable than it is, a lot of the value in the run-off is found in the quality and ripeness level of the grape, along the length of the maceration, if any, before the juice is re-purposed. You’d think that simply throwing it away would be sacrilege, but when the run is substandard, fermenting it is an afterthought, primarily to increase cash flow for the winery and not to produce a wine of any particular merit.  In Provence, home to some of the world’s premium pinks, grapes are grown and harvested with rosé as the intended end product, and saignée may be treated with the same disdain as chaptelization—adding cane sugar to a wine.

Says François Millo, president of the Provence Wine Council, “Saignée wine is more of an afterthought; very few people in Provence use it. 85% of the wine we produce is rosé, so it’s at the top of our priority list—our grapes are grown for rosé and our harvest is done for rosé.”

François Millo

François Millo

Millo also tends to favor rosé with as little color extraction as possible, so that his top consumer choices from Provence are pale as an onion skin, no darker in the glass than pink lemonade, yet maintain the Provence flavor profile: “We’ve worked hard recently on methods that allow us to extract the maximum flavor while keeping the wine as light in color as possible. Techniques like night harvesting and macerating at lower temperatures have helped.”

Millo’s summation?  “The saignée method is a bad way of making rosé.”

Millo can go engage in a convoluted coital position involving himself: He never tried Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo from Tiberio (around $21).

Cristiana Tiberio

Cristiana Tiberio

It’s trendy to love rosé these days, and God knows I wouldn’t want to be seen on the outside looking in.  When well-made and bone dry, rosé is as delightfully refreshing a summer wine as exists anywhere on earth. But we’re all grownups here, so I can say honestly, without much fear of backtalk, that even the best of it can be somewhat one-dimensional. In other words, even if rosé crosses over into the oxymoronic land where it possesses several dimensions of one-dimensionality, my reams of tasting notes over the years all seem to center around a couple of key rosé descriptors—watermelon and strawberry—no matter what the parent varietal was. In a discipline where we look for unique characteristics in a wine based on what sort of grape (s) are at the foundation, this indicates to me that a degree of sameness is inevitable no matter what approach you take.

cerasuolo_newBut, Tiberio’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, made from Montepulciano grapes, bled after a short, cool maceration period prior to fermentation, upsets the grape cart. The name means ‘cherry-like’, and it has it’s own DOC, the newest one in the central Italian region of Abruzzo.  And cherry-like it is, from the brilliant, translucent, electric crimson color to the crisp, clean, tart cherry aroma, all the way through the palate with nary a watermelon or a strawberry to be found.

A Rosé By Any Other Name Would Smell Like Watermelon

The kicker is, talented winemaker Cristiana Tiberio, who produces wine from her family’s  74 acres in the Cugnoli area of Pescarese, a cooler micro-climate than the neighboring coastal areas, doesn’t consider the wine rosé—rosato in Italian—at all. In her vision, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is a red wine in which the fermenting must simply sees less time with the red grape skins, serving to lessen the pigmentation and tannic structure, and to produce a youthful, fruity red wine.

raeIn the end, though, I’m afraid it’s a little like Rae Dawn Chong insisting she’s a Chinese Scotch-Irish Afro-Canadian Cherokee. Try to marry a Kennedy, Rae Dawn: You’ll find out what you are.

Likewise, the bottle of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is clearly labeled ‘Rosé’ for the American market, so it’s a matter of legalese if you want to call a case of it six-of-one and half-dozen of the other. For me, it is a sensational, rich and complex saignée, and if you and Millo want to drink wine that looks like onion peels, be my guest.  Give me a frosty glass of rosé the color of fresh Traverse City Morello cherries every time.

Call it what you want in whatever language you choose.  Edray Interruptedhay, by the way, is Pig Latin.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Michigan by the Storefront: MBTB Does it Again

Two things I’ll say about Cortney Casey that will defy challenge by any rational mortal:  First, she has a smile of such ebullient candor that it lights up an already well-lit tasting room, and second, she knows how to pour wine for a critic.

DSC_0178For the most part, a key component of writing about wine credibly is to gack out the mouthful you’re evaluating into a spittoon, thus preventing that part of your brain that says silly, specious stuff about the subject at hand from kicking in. As a result (and the phenomenon is perhaps subconscious), when confronted  with a pouree who consistently spits out the product the pourer is offering, the quantity presented tends to be minuscule: It seems like common sense.

This puts the wine writer in the awkward position of either demanding more, thus embarrassing the host into thinking we believe him or her to be a niggling misanthropic skinflint (which we do), or forcing us to make notes about a wine based on a volume that can neither express aroma properly nor wet the whistle sufficiently.  And although I have no journalistic qualms about eviscerating a substandard wine with the fury of Scipio sowing the fields of Carthage with salt, then metaphorically mounting the winemaker’s head on a pike and forcing his staff into slavery, in person, I am something of shrinking violet.  Thus, I usually accept what is given and muddle through.

ownersBut Cortney Casey, who along with her husband Shannon has just opened up her third Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in downtown Auburn Hills, knows how to pour a great manly slather of juice into the tumbler and empty the saliva bucket as often as is necessary.

This, I believe, is a skill that cannot be taught—it must be instinctive.

Downtown Auburn Hills is a gem of a spot that not many people know about yet, which is what makes it ideal for this young couple who have taken the concept of loving Michigan wine and turned it into a cottage industry. Cortney, who was once a newspaper reporter in Shelby Township, and Shannon, who still is a sales director at a title company, began with a blog and a popular podcast called ‘Michigan By The Bottle’ in which they interviewed various homeboy and homegirl vintners and waxed philosophically about their wares.  They are both delightful people, so it’s fair to say that no heads were impaled, nor were any vineyards salted during their tenure as wine critics, but it’s equally fair to say that they made a lot of connections in the industry, so when they opened their first tasting room in Shelby Township, partnering with six topnotch Michigan wineries, they were able to introduce an occasionally skeptical crowd to some of Michigan’s best wines.

It’s a sad truth, but unless you’re from one of Michigan’s four federally recognized wine appellations, or a geek to the cause of regional products,  you probably don’t realize that Michigan’s wine industry has made strides over the past twenty years that far outstrip those of other emerging regions.  People who tried  bargain-bin fortified porch pounders from Paw Paw and LaSalle wineries  back in the day may have been left with the impression that this is all we can do.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, though, a push toward European varietals and innovative blends made with hybrid grapes have mirrored the evolving American palate, and the quality bar has been raised exponentially in every decade since. Dragging the naysayers kicking and screaming into the modern era of Michigan wine is a mission upon which Cortney and Shannon Casey have embarked, and so far, are leading the fray.

They opened their second room in Royal Oak two years ago, and that outlet along the Woodward corridor added a dimension to the bar scene that was both refreshing and unique.  Now, the Auburn Hills spot, with it’s broad picture-window façade facing Auburn Street, just a cork-pop away from the downtown square where the Christmas tree fits, has become an anchor and a draw to this quaint, cool little urban bubble.

tableThe new spot has partnered with 12 wineries, most of them unique to this location, and include among them luminaries Bryan Ulbrich, who’s Cinnamon Girl cider is poured—a shivery slice of apple strudel in the glass.  Hawthorne Vineyards, under the winemakership (or winemakerhood, as you please) of Brian Hosmer, showcases an interesting wine wonderfully suited to the chill climate of Old Mission Peninsula: Auxerrois.

Likewise Grüner Veltliner from Blue Water Winery, a varietal which is reaching heights of splendor in Michigan that is nearly impossible to find outside Austria and New York’s Finger Lakes.  Here, it is almond-scented with lemon marmalade through the mid-palate, rich and crisply dry.

Lemberger is a pet project of Adam Satchwell, formerly of Shady Lane Cellars, and here blended with Cabernet Franc to make ‘Franc ‘n’ Franc’; it’s dusty with chocolate, blackberries, plum and smoke, and to complete the pun, makes perfect franc ‘n’ sense.

Riesling, a perennial Michigan favorite in both for it’s sweet acceptability and cool-climate predilection, is presented in a luscious, medium-dry package by Mackinaw Trail Winery.

Forty wines in all are poured by the glass at the new location, and they are constantly in flux—and not repeated at the other MBTB outlets which also, for the most part, feature other wineries.

I dig it for the chutzpah of the concept, the charm of the quaint décor, the personality of the proprietors and of course, the all-you-can-spit policy for wine scribes.


Posted in Michigan | Tagged , , | Leave a comment